The state’s top elections official, Michael Haas, says he won’t continue in that role, ending a showdown between the bipartisan state Elections Commission, which backed Haas, and state Senate Republicans who demanded his ouster.
Haas, in a statement Tuesday, said he plans to keep working temporarily at the commission as an attorney, but intends to eventually leave to pursue other opportunities.
Haas urged commissioners to appoint another Elections Administrator — he suggested the agency’s No. 2 official, Meagan Wolfe — at their meeting Friday. In a later email, Haas said he expects whoever is named to lead the commission would begin immediately.
“It is time for this foolishness to end,” Haas wrote to the commission. “The agency cannot afford to be distracted by my status and must focus on moving forward.”
The state Ethics Commission, meanwhile, tapped one of its employees to lead it in the short term while it conducts a national search for a permanent leader. The employee, Colette Reinke, an ethics specialist and attorney, will serve for 90 days but will not be considered for the permanent post, Ethics Commission chairman David Halbrooks said.
The vote to hire Reinke was 4-2, with Republican commissioners Katie McCallum and Pat Strachota opposed.
Tuesday’s developments were the latest in a recent spate of turmoil at the commissions, which oversee elections, campaign finance, ethics and lobbying requirements.
State Senate Republicans held party-line votes last month to oust Haas and Ethics Administrator Brian Bell, saying they lacked confidence in them because they previously worked at the state’s former elections and ethics agency, the Government Accountability Board. Some Wisconsin Republicans faulted the accountability board for its role in a now-concluded secret investigation of Gov. Scott Walker’s 2012 recall campaign.
Yet both Haas and Bell had the support of their respective commissions, made up of three Democratic and three Republican appointees.
Halbrooks, a Democrat, said he’s concerned that recent events would hamper the search for a new ethics administrator.
“We’re right now skeptical as to who would apply, given the treatment of” Haas, Halbrooks said.
After the Senate voted to reject Haas’ confirmation, the Elections Commission initially voted 4-2 to defy the Senate and retain Haas at least through April 30. Commissioners said Haas had led the commission ably and impartially, and there was no reason to fire him.
Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald, R-Juneau, responded by calling the move “unlawful” and demanding the commission hire another leader.
Elections Commission Chairman Mark Thomsen, a Democrat, blasted GOP lawmakers after Haas’ announcement.
“His exit with class is so unlike the way he was treated and run out of that position,” Thomsen said.
Thomsen said the timing of Haas’ departure will hamper the state’s efforts to prepare for the 2018 election, particularly in the area of election security. Haas is the only Elections Commission staffer with a security clearance with the federal Department of Homeland Security, the agency’s federal partner in safeguarding elections against foreign interference.
“The commission and its staff will have to overcome a deficit that the Senate has left us in,” Thomsen said.
Haas, in his statement, said Wolfe has overseen election-security planning in the agency’s No. 2 role, and is in the process of obtaining a similar security clearance.
In his letter, Haas said he had considered challenging the Senate vote, but decided against spending the “additional time, effort and resources in the negative environment of litigation.”
Haas also urged lawmakers to act on three additional positions for which the commission has sought authorization from the Legislature’s Joint Finance Committee. He said filling the positions, one of which focuses on election security, is crucial. Federal Homeland Security officials say attempts to compromise state election systems in 2016 were backed by the Russian government, and that such election-interference attempts are likely to recur in 2018.
“I am asking our elected and political leaders to wake up to this new reality and take it seriously before we fall dangerously behind in securing the integrity of elections and voter confidence,” Haas said.
‘We need to establish stability’
The Elections Commission meets Friday. It’s scheduled to discuss a previous proposal by Republican commissioner Dean Knudson that Wolfe be tapped to lead the agency on an interim basis, and that a national search begin for a permanent replacement.
Thomsen said Tuesday that he supports Wolfe leading the agency permanently. Haas named Wolfe assistant administrator of the commission last year. She began working at the accountability board in 2011 and, like other employees there, transitioned to the Elections Commission at the time of its 2016 inception.
“We need to establish stability and send a message to the state that the witch hunt is over,” Thomsen said.
Haas, who previously criticized as unfounded the Senate Republicans’ vote to reject his appointment, reiterated that in his parting letter.
“The lack of any credible criticism of my work, and the work of the commission, illustrated the folly of the Senate’s vote,” he wrote.”Rather than celebrating the (commission’s) success and taking credit for it, some have focused on settling scores with imaginary ghosts of the Government Accountability Board. My appointment was a casualty of that obsession.”
Fitzgerald’s office did not respond to a request for comment Tuesday.