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Heightened scrutiny: Speaker Robin Vos has increased oversight of Gov. Tony Evers' administration

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Heightened scrutiny: Speaker Robin Vos has increased oversight of Gov. Tony Evers' administration

Wisconsin state Assembly Speaker Robin Vos is deploying staffers to closely monitor Gov. Tony Evers’ administration, including the social media accounts of agencies and top appointees, as part of a continued push to counterbalance the Democratic executive.

For the better part of the last year, Assembly committee clerks and research assistants have been compiling weekly reports on the activities of state agencies, and there’s no indication the effort is winding down in 2020.

Records obtained by the Cap Times show the Rochester Republican’s office directed chamber staffers to use their “weekly agency overview” documents to oversee vacancies and recruitment, waiver requests, lawsuits, news reports about departments and whether, for example, a deputy secretary may have posted “something questionable on a personal account.”

The reporting began after Vos, in early 2019, added new staffers to his office, including three aides to former Republican Gov. Scott Walker. The move was criticized by a top Democratic leader as an attempt to launch a “shadow caucus” to take on the Evers administration.

“I don’t want to just assume whatever the executive branch tells us is automatically accurate," Vos told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel last January. "I want to have someone double check it.”

Critics have slammed the latest developments as “opposition research,” a tool deployed in politics to discredit opponents. Assembly Minority Leader Gordon Hintz argued the arrangement forces staffers to do “work that has nothing to do with their jobs and the people of this state.”

“This is really about weaponizing political opposition research that is ultimately being done by legislative staff with taxpayer money,” the Oshkosh Democrat said.

Still, Vos — who admitted the Legislature “failed during the Walker administration to effectively” perform its oversight role of the East Wing — said in a recent interview that lawmakers’ job “no matter who is the governor, should be to be a watchdog.”

And he lamented the efforts aren’t “more robust,” adding that his “biggest disappointment is that we don't have more information, not that we have too much.”

“I would love to have a better understanding of what's going on with these agencies because for whatever reason, Gov. Evers’ administration is even more secretive than we criticize Gov. Walker for,” he said.

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In early 2019, Speaker Robin Vos added new staffers to his office, including three aides to former Gov. Scott Walker.

'Beyond oversight'

The reporting requirements were shared with Assembly staffers just weeks after Vos added seven new positions to his office, records suggest.

The positions — pulled from the chief clerk and sergeant at arms’ offices, as WisPolitics.com reported at the time — doubled the size of Vos’ staff. And emails the Cap Times reviewed from his office show some of those same hires are the ones involved in overseeing the new system. 

But while Vos, who’s served as speaker since 2013, highlighted the importance of the Legislature as “a watchdog,” Hintz knocked the activity as “beyond oversight,” noting lawmakers already have the ability to call departments, request audits and talk regularly to legislative liaisons.

Accusing Republicans of harboring high levels of “distrust, fear and skepticism” toward the Evers administration, Hintz later added: “It’s been pretty clear that the priority for Rep. Vos and Assembly leadership all along has been to do everything possible to try to thwart the success of Gov. Evers.”

The move has also drawn fire from liberal group One Wisconsin Now, whose spokesman knocked Vos for letting the Walker administration’s “cronyism, corruption and incompetence” run unchecked.

“He’s now directing an operation digging up dirt he admits is for his personal use,” Mike Browne said. “It's all driven by his petty partisanship that has been and continues to be a disservice to the people of this state.”

Still, Vos spokeswoman Kit Beyer noted Walker in 2018 received an Openness Award, or Opee, from the nonpartisan Wisconsin Freedom of Information Council, while Evers no longer maintains a public dashboard tracking the progress of records requests across agencies and has been sued for initially denying a records request for his emails from a Milwaukee TV station.

Vos himself requested changes to gut the state’s records law in the 2015-17 budget on Walker’s watch, while Walker sought to curb the public’s access to certain records in other ways as well, such as when his administration argued it didn’t need to keep “transitory” records, including text messages. 

Beyer added open government advocates “should be glad legislators are exercising their constitutional power to be a co-equal check and balance on the bureaucracy.”

The Cap Times was first made aware of the activity after One Wisconsin Now shared a copy of a February research assistant training presentation assigned by Vos’ office. The 11-slide presentation walked Assembly staffers through the process of “monitoring state agencies” by keeping an eye on recruitment, contracts, grants, lawsuits filed against a department, stakeholder meetings, federal interactions, audits, social media accounts and more.

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Assembly Minority Leader Gordon Hintz, D-Oshkosh

The slides also urged observers to get started by familiarizing themselves with their agency’s organizational charts and employees, establish a “list of promises the Gov/Admin have made already” and then “check their mission statements and see what they’ve changed.”

“This is a starting point,” the presentation said. “We should expect that there will be changes to things we look at and for over time, and things will differ by agency. Part of your work will be helping to perfect what should be in these reports.”

Two subsequent records requests filed with Vos’ office by the Cap Times uncovered a series of weekly department reports by Assembly staffers, with some dating back to February 2019, as well as emails about the activity between committee clerks and the speaker’s staff.

The length of the documents, which follow a two-and-a-half page template, tend to differ, week-to-week and between agencies. Some staffers regularly included charts or graphs showcasing vacancies, for example, while others listed and linked to every retweet their agency’s Twitter account sent out in a week. Others still submitted five- or six-page reports while different staffers filed two-page summaries, according to the records.  

After compiling the reports, staffers emailed them to a corresponding point person or persons in Vos’ office, depending on their policy area or committee division, records show.

One Assembly staffer in an interview recalled that the initial presentation emphasized that research assistants and committee clerks should “communicate more about what they’re doing in their area of oversight and connect more with the agencies they oversee.” 

“Under the Walker administration, (we) knew the people that were over there (in the agencies),” the staffer said. “I think the concern was with folks we were less familiar with, we didn’t know what communication was going to look like.”

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Vos said the purpose of collecting the reports is "truly internal, so I know what's happening."

'Useful to our caucus efforts'

While it remains unclear exactly how the information Vos’ office is stockpiling is being deployed, one of his staffers early last year stressed the findings “can be really useful to our caucus efforts.”

The line was included in a mid-February email to Assembly Republican offices from Walker’s former Medicaid director, Heather Smith, who Vos brought on as an administrative officer earlier in the year. In it, Smith advised staffers to review video interviews with secretaries on WisconsinEye and other news outlets that could include useful information.

She urged staff to look out for “promises made, priorities set, challenges seen, quotes that may be of use,” and pay attention to how the content “matches with what the governor is saying, or doesn’t match.”

Pointing to a Feb. 7 WisconsinEye Newsmakers interview with Department of Workforce Development Secretary Caleb Frostman, Smith noted Frostman discussed “the importance (of) manufacturing to the state” while Evers was “advocating raising taxes on manufacturers.”

“That’s useful to know as we wait for action on the Middle Class Tax Cut bill we just sent to Gov. Evers,” she wrote, referencing the Republican-backed proposal that Evers vetoed a day after the email was sent.

Still, Smith didn’t say exactly when or for what that information — let alone other details that were flagged in the reports — could be used.

At least two Assembly staffers in their regular reports in late summer and early fall included at the bottom of their weekly filings a note saying, “This report is for agency oversight only; it is not intended for political or campaign purposes.”

The documents were part of a cache of records the Cap Times obtained from August, September and October 2019. They showed the 10 reports covering the Department of Corrections were the only ones that included the disclaimer.

Staffers Linda Palmer, in Rep. Michael Schraa’s office, and Jeremy Carpenter, in Rep. Rob Hutton’s office, who jointly filed the DOC reports over that period, didn’t comment.

Asked in a late December interview about the purpose of collecting the reports, Vos said it is “truly internal, so I know what’s happening.”

Pointing to the state’s efforts to enact work requirements for public benefits, which he supports, Vos said the Evers administration appears to be “doing everything they can to undercut” the provisions.

“If they make those decisions, I'd rather know about them from having our offices working to understand what they're doing,” he said.

It also doesn’t appear that the findings are being shared with the state Senate, which is in the midst of acting on Evers’ Cabinet appointees. About half are awaiting a confirmation vote in the chamber.

Vos said he had “no idea” if any of the reports obtained by his office were sent to Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald. 

A spokesman for Fitzgerald, R-Juneau, confirmed that the office hasn’t received any of the Assembly’s reports.

Asked about the oversight practice in the Senate, Alec Zimmerman wrote in an email that the chamber’s “oversight powers rest within the standing committees and their issue areas, as well as the process of confirming cabinet appointees.”

Evers spokeswoman Melissa Baldauff said the governor’s legislative affairs team meets regularly with agencies’ legislative directors and lawmakers from both parties to stay up to speed on what’s happening in that branch

“There’s no monitoring or tracking documents or anything,” she said. “There’s just conversations, having relationships and that’s going to be the most effective way to get things done.”

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Gov. Tony Evers in his Capitol office in December. 

Past speakers' practices unclear

While it’s not clear to what extent other Assembly speakers have put in place similar practices, one Republican said the ability to review regular agency overview documents would have been helpful to him when he was speaker in 1997.

Ben Brancel, who served in the Legislature for a decade, said he did not put in place a “structured, formal process” for keeping track of what legislative committees — and their relevant agencies — were up to after he moved to the speaker’s office.

But he acknowledged the merits of such a practice, saying that, as speaker, it was difficult to “just keep a pulse on what’s going on.” 

“You keep trying to figure out, ‘How is it I can be better informed? How is it I can be not fully knowledgeable but at least aware of (activities) that are taking place?’” he said.

While Brancel, from Endeavor, noted Vos’ process could catch many “mundane activities that an agency’s involved in that would be nothing more than clutter,” he added that collecting information on administrative rules as they’re being developed, tracking operational costs and ensuring expenditures don’t exceed revenues, and keeping an eye on staffing levels would be particularly useful.

Brancel, who twice served as secretary of the Wisconsin Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection in Republican administrations, also suggested the current state of divided government had an impact on ties between the Legislature and administration officials.

During times of one-party control, he said there may be “more of a free-flowing, informal dialogue” between agencies and legislators’ offices.

Under split government, though, he argued that “there could be a need to more formalize the process so there’s a clear understanding between the two parties as to what are the expectations and what are the requested responsibilities.”

“In the case where you don’t have free-flowing (discussions) of topics between legislators and agencies, the recognition of a problem doesn’t get to the speaker’s office until I would say it’s a pretty hot boil,” he said.

Asked about criticism of Vos’ practices, Brancel said: “You could say all kinds of things about the process. I’m just trying to tell you why it would be of interest to me as a speaker to have the kinds of information that would have helped me in my job. I don’t know that you can say what it is until there’s an action related to a situation.”

The chamber’s rules outlining the speaker’s duties don’t say anything directly about executive branch or agency oversight.

But they do note that the post has the power to “supervise all other officers of the Assembly, each being subordinate to the speaker in the discharge of his or her assigned duties.”

Separately, staffers in the Assembly chief clerk’s office didn’t respond to questions about past speakers’ agency monitoring practices or whether any had implemented a reporting system similar to what Vos has in place. 

Meanwhile, other former Assembly speakers either declined to weigh in or didn’t return requests for comment.

That includes Democrat Tom Loftus, who held the job from 1983-91, a stint that included four years under former Republican Gov. Tommy Thompson. The former ambassador to Norway initially said he refused to comment on his successors in the post.

When asked about the practices he employed as speaker to oversee the administration and state agencies, Loftus referred the Cap Times to his book, “The Art of Legislative Politics.”

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Critics have slammed the latest developments as “opposition research.”

Different agencies, different scrutiny in records requests

As part of the weekly agency reports, some Assembly staffers have also sought to use the state’s open records law to bolster their findings. But the amount of requests appears to vary, agency-to-agency, with DWD fielding more than a dozen last year from its corresponding committee clerk while other departments didn’t log any.

The February training presentation noted that some information would need to be obtained through a records request, such as appointee calendars and potentially certain division materials. But it called on staffers to discuss any requests with Vos’ office first.

The weekly forms themselves often noted pending records requests. But the Cap Times also performed a spot check of different agencies’ records logs, which show the number of records requests they received through the first nine months of 2019. That included the subjects, requesters’ names and, when available, the log for the same period in 2017 in order to compare the results.

The findings showed some agencies faced repeated requests from Assembly committee clerks in the last year, including DWD, headed by Frostman. The Democrat served briefly in the state Senate after winning a special election in 2018.

BJ Dernbach, a staffer in Rep. Warren Petryk’s office and clerk for the Assembly Workforce Development Committee, filed more than a dozen records requests between the beginning of the year and Oct. 1, including vacancy reports, information surrounding employees’ unauthorized use of computers, federal employees who collected unemployment insurance benefits during the government shutdown and more.

Dernbach served as DWD’s assistant deputy secretary in the final year of Walker’s administration after serving in different capacities in the agency since 2014, per his LinkedIn page.

Agency logs prior to 2019 weren’t immediately available because it wasn’t until April that DWD launched a centralized tracking system, a spokesman said. 

But at the Department of Safety and Professional Services, whose head has yet to be confirmed, a records log didn’t show any requests from its corresponding Assembly staffer over the first nine months of last year.

Overall, the results showed a decrease in requests for the agency, led by Secretary Dawn Crim — the only one of Evers’ Cabinet nominations who has yet to advance through committee after she faced concern surrounding a 2005 child abuse charge along with her professional qualifications.

In all, there were around 200 fewer records requests filed with DSPS in 2019 compared with 2017, though in both years the clerk of the Assembly Regulatory Licensing Committee didn’t appear to have submitted any to the agency.

The log from the Department of Veterans Affairs, where Secretary Mary Kolar was unanimously approved by the Senate in the fall, also didn’t show any records requests over the first nine months of the year from the Assembly Veterans and Military Affairs Committee clerk. There were around 40 fewer requests filed that year compared to the same period in 2017. 

Baldauff, Evers’ spokeswoman, touted the administration’s efforts so far, saying: “Our secretaries and their teams are doing fantastic work in the agencies and we’re always happy to share those successes with the public and members of the Legislature.”

Vos’ spokeswoman didn’t respond to requests for comment about whether certain agencies were facing more scrutiny than others. But Beyer did say the department oversight efforts would continue, though she didn’t specify whether they’d last for the remainder of the session or longer.

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Briana Reilly covers state government and politics for the Cap Times. She joined the staff in 2019, after working at WisPolitics.com. Follow her on Twitter at @briana_reilly.