Government Accountability? GOP Says No Thanks, Wisconsin

Republicans are attacking the state’s ethics board for engaging in partisan witch-hunts, particularly for its investigation of Gov. Scott Walker.
May 2015
The Wisconsin Assembly David Kidd
By Alan Greenblatt  |  Staff Writer
Alan Greenblatt is a Governing staff writer.

For an obscure agency with a boring name, the Government Accountability Board has prompted a lot of controversy.

The board, which oversees elections, ethics and lobbying in Wisconsin, was created in 2007 in response to a scandal that led to criminal convictions of the top Republican in the state Assembly and the top Democrat in the state Senate, among others. The Government Accountability Board (GAB) was quickly embraced by reform-minded groups as the gold standard in political watchdogging. “No other state,” concluded an article in the UC Irvine Law Review, “has a chief election administration authority with the same degree of insulation from partisan politics.”

Still, politicians have chafed. The GAB has been sued several times by GOP political players. But the board really found itself under fire when it launched an investigation into Republican Gov. Scott Walker and the question of whether his campaign illegally coordinated with nominally independent groups such as the Club for Growth during the 2012 recall election. “The Republicans in the legislature are attacking [the GAB] because it was pursuing Scott Walker and some of their funders,” says Matt Rothschild, executive director of the Wisconsin Democracy Campaign, which tracks political donations. “They have a vendetta against it.”

Indeed, the board’s funding has been cut the last three years running by the GOP-controlled legislature. And this year top legislative leaders want to restructure it so that partisans are in charge instead of the usual retired judges.

Republicans say that the GAB itself is guilty of engaging in a partisan witchhunt. Following a recent legislative audit of the board, which turned up problems regarding internal enforcement of its own rules, Assembly Speaker Robin Vos complained that the GAB “routinely doesn’t follow the law and there’s no accountability whatsoever.” Meanwhile, Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald believes it’s time for a “major overhaul.” “The GAB is an embarrassment to state government and deserves to be scrapped,” wrote Christian Schneider, a Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel columnist. “The partisan stench it has given state electoral administration will take years to wash out.”

That sort of vitriol and the audit itself are just smokescreens meant to cover up an attempt to change the rules regarding political behavior, says Democratic state Sen. Jon Erpenbach. “There’s nothing good that can come out of these changes.”

It may indeed look bad -- not least for Walker’s presidential campaign -- if politicians are perceived as gutting the very agency that oversees their behavior. Nonetheless, GAB supporters predict that Republican legislators will move ahead with their plans for an overhaul. It wouldn’t be the first time politicians have sought to put themselves firmly back in charge of their own ethical and fundraising destinies. “Before the Government Accountability Board, we had an ethics board and elections board that were partisan,” says Rothschild of the Wisconsin Democracy Campaign, “and nothing got done. Nothing was investigated.”