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Wisconsin’s longest-serving chief election official, who presided over the rise and fall of the state’s nonpartisan government oversight agency, has announced his retirement.

Kevin Kennedy, 64, will retire on June 29, according to a letter he gave to the Government Accountability Board on Sunday.

“For the past 37 years and three months I have been privileged to work with a cadre of exceptionally dedicated and knowledgeable co-workers,” Kennedy said. “The quality of their endeavors is reflected in the high degree of public confidence in the programs administered by the agency as well as the national reputation the agency has earned as a leader and model in the areas of campaign finance, elections, ethics and lobbying. Simply put, I could not have done my job without their exemplary work.”

Kennedy joined state service in April 1979 as staff counsel to the former State Elections Board. He became acting executive director of the State Elections Board in December 1982, a position that became permanent in August 1983.

On Nov. 5, 2007, the nonpartisan GAB chose Kennedy to continue as Wisconsin’s chief election official when GAB succeeded the State Elections Board.

The move combined the elections and ethics boards into one agency in the wake of the Legislative Caucus Scandal, in which legislative aides of both parties did political work on taxpayer-funded time out of the Capitol.

In December 2015 the governor and Legislature approved a plan to replace the independent GAB with bipartisan elections and ethics commissions under Legislative control effective June 30.

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The move was driven largely by the GAB’s role in a now-halted John Doe investigation into Gov. Scott Walker’s 2012 recall campaign. The GAB and its staff played a key support role in working on the case with Milwaukee County District Attorney John Chisholm and special prosecutor Francis Schmitz.

The Wisconsin Supreme Court ruled in July that the underlying legal theory was invalid, a decision Chisholm and two other district attorneys involved in the case have appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court.

Kennedy faced calls for his resignation from some Republicans and conservative groups for his friendship with former IRS official Lois Lerner, who was a central figure in that agency’s targeting of conservative groups seeking tax-exempt status. The friendship was revealed in emails unearthed in a lawsuit brought by one of the conservative groups being investigated. Lerner advised Kennedy in 2013 that the kind of activity under investigation would likely be a criminal matter.

During a legislative hearing on the changes to the GAB last fall, Kennedy was asked about his friendship with Lerner, to which he responded, “Have you no decency?”

Kennedy told the Wisconsin State Journal in an interview last summer that the heightened scrutiny comes with the job of trying to referee politics.

“I’ve always operated knowing there’s a sword hanging over my head to measure my performance,” Kennedy said. “It wouldn’t be fair to the people who work for me to bolt at the first criticism.”

Contact Bill Novak at 608-252-6483 or bnovak@madison.com. Contact Matthew DeFour at 608-252-6144 or mdefour@madison.com.

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