Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald is ramping up his clash with the state Elections Commission, saying its decision to retain its chief administrator, Michael Haas, in spite of a Senate vote to remove him was illegal.
“The Elections Commission must select a new administrator as soon as possible” to ensure its actions are lawful, Fitzgerald said in a statement Thursday evening. If they don’t, he said a joint legislative committee may follow a process outlined in state law to name another administrator.
In voting to retain Haas, the bipartisan elections panel defied state Senate Republicans — who voted Tuesday to oust Haas and Brian Bell, the top ethics official.
Ethics commissioners punted, in a Thursday meeting, on who should lead the agency in Bell’s absence. But Ethics Commission Chairman David Halbrooks, a Democrat, laid blame in multiple directions for a now-ended secret investigation into Gov. Scott Walker’s 2012 recall campaign, known as John Doe II. Republican outrage over that investigation led to the ouster of Bell and Haas.
Halbrooks’ targets, in remarks during the meeting and afterward, included Fitzgerald, R-Juneau; a fellow Democrat, Milwaukee County District Attorney John Chisholm; and Jefferson County Judge William Hue.
Instead of faulting Bell — for whom there is no evidence he played a role in John Doe II — Halbrooks said lawmakers should blame Chisholm, whose office spearheaded the investigation.
Halbrooks said there’s “ample reason” for Walker to begin the process of removing Chisholm from office. Halbrooks was granted immunity as a witness in a previous investigation led by Chisholm that focused on Walker’s aides from when Walker was Milwaukee County executive. Chisholm could not immediately be reached for comment late Thursday.
Halbrooks decried Fitzgerald’s effort to oust Bell, comparing his tactics to those of former U.S. Sen. Joseph McCarthy and saying Fitzgerald should consider resigning.
“To make Brian Bell a scapegoat for what the Milwaukee County DA did … is a tragedy,” Halbrooks said.
Halbrooks also said Hue should no longer be a judge after he permitted the release of details of a now-ended ethics probe into whether lawmakers or taxpayer-paid legislative staff members were campaigning on state time. The former Government Accountability Board closed that investigation in 2013 without recommending criminal charges or penalties. State law requires such inquiries to remain secret unless they result in penalties or criminal charges.
Bell returned to his old job in a different state agency Thursday. Meanwhile, the Ethics Commission, on a 5-1 vote, decided to not immediately act to replace him.
Halbrooks said he wants to wait, in part, to see how a potential legal fight unfolds with the Elections Commission’s decision to reappoint Haas. Fitzgerald has said he expects the matter will be decided in court.
State law says when there is a vacancy in the Ethics and Elections administrator posts, their respective commissions have 45 days to appoint an interim chief. The Ethics Commission will meet again in February, before that deadline.
Bell could not be reached for comment Thursday. The Department of Safety & Professional Services said Bell started there Thursday as a budget and policy analyst. He held that post before becoming Ethics Commission administrator in 2016. Bell made $92,000 a year as Ethics administrator, compared to $59,197 annually at DSPS, according to the Department of Administration.
The Ethics Commission oversees campaign finance, ethics and lobbying requirements. The Elections Commission oversees elections and helps local clerks run them.
Tuesday’s Senate votes on Bell and Haas were on party lines with all Republicans in favor and all Democrats opposed.
At the Ethics Commission, Bell had the support of all six commissioners — three Republicans and three Democrats. But Senate Republicans said he had to go because he worked at the previous state ethics and elections agency, the Government Accountability Board, which GOP lawmakers viewed as biased against them.
Elections commissioners voted 4-2 Wednesday, with Republican Beverly Gill joining all three Democrats, to keep Haas as interim administrator for at least the next three months.
Editor's note: This story has been corrected to accurately say which commission voted to retain Mike Haas as administrator and to accurately name the Ethics Commission.