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In partisan election probe, Michael Gableman goes after mayors, media and Facebook's Zuckerberg

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Michael Gableman came ready to fight Wednesday, heaping disdain on the mayors of Wisconsin’s most liberal cities, the press and especially the millions in what he called “Zuckerberg money” he suspects was used to bankroll a Democratic scheme to beat Donald Trump in last year’s election.

Amid the grandstanding, affront-taking and occasional shouting from both sides of Wisconsin’s political divide, the Wisconsin special counsel looking into how the 2020 election was administered made some news during an hourlong appearance before the state Assembly Campaigns and Elections Committee.

For one, Gableman’s team has grown to 11, including himself, and includes another supporter of Donald Trump: Ron Heuer, the president of the Wisconsin Voter Alliance, which last year filed a lawsuit asking the Wisconsin Supreme Court to toss Wisconsin’s presidential election results and replace the will of voters with electors appointed by the state’s Republican-controlled Legislature.

Heuer joins Andrew Kloster, a former member of the Trump administration, on the team looking into the kinds of widespread election improprieties Republicans — in line with Trump — have continued to allege despite numerous reviews and court rulings from Democratic and Republican officials and Democratic- and Republican-appointed judges that no such shenanigans occurred.

Gableman also said his team has so far spent about $175,500 of the $676,000 in taxpayer dollars Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, R-Rochester, allocated for the one-party investigation.

The conservative former Wisconsin Supreme Court justice provided no date by which his investigation would be complete and said he had come to no formal conclusions about Wisconsin’s administration of the 2020 elections, but he also said he knew “what probably happened.”

In short, Gableman suspects Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg and his wife funneled millions of dollars into the Chicago nonprofit Center for Tech and Civic Life (CTCL), which then went about implementing a plan outlined in a book by former Obama aide David Plouffe.

The book, a “A Citizen’s Guide to Beating Donald Trump,” notes Wisconsin’s status as a battleground state. Gableman theorizes that the money CTCL sent to Wisconsin’s five largest, Democratic-leaning cities morphed from being used to keep voters safe during the COVID-19 pandemic to turning out voters — specifically, ones who would vote for Joe Biden.

“’Get out the vote’ is short for ‘Get out the vote for a particular candidate for office,’” he said.

The partisan investigation has run into pushback from officials in those cities, who have balked at some of the special counsel’s demands.

Gableman called those demands “reflective of nothing more and nothing less than the reasonable expectation of every Wisconsin citizen that every government official and every person who took part in administering public elections with Zuckerberg money and Zuckerberg employees now be held to a similar level of transparency so that they may be held accountable for any wrongdoing that they engaged in.”

What that wrongdoing would be remains unclear.

There was nothing illegal about the more than $10 million in grants CTCL distributed to about 214 municipalities in 39 of Wisconsin’s 70 counties, including many in areas solidly won by Trump. Nor did CTCL turn down grant requests from any of the Wisconsin municipalities that made them.

While Wisconsin’s largest cities received two to four times more money, per capita, than smaller municipalities, a Wisconsin State Journal review in October found Republican and Democratic areas alike used the money to pay election workers and to purchase voting equipment, personal protective equipment, ballot drop boxes and other items designed to make voting easier and safer during a pandemic.

CTCL has said there “were no partisan questions in the grant applications” and that “grant funding decisions were not made on a partisan basis,” while noting that some heavily Republican jurisdictions, such as in Ozaukee and Washington counties, declined to apply for grants.

Assembly Minority Leader Gordon Hintz, D-Oshkosh, and Rep. Mark Spreitzer, D-Beloit, a member of the Assembly committee, have also contended that elections in more populous areas are, by their nature, more expensive, and said comparing per-capita election spending in large cities with less-populated areas is not apples to apples.

Fights with cities

Gableman complained Wednesday that the state Elections Commission and four of Wisconsin’s five largest cities — Milwaukee, Madison, Racine and Green Bay — have not been cooperative in sitting for interviews or providing documents that would allow his team to probe his theory.

He accused the Elections Commission, its administrator Meagan Wolfe, Green Bay Mayor Eric Genrich and Madison Mayor Satya Rhodes-Conway of “coverups” for refusing to cooperate with his probe.

“Why go through all this legal evasion, maneuvering and expense unless they do not want the public to know what they have done?” he said.

He said he has filed lawsuits that would allow him to seize city documents from Genrich and Rhodes-Conway although those don’t appear in online court records and Madison City Attorney Michael Haas said he hasn’t heard anything about them.

In a statement, Green Bay officials said they have already provided Gableman with almost 20,000 pages of records and no one had seen any court filing by Gableman on Monday, adding the first they heard about it was through press inquiries after the committee meeting.

Democratic committee member Rep. Jodi Emerson said the mayors have been willing to meet with Gableman in public, a notion Gableman called “crazy” and something that’s not done in investigations because it can compromise an investigation’s integrity.

In a statement, Rhodes-Conway said, “we’ve communicated our willingness to provide testimony to a legislative committee in a public setting, but have yet to hear back from Atty. Gableman on that.”

Attacks press

Gableman also took repeated shots at the media, especially the state’s largest newspaper, the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, alleging they are more interested in the staffing and operations of his investigation than in his views about CTCL, Facebook and the state’s Democratic cities.

“These questions have been left unasked by a suddenly incurious press,” he said. “Rather, the state’s largest and once respected but now rapidly failing newspaper has taken up the partisan cause of unlawful electioneering by shielding from accountability potential wrongdoing by government officials.”

Spreitzer asked Gableman how people could be expected to take his investigation seriously given that he’s a partisan, as are some of the people he has hired.

“If you think the claims that you’re investigating are real, if you are serious about this, shouldn’t we bring in somebody who is above partisanship, who is above reproach and have them get to then bottom of this,” he asked, later suggesting a “Tommy Thompson-type” of Republican.

“Isn’t this just an extension of partisan activities trying to gin up a political base for the next election more than a legitimate investigation of the last election?” Spreitzer asked.

Gableman said his work will be judged by the finished product and blamed the “fearful running and hiding” of the officials who won’t talk to him for preventing him from completing his job.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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