Wisconsin Ethics Commission

David Halbrooks, left, and Katie McCallum, right, say the State Ethics Commission they lead is just as active, if not more so, than the old Government Accountability Board.

How disappointing that in a time of extreme partisan polarization, a news source would minimize how well the new bipartisan Wisconsin Ethics Commission is operating.

Last week, the State Journal’s editorial board published the opinion piece “No bark nor bite from state lap dog agency.” Dog analogies may make for cute headlines, but the editorial board sadly chose to bury the real story. In truth, the Ethics Commission has accomplished much in its short tenure.

Sticking with the dog metaphors, while the state’s watchdog can no longer roam around and sniff at whatever it wants, it can bark when something doesn’t smell right (through audits) and can dig deeper when alerted to a potential problem (through a complaint). But to claim this watchdog has been lying around or is anyone’s lap dog is demonstrably false. It has been just as active, if not more so, than the old dog — and has even learned a few new tricks.

The authors of the editorial claim the Ethics Commission is less active than the old Government Accountability Board based on the GAB’s 17 investigations over fiscal years 2010-13, but also admit that comparison is unrealistic. As the previous State Journal news article “Ethics panel had 1 inquiry“ noted, citing information from the former GAB director: “the … period examined in the audit is an imperfect benchmark because it included the recall elections of 2011 and 2012, which he said triggered an unusually large volume of complaints.”

But only one additional investigation was initiated during the GAB’s final three years, which related to elections. That means the Ethics Commission conducted one ethics investigation in its first year and the GAB conducted zero in its last three years. Yet, judging a regulatory agency by the number of investigations is like judging a police department by the number of tickets they write. It measures an output, without regard to outcomes.

State law now requires the commission to notify a complaint’s target and give them an opportunity to respond before authorizing an investigation. In many cases, both sides agree on the facts, and further investigation is unnecessary. The Ethics Commission also has frequently invited parties into closed session to provide additional information. As expected, allowing both sides to be heard up front has reduced the need for further investigation.

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Not every complaint needs an investigation or legal action to get compliance with the law. Both the GAB and the Ethics Commission have had success negotiating settlements which include acknowledgements of wrongdoing and potential monetary forfeitures. In its first year, the commission completed 83 settlements, with 54 still being negotiated. The GAB completed 84 settlements in its last year. The Ethics Commission conducts audits more frequently than the GAB, thanks to electronic filing increases and audit process automations. So, in fact, the Ethics Commission has been just as active and effective in enforcement as the GAB, if not more so.

The Ethics Commission is managed differently, setting new program objectives and performance measures that support achieving the agency’s mission and adopting policies and procedures to maintain objectivity and standardize operations. We are pursuing a comprehensive performance management approach based on objective, measurable outcomes to determine if we are fulfilling our duties and serving the public well.

And this was not the only work to be done. We have been updating training materials, educating on a complete re-write of campaign finance laws, reviewing advisory opinions issued by previous boards, implementing recommendations from the state audits of the GAB, hiring staff and organizing a massive amount of records the GAB left behind — and all while establishing an independent agency.

Perhaps the most important thing the editorial omitted is that, despite such hyper-partisanship throughout society, this commission generally operates by consensus: Virtually all votes have been unanimous. And yet even when they’re not, there has never been a vote divided on party lines.

Regardless of one’s perspective about the GAB, we are choosing to move forward and to do our best for the state. Editorials such as the one published Wednesday may fit a popular narrative, but they do so by leaving out important details and ultimately only diminish the confidence of individuals in their government. The Ethics Commission should be judged as we are expected to operate: fairly, objectively and with reliance on facts.

Please, just watch and see what this dog can do.

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Halbrooks is chair and McCallum is vice-chair of the Wisconsin Ethics Commission: ethics.wi.gov.