A Democratic appointee to the state Ethics Commission announced Monday he was resigning from the fledgling watchdog agency, criticizing what he described as improper secrecy and a failure to enforce ethics requirements for lobbyists and public officials.
Robert Kinney, a state reserve judge from Rhinelander, announced his resignation in a statement to the Wisconsin State Journal on Monday.
His departure, and the scathing statement announcing it, strike a blow to an agency made up of partisan appointees already facing deep skepticism from Democrats who fought its creation. Gov. Scott Walker and Republican lawmakers created the agency last year to replace the nonpartisan Government Accountability Board.
Kinney’s statement describes the commission as paralyzed by gridlock and by rules that require it to hide much of its operations from the public.
It says the agency isn’t following its stated mission: enforcing ethics, campaign finance and lobbying laws that apply to public officials and lobbyists. In a phone interview, Kinney took issue with the commission’s handling of a complaint by state Assembly Democrats alleging a campaign finance law violation by their Republican counterparts.
“There exists among several of the commissioners an observable lack of commitment to the underlying purposes of the agency,” Kinney said in the statement, which did not name those commissioners.
Kinney, one of three Democratic appointees to the commission, said that “at a time when public confidence in elected officials has been deeply eroded,” Wisconsin should ramp up enforcement of ethics requirements for public officials.
“Sadly, it appears we have created a system which almost guarantees that this will not occur,” Kinney said.
Walker appointed Kinney to the commission in June, picking him from a pool of candidates provided by Democrats. Walker told reporters Monday morning he hasn’t spoken with Kinney about his resignation.
“I’d actually probably want more than just a letter; I’d love to sit down and talk to him about it,” Walker said.
Kinney told the State Journal he was frustrated by the commission’s handling of a complaint by the Assembly Democratic Campaign Committee against its GOP counterpart, the Republican Assembly Campaign Committee. The complaint alleged RACC violated campaign finance law when it did not report its financial activities in September, as did other legislative campaign committees.
State law requires the commission to debate and act on such complaints in closed session. The commission dismissed the ADCC complaint in last week’s closed session, according to ADCC executive director George Aldrich.
Kinney, a former Oneida County circuit judge, told the State Journal the commission’s actions are “a very bad omen.”
“Being unable to function in the enforcement realm, it was just extremely frustrating,” Kinney said.
In August the commission thwarted a push by Kinney to restrict ethics commissioners from contributing to partisan political campaigns. By a 4-2 vote, with Kinney and commissioner Pat Strachota, a former Republican Assemblywoman, opposed, the commission shelved a motion to do so.
In retrospect, Kinney said in his statement, his fears about the commission were foreshadowed when three commissioners — half of the body — voted in October to strike from their mission statement that the commission seeks to enhance representative democracy by “furthering Wisconsin’s tradition of clean and open government.”
“The handwriting was on the wall,” Kinney said.
Commission chairwoman Peg Lautenschlager told the State Journal Kinney “discussed his likely intention to resign with members of the commission” at its meeting last week.
In a joint statement Monday, Lautenschlager and commission vice chairwoman Katie McCallum thanked Kinney for his service and explained the process for naming his successor.
“We have no further comment at this time,” Lautenschlager and McCallum said.
Kinney praised nonpartisan staffers of the Ethics Commission as “competent and dedicated civil servants.” But Kinney said staff have faced “many obstacles” in doing their jobs fairly, including “overbearing nit-picking” from commissioners at commission meetings.
“Over time (if it hasn’t already happened) this disrespectful treatment will erode staff morale and we will lose these talented people,” Kinney said. “Perhaps that is the goal.”
State law says the governor must nominate a replacement for Kinney and submit the pick to the state Senate for confirmation no later than 45 days after the date of the vacancy.
The six-member Ethics Commission is made up of three Democratic appointees and three Republicans. The Government Accountability Board that it replaced was nonpartisan.
Wisconsin Democrats were sharply critical of Republicans for creating ethics and elections commissions to replace the Accountability Board. They predicted the new commissions will operate less effectively and — because they’re evenly split between partisan appointees — will frequently deadlock on key decisions.
Common Cause in Wisconsin, a nonpartisan group that advocates for government transparency, said Kinney’s departure underscores that the new commission was “designed to fail.”
“It is very sad and unfortunate for Wisconsin to be losing Kinney’s voice of integrity and impartiality, but not surprising,” Common Cause director Jay Heck said in a statement.
Republican appointees to the commission are McCallum, Strachota and former Waukesha County Judge Mac Davis.
The other Democratic appointees are Lautenschlager and attorney David Halbrooks.
The offices of Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, R-Rochester, and state Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald, R-Juneau, did not respond to requests for comment Monday on Kinney’s announcement.