Newly Uncovered Email Proves Superintendent Candidate Underly Broke Law

A newly uncovered email from Wisconsin Superintendent candidate Jill Underly proves that she violated state law by doing campaign work on government time. Empower Wisconsin's Matt Kittle obtained an email sent by Underly last April 21--a day after she used her Petaconica School District email to send two campaign-related emails to a number of fellow school superintendents.

At 9:44 am on Tuesday, April 21--while she was presumably at work as Petaconica School Superintendent--Underly used her private email account to inform recipients that she "plan[ned] to announce that [she is] running for the State Superintendent position."

"I'm not necessarily asking you to support me," she added. However, I know that you will promote the best candidate who is pro-public schools and has the best intentions and will advocate for all public school children and children in Wisconsin."

Rather obviously, Underly was asking for support for her campaign. This constitutes a clear violation of Wisconsin Statute § 230.40, which holds that "no person holding a position in the classified civil service may directly or indirectly solicit or receive subscriptions or contributions for any partisan political party or any political purpose while on state time or engaged in official duties as an employee."

Underly herself seemed to understand this when she sent the email, as she wrote in a PS that she knew it was a risk asking for the superintendents' email addresses.

"PS: Please do me and yourselves a favor and don't communicate with me or anyone else about this election on school district emails or servers," she wrote. "I may have been risky in asking for your personal email via your school email, but I couldn't think of any other way, and besides there was no money asked :)"

Underly seems to have misinterpreted the law, as a violation Wis. Stat. § 230.40 does not require a solicitation of campaign donations. Rather, the statute provides that "no person holding any position in the classified civil service may during the hours when on duty engage in any form of political activity calculated to favor or improve the chances of any political party or any person seeking or attempting to hold partisan political office."

She was seeking endorsements from school superintendents, an activity which is clearly "calculated to favor or improve" her chances as she was "attempting to hold partisan political office."

The email revealed by Empower Wisconsin Monday follows a Wisconsin State Journal article Friday that revealed two emails sent from Underly's official school district account on April 20, 2020.

"I have something I need to send out to you, but I don't want to nor should I send it to your school email," she wrote to a number of superintendents at 11:44 am.

Several of them called the Petaconica School District worried that Underly's account had been hacked.

"I didn't know how to ask for your personal email without being all vague," she wrote in a follow-up email at 12:45 pm. "Please don't call my school district asking about it--this isn't a spam message. I will send you more information, but it's regarding the state superintendent race and I didn't want to send it over district emails."

That follow-up email, which was obtained by Empower Wisconsin, was also sent during the workday in violation of Wis. Stat. § 230.40 and clarifies that Underly would soon announce a run for State Superintendent and that she was seeking an endorsement.

This constitutes a clear violation of law that necessitates a full investigation. In 2011, the use of government email on government time formed the basis of a John Doe investigation into then-Governor Scott Walker's aides in the Milwaukee County Executive's office. Two were criminally charged and convicted of felony misconduct in public office the following year.

A decade earlier, the wide-ranging Caucus Scandal engulfed both political parties when it was revealed that employees of four different state agencies were doing campaign work on state time.

Democratic Senate Majority Leader Chuck Chvala and Republican Assembly Speaker Scott Jensen, Majority Leader Steve Foti, and Representative Bonnie Ladwig all were criminally charged and pleaded guilty. All but Jensen served jail time.

It is unclear whether Underly's violation of law rises to the level of felony misconduct in public office, but it is very clearly a misdemeanor violation of Wis. Stat. § 230.40, and it is now imperative that a full investigation be launched so that Wisconsin can learn just how much campaigning Underly was doing on state time.