Tuesday, 08 August 2023 11:03

Bullied by Her Own Party, a Wisconsin Election Official’s GOP Roots Mean Nothing in Volatile New Climate

Margaret Rose Bostelmann’s ideals are clear from one glance at her well-kept ranch-style house in central Wisconsin.

A large American flag is mounted near the front door, and a “We Back the Badge” sign on her front lawn announces her support for law enforcement. Bostelmann, a Wisconsin elections commissioner, said she voted for Donald Trump in 2020 and added: “I will always vote Republican. I always have.”

But her fellow Republicans have exiled her and disparaged her, sought to upend her career and, on this day in July, brought the 70-year-old to tears as she discussed what she’s been through over the last several years because she refuses to support false claims that Trump won the state in the 2020 presidential election.

Bostelmann, who goes by Marge, previously served for more than two decades as the county clerk in Green Lake County, overseeing elections without controversy. But two years into her term in a Republican slot on the Wisconsin Elections Commission she became a target, denounced and disowned by the Republican Party of Green Lake County, which claimed she had failed to protect election integrity in the state.

Now a suit filed in June by a Wisconsin man who promotes conspiracy theories about election fraud seeks her removal from the commission. Citing her estrangement from the county party, the suit claims she’s not qualified to fill a position intended for a Republican.

The elections commission, which has an equal number of Republican and Democratic members, has faced an onslaught of discredited claims about election fraud in Wisconsin. The most recent drama involves the commission’s nonpartisan administrator, Meagan Wolfe, whose term is expiring and whose future in the role is in doubt. After the three Republican members of the commission supported Wolfe in a June vote, Republicans in the state legislature made it clear they wanted to find a way to get rid of her.

The Republican clashes in Wisconsin exemplify ongoing discord seen across the country, with elections officials shunned, berated and even driven away by members of their own party over their defense of the integrity of the 2020 election.

In Hood County, Texas — a solid red block in a red state — hard-line Republicans successfully pushed for the resignation of the elections administrator, even though Trump won 81% of the vote in the county. In Surry County, North Carolina, where Trump also won overwhelmingly, the Republican elections administrator was threatened with firing or a pay cut for refusing to give a GOP party leader access to voting equipment to conduct a forensic audit. And in Clare County, Michigan, officials are considering possible charges against a GOP activist accused of kicking the party chair in the groin.

The Wisconsin Elections Commission has been sued by numerous parties, verbally attacked by voters and earmarked for elimination by GOP lawmakers. It has survived only because a Democrat still occupies the governor’s office and wields veto power.

In an April survey of local election officials nationwide, the Brennan Center for Justice, an independent, nonpartisan law and policy organization, found that nearly one in three reported being abused, harassed, or threatened because of their job.

In a rare interview, Bostelmann wept at one point. For the most part, though, she was defiant, insisting the 2020 election was not stolen by Joe Biden.

“I’m a Republican who stands up for the truth and not for a lie,” Bostelmann said. And she predicted the latest legal gambit, which seeks her removal, would fail.

Don Millis, the Republican who chairs the Wisconsin Elections Commission, also has expressed frustration with the election conspiracy theorists. At the commission’s June meeting, he said he considered some of the agitators to be “grifters” who are conning people of goodwill into thinking there is something wrong with the election system.

“It’s not about winning or preventing fraud,” he said of the conspiracy theorists’ motives. “It’s about getting publicity or attention. It’s about grifting, convincing others to donate to their cause.”

In a recent interview with ProPublica, Millis said he was referring to a small set of people he believes are trying to raise money by spreading lies through social media or newsletters. “There are many people who believe them, who don’t know any better,” he said.

From Fraudster to Fraud Investigator

The man who brought the suit against Bostelmann is Peter Bernegger, grandson of the founders of Hillshire Farm, the Wisconsin deli meat and sausage company. Now 60, Bernegger has described himself as a “data analyst” and an “independent journalist.”

He has engaged in relentless — and so far futile — legal efforts to prove fraud in the 2020 election. This mirrors a different kind of legal fight from earlier in his life: trying to overturn his own fraud conviction.

A 2008 indictment accused Bernegger and a business partner in Mississippi of deceiving investors, bilking them of $790,000 in various ventures — including the development of a gelatin, intended for pharmaceutical or cosmetic companies, made from the carcasses of catfish. A federal jury acquitted the partner, who has since died, but convicted Bernegger of mail and bank fraud. He was sentenced to 70 months in prison and ordered to pay nearly $2.2 million in restitution.

Bernegger overwhelmed the courts with claims to clear his name, alleging procedural errors, insufficient evidence, judicial bias, ineffective counsel, violations of his constitutional rights and other misconduct.

“Mr. Bernegger, you file an awful lot,” said U.S. District Court Judge William Griesbach of Wisconsin. “Just let me say that. You file so many things. And in all honesty, I don’t have time to keep up on it all.”

Though most of his claims failed, Bernegger did succeed on one front: He got his restitution reduced to roughly $1.7 million. Ordered in 2019 to get a steady job to make payments on the debt, Bernegger testified that he had limited options.

He said his health was too poor for him to be able to lift heavy objects, drive a truck or operate heavy equipment. “I work odd jobs, a wide variety of them. And it is cash, but it’s legal,” he explained.

When ProPublica reached Bernegger by phone for this story, he immediately hung up. He did not respond to letters and emails seeking comment.

Much of his energy, it appears, is now devoted to stoking doubt about election integrity. In his social media posts and podcast appearances, he has railed against Wolfe, the Wisconsin elections commission administrator, while repeating sweeping, unsubstantiated claims about problems in voting systems across the country. Along the way, he has made alliances with like-minded individuals beyond his home state.

Bernegger has ties to Omega4America, a website promoting a super-fast computing method to identify fraud by matching voter data with property tax records and other large databases. The site solicits donations to a nonprofit called Election Watch Inc.; Bernegger founded a tax-exempt organization with that same name in 2022.

The Texas Tribune has reported that the Omega4America project was initially funded by MyPillow CEO Mike Lindell, a conspiracy theorist close to Trump. Omega4America makes glowing claims about programming marketed by Texan Jay Valentine as a powerful tool that could replace the Electronic Registration Information Center, or ERIC, a multistate consortium that ferrets out duplicate voter registrations across states. ERIC has been the subject of heavy criticism from conservatives who believe its work identifying unregistered voters for states bolsters the rolls for Democrats.

In a podcast, Bernegger mentioned that he has access to the “Valentine fractal programming system” as he seeks to uncover voter fraud. Valentine, who is listed on the Omega4America website as the site contact, declined to discuss his work or Bernegger, telling a ProPublica reporter: “I have nothing to say to you.”

In an April episode of a podcast called The AlphaWarrior Show, Bernegger said he’s now part of a team of 10 scouring federal campaign data for oddities. He named James O’Keefe as a member of that team. O’Keefeis the former head of Project Veritas, a conservative group known for secretly recording liberal organizations, and has a new media company that encourages “citizen journalists” to investigate election fraud. ProPublica’s attempts to reach O’Keefe for comment were unsuccessful.

Toward the end of the AlphaWarrior podcast, the host urged viewers to “smash” the blue donate button on an Election Watch website to show support for Bernegger and his team.

“It means we sacrifice a movie or a fancy dinner and we throw a couple dollars their way,” he said.

Peter Bernegger, right, on The AlphaWarrior Show Credit: via Rumble

“I Don’t Know That I’d Be Welcome”

Marge Bostelmann still doesn’t fully understand how it got to this point, how she became such a target of Bernegger and others, including people she once thought held similar values.

But she does know that things in Green Lake began to change in 2020, during Trump’s reelection bid. Bostelmann said she stopped paying membership dues to the county party after the party chair became critical of her and of the way the 2020 election had been run in Green Lake County by her successor.

By November 2021, as conservatives carried out investigations into voting accommodations made in Wisconsin during the pandemic — including the use of drop boxes and allowing unsupervised absentee voting in nursing homes — Bostelmann and others on the elections commission came under attack for their votes shaping those procedures.

Kent McKelvey, the Green Lake County GOP chair at the time, issued a press release saying Bostelmann’s actions on the Wisconsin Elections Commission “do not reflect the principles, values and beliefs of the Green Lake County Republicans, in this case, supporting the proper enforcement of the law and of election integrity.”

The press release said flat-out that “Ms. Bostelmann is no longer a member of the Republican Party of Green Lake County.” McKelvey did not respond to requests for comment.

The snub hurt. Bostelmann, a former foster parent who knows many local Republicans through her activities with her church and the Rotary Club, said she stopped attending many local GOP events. “I don’t know that I’d be welcome,” she said.

Even as efforts to prove fraud in Wisconsin fizzled, the pressure on the commission remained intense. Powerful Republicans in the state Senate called for Wolfe’s ouster, blaming her for what they saw as regulatory overreach by the commission, though in her role she carries out the orders of the six voting members.

Prior to the commission’s key June vote on Wolfe, Bostelmann said, she received a disturbing phone call from an acquaintance who had been critical of Wolfe. “The patriots would not be happy” with her, she was told, if she backed Wolfe. Bostelmann took that as a threat.

Still, she and the panel’s two other Republicans voted to reappoint Wolfe. Bostelmann defended Wolfe publicly at the June meeting, saying the administrator had been unfairly targeted “as the scapegoat” by people dissatisfied with the commission and the outcome of the 2020 election.

In a tactical move, Democrats abstained from voting, leading to a final tally of three yes votes. That appeared to mean that the panel did not have the requisite four votes to send the matter to the state Senate for final consideration, and it was widely thought Wolfe would continue in her post because of the impasse.

But the Senate, surprisingly, decided the three affirmative votes were enough for it to take up her nomination. Wolfe’s reappointment is now pending before the Senate elections committee. No public hearing or vote has been scheduled.

Lawsuits are expected, though for now she remains on the job.

“Some judge will tell us who our administrator is. That’s my guess,” said the commission chair, Millis, a tax attorney who favored retaining Wolfe.

Like Bostelmann, Millis has been the target of Bernegger, who on Twitter has ranted about Millis ignoring election system problems, referring to him as “Blind Don.”

Robert Spindell, the third Republican member of the commission, said he hasn’t been chastised for his renomination of Wolfe. He said he thought it best that the Senate take up the matter. “I haven’t had anybody call or criticize me,” he said, noting: “Most of the people I know on this election stuff are not shy.”

Through a spokesperson, Wolfe declined a request for an interview.

Bernegger’s suit against Bostelmann demands that the circuit court remove her from her seat on the commission, citing the disavowal from Green Lake County Republican Party. “She cannot prove she is a member of the Green Lake County Republican Party and is otherwise qualified to hold the designated Republican seat,” he wrote.

The statute that governs commission appointees does not specifically require them to be dues-paying party members.

Records show Bernegger has bombarded the Wisconsin Elections Commission with official complaints and demands for data, often accompanied by threats of legal action and accusations of criminal conduct. In one email he referred to a commission staffer as a “prick.”

“Please note that I am becoming increasingly uncomfortable with this individual’s erratic behavior that is directed at myself, our staff and local election officials,” Wolfe wrote to the commission in October 2022. In May of this year, Wolfe told the commission Bernegger made her feel “incredibly unsafe” when he noted her home address in bold in an email to the commission and called her a “pathological liar.”

The commission fined Bernegger $2,403 in March 2022 for filing frivolous complaints. Records show commission staff have, at times, forwarded his correspondence to the Wisconsin Department of Justice.

On July 7, the Wisconsin Department of Justice’s Criminal Investigation Division served Bernegger with a letter at his home in New London, stating that his actions could reasonably have made Wolfe and others at the commission feel “harassed, tormented or intimidated.” It warned that he could be arrested for stalking if he continued his behavior.

Excerpt of a Wisconsin Department of Justice’s Criminal Investigation Division letter served to Peter Bernegger on July 7 Credit: Obtained by ProPublica

One of Bernegger’s lawsuits over records against the commission is still ongoing.

He has also sued officials in Dane, Door, Grant, Marathon, Milwaukee and Ozaukee counties, the town of Hudson, the city of Hudson, the city of Milwaukee and the town of Richmond in Walworth County. The suits are related to broad public record requests he made for absentee ballot applications, images of ballots, router logs and other materials and involve disputes over costs and access. While many of those have been dismissed, four are still pending.

“We’re all trying to do our jobs to the very best of our abilities. It makes it difficult when we are constantly being undermined and questioned,” said Marathon County Clerk Kim Trueblood. Her office provided Bernegger with some information when he inquired but denied him certain documentation that Trueblood said was exempt from release. He sued, but a judge dismissed the case.

Another clerk, Vickie Shaw of the town of Hudson, said she had to go to court three times to deal with a Bernegger suit over records. A judge threw out the case, Bernegger appealed, and it was tossed again.

Before Bernegger’s suit, Shaw had quit in 2021, finding the job too burdensome and confrontational. But she returned the following year because, she said, the town “didn’t have anybody to run the April election.”

Bostelmann expressed dismay with Bernegger’s tactics against her and the other election clerks.

“It’s bullying is what it is. It’s truly bullying,” she said. “It’s almost like they are trying to get people who are knowledgeable, and do a good job, to quit to have people who don’t know how to do the job to come in.”