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Members of the Wisconsin Government Accountability Board and staff gather for a December 2013 meeting in Madison. 

A new audit of the state's elections board offers two recommendations for improvements in the way the Government Accountability Board handles complaints.

"We are pleased that the Audit Bureau found no significant problems with the GAB’s handling of complaints about campaign finance, elections, ethics and lobbying," GAB director and general counsel Kevin Kennedy in a statement Thursday.

The GAB oversees Wisconsin's rules governing campaign finance, elections, lobbying and ethics, and investigates alleged violations of those laws. The board, composed of six nonpartisan former judges, has overseen elections in Wisconsin since January 2008.

The Legislative Audit Board's report is a follow-up to one released in December 2014, which found that GAB staff didn't fulfill some statutorily required duties in a timely manner, did not follow its penalty schedule for enforcing campaign finance, lobbying and ethics laws and had not effectively communicated all statutorily required administrative rules.

The audit released Thursday found that from fiscal year 2010-11 through 2012-13, the GAB initiated about 204 inquiries into violations, resulting in 21 investigations.

From 2010-11 through 2013-14, GAB entered 11 contracts with special investigators to conduct those probes. In those cases, the board is required to provide the names of three qualified individuals who could perform the investigations. The audit found that practice was not followed consistently, and recommended the GAB comply with statutes by consistently providing the names of three qualified individuals who could serve as a special investigator.

From 2011-12 through 2013-14, the board's expenditures for seven investigations totaled $315,800 "because staff did not track the amount of time they spent on tasks related to these investigations," according to the audit.

The audit also recommended the GAB "consistently resolve complaints in a timely manner."

"LAB made two minor recommendations, which are consistent with the agency’s existing practices," Kennedy said in the statement. "The LAB report’s key finding is its description of an engaged Board that probes, evaluates and considers the materials and recommendations presented by staff. It puts to rest any questions as to whether the six Board Members exercise independent judgment when they make decisions about complaints, investigations and penalties."

Prominent Republican lawmakers have been vocal in recent months about their distaste for the GAB, calling for major reforms.

Gov. Scott Walker said in July he wants to eliminate the board in favor of "something completely new that is truly accountable to the people of the state of Wisconsin."

Also in July, Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, R-Rochester, and Rep. Dean Knudson, R-Hudson, called for "necessary reforms" including "a means to change the way the GAB operates," after a Wall Street Journal editorial reported the agency had been in contact with the Internal Revenue Service when it investigated conservative groups.

The same day, Joint Finance Committee co-chairs Sen. Alberta Darling, R-River Hills, and Rep. John Nygren, R-Marinette, called for GAB director Kevin Kennedy's resignation, calling the GAB a "rogue agency that ignores state law and operates against its founding principles."

To complete its audit, the LAB reviewed materials and minutes from the closed portions of GAB meetings held in fiscal year 2012-13.

"We now have a better picture of the nature of the confidential complaints and GAB handling of complaints," said Rep. Samantha Kerkman, R-Salem, co-chair of the Legislature's Joint Audit Committee.

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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.

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