Sheridan: ‘It’s not a conflict'

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Saturday, January 30, 2010
— Assembly Speaker Mike Sheridan said he doesn’t believe dating a lobbyist for the payday loan industry was inappropriate, even though legislation to regulate the industry is pending in the Legislature.

Sheridan, who filed for divorce in October, said he plans to steer a strong bill through the Assembly yet this session.

The Janesville Democrat said lobbyists who oppose payday loan regulations are circulating rumors that a coup was under way in the Assembly to remove him as speaker. Those rumors include a relationship between Sheridan and a lobbyist working for the legislation’s opposition.

He addressed the rumors Thursday in a meeting of Assembly Democrats. Friday night, he talked about the relationship with the Gazette.

“I have dated a gal who is a lobbyist,” Sheridan said. “It’s not been a conflict, and I have no problem saying that.

“I understand that my integrity is being questioned at this point, but I would not compromise this bill for a personal relationship. It will be a strong bill.”

The payday legislation has stalled in an Assembly committee since a public hearing in October.

Sheridan said allegations that the bottleneck is because of his relationship with the woman are not true.

“The lobbyists know that there are going to be strong regulations, and their job is to lobby against it,” Sheridan said. “But I told the caucus (Thursday) that I would never do anything personally that compromises my work on behalf of the state of Wisconsin.”

Wisconsin is the only state that does not set a rate cap for lenders, which has fueled the rapid growth of the industry.

State Rep. Gordon Hintz, D-Oshkosh, authored legislation that would put such a rate cap on payday lenders. State Rep. Andy Jorgensen, D-Fort Atkinson, authored similar legislation that would limit the number of times payday loans could be rolled over. Another state representative drafted a third piece of payday legislation.

Neither Hintz nor Jorgensen have any concern that Sheridan’s relationship with the lobbyist has slowed the legislation. Instead, Jorgenson said, Sheridan has been working to bring the three bills into one that will pass the Assembly and Senate and meet Gov. Jim Doyle’s approval.

“We were all over the road with the different bills,” Jorgensen said. “He’s locked us in a room to bring them together into a stronger bill. It’s a high priority for him, and he just keeps asking us where we are with it because the clock is ticking.”

Jorgensen and Hintz said Sheridan doesn’t know what’s in the pending legislation.

“He’s not involved at all in the work group,” Hintz said. “There are six people who know what’s in the bill, and Mike isn’t one of them.

“There’s nothing he could be reporting back to anyone.”

Sheridan said he’s gone on dates with the woman for several months, the last being about a month ago. He said he can’t say for certain whether he’d again date the woman.

He declined to identify her.

“That wouldn’t be fair to this person,” he said. “This is about me.

“With my style of leadership, one of my jobs is to develop relationships whether they are inside or outside of the capitol. I have friends and acquaintances that are lobbyists, but I live my life trying to do the next right thing, and I would never let a relationship affect my position on legislation.”

Hintz said Sheridan promised him in September that he would work to get a strong bill through the Assembly.

“His word’s good with me,” said Hintz, who addressed caucus members Thursday. “Mike’s in a difficult position because he’s trying to steer a ship with a lot of barking dogs.

“We’re gaining momentum now, and we’re starting to see lobbyists do anything they can. My message to the caucus is that we not get distracted and divided.”

State Reps. Kim Hixon, D-Whitewater, and Brett Davis, R-Oregon, serve on the committee that last handled the payday legislation. Both said the public’s perception of inaction is not unusual.

“The Democrats haven’t been meeting in committee much on anything, and we’ve seen it on education and jobs creations bills that seem to be just sitting there,” Davis said. “There’s a lot of public interest in this bill, and I just don’t think the Democrats have their act together on what they want to do because there are a few other bills out there.”

Davis said he respects Sheridan and has worked well with him.

“I’m not casting judgment on Mike, but the speaker is a position with a lot of power and authority, and as the leader of the Democrats, this will create a perception that is problematic.”

Mike McCabe, executive director of the Wisconsin Democracy Campaign, said the state’s code of ethics for lawmakers does not specifically address the appropriateness of personal relationships with lobbyists.

“But I think the bottom line is that a heck of a lot of lawmakers have to be sensitive to appearances of conflicts of interest in the things that they do,” McCabe said.

A call late Friday to Assembly Minority Leader Jeff Fitzgerald, R-Horicon, was not immediately returned.

Last updated: 12:18 pm Thursday, December 13, 2012

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