Daniel Bice Jan. 11, 2014
Wealthy Wisconsin businessman Michael Eisenga has been unable to find a judge who will cut his substantial child support payments under current law.
So Eisenga is doing the courts one better.
Eisenga — a major donor to Republican politicians — has found a GOP lawmaker to rewrite the law for him.
“This stinks,” said Michael Collins, lawyer for Eisenga’s ex-wife. “It’s buying justice — if you call it justice.”
In a set of drafting documents, Eisenga and his attorney, William A. Smiley, can be seen offering line-by-line instructions in emails, notes and letters to Rep. Joel Kleefisch’s staff on a bill aimed at capping how much high earners pay in child support.
Under current law, judges determine child-support payments based on a percentage of annual income and, in some cases, assets. Kleefisch’s bill would cap the amount of income subject to child support to $150,000 a year — and assets could not be used in the calculation.
Contained within the bill is also a financial trigger that could allow the multimillionaire to reopen his case.
Records show Eisenga, president of American Lending Solutions in Columbus, has donated $3,500 to Kleefisch, an Oconomowoc Republican, and $7,500 to his wife, Lt. Gov. Rebecca Kleefisch in 2010. He has chipped in another $15,000 to Gov. Scott Walker.
Eisenga could not be reached for comment about the legislation, which he has been pushing with Kleefisch’s office for more than two years. Smiley was tight-lipped when reached.
“I’m not going to comment on that at all,” said the Portage attorney.
Kleefisch also could not be reached. But the veteran lawmaker acknowledged Eisenga’s input on the bill to another newspaper but denied that it was crafted specifically for him.
“I do a gamut of legislation with the help and assistance of many, many constituents,” Kleefisch told the Wisconsin State Journal, “and whether they gave a contribution or not has not made a difference.”
But one of the attorneys who helped draft the bill was clearly under the impression that this was a single-interest proposal. Records related to the composition of legislation become public once a bill is introduced.
“It’s hard to fashion a general principle that will apply to only one situation,” Pam Kahler, a drafting lawyer with the Legislative Technology Services Bureau, wrote a Kleefisch aide on Sept. 13.
Kleefisch introduced the bill in December, just two months after a three-member state Appeals Court panel rejected Eisenga’s latest attempt to lower the amount he pays monthly to his ex-wife for their three children.
Eisenga, the fomer Columbus mayor, and his then-wife Clare filed for divorce in 2010 after six years together. According to court records, the pair agreed to binding arbitration to resolve financial issues. The arbitrator, former Dane County Circuit Judge Angela Bartell, upheld their prenuptial agreement, which allowed Michael Eisenga to keep his $30 million in assets and denied Clare any maintenance.
But based on his assets and annual income of nearly $1.2 million in 2010, Bartell set child support at $18,000 a month. She said the sum could not be adjusted in the future to less than $15,000 a month, regardless of his income.
The pair asked the circuit judge to include the financial agreement in their divorce judgment. Only 10 months later did Eisenga ask the circuit judge to trim the sum because his annual wages had fallen, he said, to $231,000 in 2011.
But the lower-court judge and appeals court panel concluded that Eisenga was too late. In addition, the judges said, Eisenga remains a very wealthy man.
“Michael argues that the circuit court erroneously required ‘near total depletion’ of his separate estate, and ‘near total financial ruin,’ as a condition for modifying his child support obligation,” wrote the District 4 Court of Appeals. “Michael’s argument has several flaws, but the most salient is that Michael does not argue that any decline in the value of his separate estate had occurred here.”
In his remarks to the State Journal, Kleefisch emphasized that the bill would not affect Eisenga’s case if it is passed.
But the drafting documents make clear that was the intent. In a Sept. 5 letter to Eisenga, his lawyer outlined changes he was suggesting to an early version of the legislation.
“We focused only on the portion that would require the court to modify your child support order based solely on the passage of the bill,” Smiley wrote in the letter.
On the same day, Eisenga forwarded the letter to Kleefisch, one of Kleefisch’s aides and former Assembly Speaker Jeff Fitzgerald, now a lobbyist, with this line: “Please have the drafter make these SPECIFIC changes to the bill.”
On Sept. 6, the Kleefisch aide forwarded the material to the legislative lawyer writing the bill.
What’s more, the current version of the legislation would require courts to cut the amount being paid in child support if the sums are at least 10% higher than they would be under the $150,000 cap on yearly earnings.
“Clearly, this is a bill based on a single individual,” said Richard Podell, a Milwaukee divorce lawyer also representing Eisenga’s ex-wife. “Rep. Kleefisch is trying to do a favor for someone who has maxed out with his donations (to Kleefisch) over the last eight years.”
Not that the lawmaker and his staff were forthcoming about all this behind-the-scenes activity.
In early December, one of the law firms representing the ex-wife asked Kleefisch’s office for correspondence or records of conversations with Eisenga or his company on legislation dealing with the calculation of child-support payments.
Kleefisch responded four days later: “We have conducted a thorough search and do not have any responsive records which meet your request. We have checked all of our our office email accounts, files, and all cellphones for the search words you have indicated.”