Can the public trust the political process if politicians themselves don't trust ethics and election regulators? That fundamental question has become pertinent in Wisconsin.
On Tuesday, the Wisconsin Senate voted, in effect, to fire Michael Haas and Brian Bell, respectively the administrators of the state election and ethics commissions. It was a strict party-line vote, with the Republican majority concluding that the individuals running the commissions had been tainted by partisanship and bad practices.
"You need the ethics and election commissions to be trusted by all sides that have to deal with it," says Mike Mikalson, chief of staff for GOP Sen. Stephen Nass.
But Democrats complained that the move amounted to vendetta politics. Wisconsin Republicans have repeatedly attacked ethics and election officials whose actions they disliked.
"For a state that used to be held up as a paragon of good government, it's a sad and significant step for legislators to remove staff in this way," says Barry Burden, director of the elections research center at the University of Wisconsin. "It is micromanaging what should be independent agencies."
The story isn't over.
Members of the commission -- themselves appointees of the governor and legislators -- have claimed that the Senate has overstepped its bounds by refusing to confirm staff. There could be legal action fighting the move. In the meantime, a state Senate committee recently authorized an investigation that could lead to criminal charges or other sanctions against Bell or Haas.
It's a complicated situation with a long backstory.
After GOP Gov. Scott Walker and the Republican legislative majorities enacted a law in 2011 that stripped collective bargaining rights from most public employees, unions and their allies launched recall campaigns against Walker and numerous Republican state senators.
The state's campaign finance overseer at the time was known as the Government Accountability Board (GAB). That board, run by retired judges, examined the question of whether Walker's campaign illegally coordinated with outside groups such as Wisconsin Club for Growth. In 2015, the state Supreme Court ruled that the coordination was not illegal and shut down the case. (Two justices on the court had been asked by prosecutors to recuse themselves since some of the same third-party groups had spent millions on their campaigns, but they refused.)
"Democrats, since they could not beat Republicans, were hoping to throw them in jail," says Mikalson, the Republican chief of staff, "and that was struck down."
In response to the case, the legislature voted to terminate the GAB and created the new ethics and election commissions in its place. Haas and Bell, former GAB staffers, were hired by commissioners to run the new agencies in 2016. Their appointments had not been formally acted on by the Senate until this week.
Bell did not work on the Walker probe. Haas was not an investigator in the matter but did review legal filings. Still, Mikalson says it was a mistake to put former GAB staffers in charge.
"From the beginning, my boss, Sen. Nass, and a number of senators had been very clear that if the new commissions were ever going to have the trust of both parties to regulate ethics and election matters, you had to start from scratch with someone who had not been part of the GAB," Mikalson says.
In 2016, The Guardian, a British newspaper, published an exposé based on hundreds of pages of documents from the GAB investigation that showed Walker had helped Club for Growth raise millions of dollars. The newspaper reported that Walker signed a bill shielding lead manufacturers from liability for lead paint poisoning claims after the owner of a lead producer gave $750,000 to Wisconsin Club for Growth.
In the wake of the story, the state Assembly launched a state Department of Justice investigation into the leaks. Attorney General Brad Schimel, a Republican, released a 91-page report last month, finding that the leaked documents must have come from the Government Accountability Board. Schimel's office could not determine which individuals there were involved but concluded that "the partisan atmosphere at GAB contributed to the leak."
"GAB attorneys did not act in a detached and professional manner," the report concluded. "The most reasonable inference is that they were on a mission to bring down the Walker campaign and the governor himself."
The ethics commission complained that the attorney general's report was filled with "omissions and inaccuracies," which Schimel denied. With the report's release, however, it became clear that Republicans would not accept Haas and Bell continuing to lead the commissions. State Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald and Assembly Speaker Robin Vos sent them letters saying they had lost the confidence of their caucuses.
"Any leftover remnants of the partisan GAB will never have the confidence of the public to ensure complete non-partisanship in the administration of elections or the oversight of government ethics," Fitzgerald said in a statement.
Informed by justice officials about problems with record-keeping and other matters outside the purview of the leak investigation, state senators decided in December to authorize an expanded investigation, which is expected to take months to complete.
But the professional fate of Haas and Bell has already been sealed. Fitzgerald said this week he wished both men had resigned. Instead, each tried to find different ways to make the case that he should stay on the job.
Haas, the ousted chief election official, made numerous media appearances defending his record. He ran for the state Assembly as a Democrat back in 1992 and 1994 but has received kudos from election management experts around the country for his talent and integrity. Any problems with GAB, Haas maintained, did not involve him.
"Nobody has pointed to a single incident or action of mine which hints at any partiality, in fact much the opposite," he wrote on Twitter.
On Monday, the ethics commission released a report arguing that "there is not a scintilla of evidence that Commission Administrator Brian Bell has ever performed any of his governmental duties in a partisan manner." But the ethics commission's investigation covered only his time with their body, Mikalson notes, not his work with the GAB.
The report comes on the heels of a news conference Bell held last week, at which he complained about the atmosphere at the GAB, telling reporters that agency "didn't prevent partisanship and allowed subjectivity to occur."
Coming so late in the game, Bell's own complaints about the GAB weren't enough to convince Republicans they should keep him in the job.
"He never once mentioned any of this," Mikalson says. "He knew all that and didn't say anything until last week, which was very concerning."
The fact that neither Bell nor Haas was given a public hearing, however, is a "red flag," says Mordecai Lee, a political scientist at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee and a former Democratic legislator.
"Clearly, the Republicans are on a kind of get-even crusade," Lee says. "It's a vivid form of partisan battle. This is a very unusual case where the legislature is reaching deep down into the bureaucracy to make sure it gets its way."
To the extent the public record shows problems with the old GAB, it seems as if Haas and Bell were found guilty by association. They have been expelled despite being scarcely involved with the controversial investigations, notes Burden, the University of Wisconsin political scientist.
"It was a mindless march to remove them," he says, "probably intended as a sign to bully other commission staff members to stay on the good side of the Republican majority."
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