MADISON - Democratic Assembly Speaker Mike Sheridan said Monday there is nothing wrong with him dating a lobbyist for the payday loan industry.
Sheridan said during an interview in his Capitol office that he dated the woman off and on for a few months. The last time he saw her was about a month ago and he didn't know when he would see her again.
"We had a friendship," Sheridan said. "I would never let my personal life impact the work that I do in the state Assembly."
Democrats were standing behind Sheridan on Monday.
"If there was two mutually consensual adults having a date it's hard for me to see that's problematic," said state Rep. Josh Zepnick, D-Milwaukee, a co-sponsor of the payday lending bill. "I have not seen any indication whatsoever that Mike Sheridan's personal things have impacted the way the legislation's going. I've been involved in helping write the bill and I don't even talk to him about it."
The woman, Shanna Wycoff, is listed as the manager of government affairs for Cincinnati-based Axcess Financial, which owns the payday lending chain Check 'n Go. She also lobbied on behalf of an industry group, Community Financial Services Association, last year before withdrawing Dec. 31.
Steven Schlein, a spokesman for that group, said a decision was made to use other lobbyists but he wouldn't comment on whether Wycoff's removal had to do with her relationship with Sheridan.
"We're not here to discuss anything about her personal life," he said.
Wycoff did not return calls and e-mails seeking comment last week and Monday. Sheridan and Wycoff are friends on the popular social networking site Facebook.
Even though Sheridan says he did nothing wrong, the perception of impropriety is there, said Mike McCabe, director of the nonpartisan watchdog group Wisconsin Democracy Campaign.
"The average citizen already sees relationships between lobbyists and elected officials as way too cozy," he said. "This is just something that will color the way they see the debate over this payday lending legislation."
The real test for Sheridan will be whether the bill moves forward despite his relationship with the lobbyist, McCabe said.
Sheridan's relationship with Wycoff began at roughly the same time last year that he expressed concerns with a bill that would increase regulation of the industry, saying it goes too far because it would wipe out the payday lending industry and kill jobs. That's the same claim industry groups have been making in trying to kill the proposal.
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Sheridan supported a similar bill during a previous legislative session.
Sheridan said Monday that he is not stopping the new bill and his personal relationship won't affect how he handles it.
The proposal has been stalled in committee since October.
Sheridan filed for divorce from his wife, Sarah, in October. He has three children and two grandchildren, according to his official biography.
Sheridan, 51, was elected to the Assembly in 2004 and named speaker after the Democrats captured control of the chamber in the 2008 elections. He is a former president of the UAW local at the now-closed General Motors plant in Janesville.
His handling of the payday loan bill came up Thursday when Assembly Democrats talked about the issue in a closed-door meeting. Sheridan said opponents of the bill in the payday loan industry were circulating rumors that fellow Democrats were going to try removing him from power because of how he handled the measure.
Sheridan said Monday that his caucus was fully behind him.
"They know who I am," he said. "They watched me work."
Assistant Majority Leader Rep. Donna Seidel, D-Wausau, who's leading the group working on the bill said Sheridan's relationship hasn't affected their work.
"The speaker continues to have the support of the caucus," Seidel said.
The bill's sponsor, state Rep. Gordon Hintz, D-Oshkosh, said the speaker assured him the proposal would be taken up later this session.
Wisconsin is the only state that does not set a rate cap for lenders, fueling rapid growth of the industry and calls for increased regulation.
The bill would prohibit lenders from charging more than 36 percent annual interest rates on consumer loans, which supporters say would protect consumers from abusive payday-lending practices.
More than two dozen lobbyists employed by payday lenders and related groups are fighting the bill, according to the Government Accountability Board.
Payday loans are small, short-term loans with extremely high interest rates that amount to advances on a borrower's next paycheck. Payday lenders say they are often the only source of credit available for many low-income people who desperately need cash, but critics say the loan traps poor people in a cycle of increasing borrowing and debt.