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Records in John Doe lawsuit reveal GAB deliberations (copy)

Two conservative groups are targeting a handful of Republican senators who have voiced doubts about a proposal to overhaul the state's elections and ethics watchdog

The Assembly last week approved the bill, which would split the state Government Accountability Board into two agencies, both run by a bipartisan panel of appointees rather than the retired judges who currently oversee elections and ethics issues. Two Republicans joined Democrats in voting against it.

Senate Republicans caucused Tuesday on the GAB bill and on one that would reshape the state's campaign finance laws, with hopes of taking them up in the full Senate next week.

But a handful of Republican senators still aren't on board with the bill in its current form, and their support is necessary for it to clear the Senate. 

Sen. Luther Olsen, R-Ripon, has said the biggest sticking point is the provision that would replace the six nonpartisan former judges who currently serve on the board with bipartisan appointees. One concern is that a board composed of three Democrats and three Republicans could end up deadlocked, preventing investigations from moving forward.

Joining Olsen on the fence are Sens. Sheila Harsdorf, R-River Falls; Jerry Petrowski, R-Marathon; and Robert Cowles, R-Green Bay. Those senators are being targeted by ad campaigns from the Wisconsin Club for Growth and Americans for Prosperity-Wisconsin. 

Club for Growth board member Eric O'Keefe, an outspoken critic of the John Doe probes that investigated Gov. Scott Walker's campaigns and associates, launched a robocall campaign in the senators' districts, urging supporters to ask their senators to vote "yes." 

“This isn’t a partisan issue. It’s about protecting every Wisconsin citizen’s constitutional right to freedom of speech, regardless of their political beliefs and restoring the integrity of a government agency charged with overseeing the state’s political process,” O'Keefe said in a statement.

At the same time, AFP Wisconsin has had a digital campaign for a few weeks encouraging voters to learn more about the proposed GAB changes. Recently, the group has launched a few ads specifically targeting constituents of the hold-out senators. 

The AFP ads are heavily influenced by Soviet propaganda, with some displaying figures with tape over their mouths. 

"In our minds, when you dig into some of the GAB secret emails as they're coming out, you’re seeing a government entity that operated with a very heavy hand and was very hostile to the speech of their political opponents," said Eric Bott, state director for AFP Wisconsin.

Bott said the secrecy requirements of a John Doe probe are "fundamentally un-American," and argued the GAB's actions were "much more reminiscent of a Cold War police state."

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The GAB assisted with the John Doe probe into possible illegal coordination between Walker's campaign and conservative political groups. The state Supreme Court put an end to the investigation in July.

In addition to its digital campaign, Bott said AFP's activist base of 135,000 members is volunteering this week, talking with friends and neighbors about the bill. 

GAB director Kevin Kennedy released a piece of supplemental testimony on Tuesday, addressing comments made by Sen. Leah Vukmir, R-Wauwautosa, during a committee hearing.

"The reasons given for doing away with the G.A.B. are based on inaccurate, incomplete and, in many cases, completely false assertions by the proponents of this legislation," Kennedy wrote. "This point-by-point refutation of those specific assertions demonstrates that while the G.A.B. is not perfect, it is clearly not the 'failed experiment' that some claim it to be."

Walker signed into law last Friday a bill that limits the scope of crimes that can be investigated in a John Doe probe to the most severe felonies and some violent crimes, meaning campaign finance and ethics violations can no longer be subject to a John Doe.

Democrats argue the three bills — GAB, campaign finance and John Doe — will work together to open the door for cronyism to run rampant in the statehouse. 

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Jessie Opoien covers state government and politics for the Capital Times. She joined the Cap Times in 2013 and has also covered Madison life, race relations, culture and music. She has also covered education and politics for the Oshkosh Northwestern.