State Senate Republicans voted to reject confirmation of the state’s top ethics and elections officials, which GOP lawmakers said will effectively fire them — opening the door to possible legal fights over their futures.
At issue are the roles of Ethics Commission administrator Brian Bell and Elections Commission administrator Mike Haas.
Tuesday’s votes along party lines — with Democrats backing the administrators — triggered a debate over whether the Senate has authority to force the administrators out of those posts or if that is up to the bipartisan ethics and elections commissions, each of which has three Republican members and three Democrats.
The agencies play a unique role in state government, overseeing elections, campaigns, those who hold public office — including lawmakers — and those who seek to influence them.
Ethics Commission chairman David Halbrooks, a Democrat, said minutes after Tuesday’s votes that there could be a court fight over the matter.
“It is now time to consider legal options,” Halbrooks said.
The Elections Commission is set to meet Wednesday, and the Ethics Commission on Thursday, to discuss what comes next.
Haas said he would take direction from elections commissioners on what comes next. In the meantime, Haas said Tuesday, “I’m showing up for work tomorrow.”
Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald, R-Juneau, who led the push to oust Bell and Haas, has said a vote to reject their confirmation removes them from their positions. Fitzgerald, speaking after session, said the state Department of Administration terminated Bell’s and Haas’ state employment Tuesday afternoon.
Elections Commission chairman Mark Thomsen has said only the commissions have legal authority to fire the administrators. Civic groups including Common Cause of Wisconsin and ACLU of Wisconsin also have said they may challenge lawmakers’ authority to oust them.
The two commissions hired Bell and Haas in 2016 and have supported them since.
Halbrooks also would not rule out the possibility that Ethics commissioners could re-appoint Bell as their administrator on an interim basis. Haas said he would be open to such an arrangement if Elections commissioners would offer it to him.
Fitzgerald further signaled in Tuesday’s press conference that GOP lawmakers may look to purge other employees of the Ethics and Elections commissions who, like Bell and Haas, once worked at the now-defunct Government Accountability Board — including the commissions’ lead attorneys, Nathan Judnic and David Buerger, respectively.
Democratic senators, meanwhile, decried the bids to oust Bell and Haas as political score-settling that will hamper those agencies’ efforts to do their jobs.
Lawmakers control agencies?
The Ethics Commission oversees campaign finance, ethics and lobbying laws. The Elections Commission oversees elections and helps local clerks run them.
The calls to oust Bell and Haas came after Republican state Attorney General Brad Schimel released a report into the leak of documents from a secret investigation into Gov. Scott Walker’s 2012 recall campaign to The Guardian newspaper.
The attorney general’s report called for 10 public officials to face disciplinary measures in connection with the leak — none of whom were Haas or Bell. It suggested Bell and Buerger had not fully cooperated with the Justice Department probe, a characterization to which they and the Ethics Commission strongly objected.
Fitzgerald told senators the problem with the administrators is they worked at the nonpartisan GAB, which assisted prosecutors in a now-ended secret investigation of Walker’s 2012 campaign, known as John Doe II.
“I can’t have confidence in an agency that still is employing some of the individuals that were there,” Fitzgerald said.
The state Supreme Court in 2015 quashed the John Doe II probe, saying it was not supported by law. GOP lawmakers and Walker ended the accountability board shortly after that.
Haas worked with legal documents relating to the John Doe II but was not part of the core investigatory team for the so-called John Doe II investigation into Walker or the ethics probe. Bell, while working at the accountability board, from 2012 to 2015, was not involved in the investigation, according to an Ethics Commission report released late Monday. The attorney general’s report also did not link Bell to the probe.
But Fitzgerald, speaking to reporters Tuesday, questioned those reports.
“I think he was involved. I think he was complicit,” Fitzgerald said.
Fitzgerald also told senators Tuesday that he told Bell and Haas shortly after they were hired in 2016 that they would serve on an interim basis and would not be confirmed by the Senate.
Haas, who was live-tweeting the debate, disputed that claim, saying, “Fitzgerald never told me that he considered my appointment to be interim or short term.” Bell said after the vote that Fitzgerald never told him his appointment would not be confirmed.
Report clears Bell
During Tuesday’s debate, Sen. Jon Erpenbach, D-Middleton, protested Fitzgerald’s refusal to give the administrators public hearings prior to a vote, as is customary. Erpenbach says the ouster of Bell and Haas is a part of a bid to replace them with people “who will tell us what we want to hear — who will sign off on what we want.”
Sen. Dave Hansen, D-Green Bay, said it’s a poor time to shake up leadership of the ethics and elections agencies heading into the 2018 election.
Meanwhile, Gov. Scott Walker on Tuesday declined once again to address how senators should vote on Bell and Haas.
“I’ll leave that up to (the senators),” Walker said.
Hours before Tuesday’s vote, the new report on Bell said he acted properly and impartially in leading the agency and working with state Justice Department investigators.
The report was compiled by a former federal prosecutor, Patrick Fiedler, and the law firm for which he works: Hurley, Burish and Stanton. The firm was retained by the Ethics Commission to investigate Bell, who asked the commission for the review, which he said would clear his name.
“There is not a scintilla of evidence that Brian Bell has ever performed any of his governmental duties in a partisan manner,” the report says.
While Bell and Haas both have fought the moves to oust them, they’ve taken markedly different tacks.
Bell, a U.S. army veteran of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, has publicly criticized the accountability board, saying he left it in 2015 in part because it was subjective and inconsistent, and one of its top attorneys, Shane Falk, was “transparently partisan.”
Haas had pressed senators to hold a public hearing on his confirmation.
“My confirmation has become a lightning rod for any complaint ever lodged against the (Government Accountability Board), whether or not it was justified in the first place,” Haas wrote in a recent statement.