Wisconsin ethics, elections heads battle for their jobs

January 18, 2018

FILE - In this Dec. 12, 2016, file photo, Wisconsin Elections Commission administrator Michael Haas views the results of a state-wide presidential recount at the commission's offices in Madison. The embattled leaders of the Wisconsin agencies that run elections and enforce ethics laws are engaging in a public relations campaign to save their jobs, with a torrent of tweets and personal letters to lawmakers replete with examples designed to show off their nonpartisan stripes. Haas has been tweeting reasons he should keep the job, including a video from 2011 of him confronting protesters at the old Government Accountability Board office. (John Hart/Wisconsin State Journal via AP, File)

MADISON, Wis. (AP) — The embattled leaders of the Wisconsin agencies that run elections and enforce ethics laws are engaging in a public relations campaign to save their jobs, with a torrent of tweets, media interviews and personal letters to lawmakers offering examples of their nonpartisan credentials.

The push comes before an expected state Senate vote Tuesday to reject the confirmations of Elections Commission administrator Michael Haas and Ethics Commission leader Brian Bell. Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald says Republicans have lost confidence in their ability to act fairly because they both worked for the now-disbanded Government Accountability Board.

Republicans contend that the board, which was run by retired judges, unfairly targeted Gov. Scott Walker and other conservatives with a secret John Doe investigation that went on for years before the Wisconsin Supreme Court ended it in 2015, saying nothing illegal had happened.

That argument was re-ignited last month when Republican Attorney General Brad Schimel released his report into who leaked information collected during the probe to a newspaper. He didn’t determine who did it, but said the information came from the GAB, leading to calls from Fitzgerald and other Republican lawmakers for Bell and Haas to go.

Haas has been interim administrator of the Elections Commission since June 2016 after previously working as an attorney for the GAB for eight years. Haas was not part of the main investigation team, but he did review legal filings when the John Doe probe was challenged in court.

He was previously a municipal attorney for Stoughton, Edgerton and Milton and unsuccessfully ran as a Democrat for the Assembly in 1992 and 1994, although he says his partisan past is behind him.

“I believe my background, qualifications, and variety of experiences have uniquely and perfectly prepared me for my role,” Haas said in a letter Thursday to senators.

The confirmation fight comes in an election year and after Wisconsin’s election system was unsuccessfully targeted in 2016 by Russian hackers. Haas and his supporters say this is no time to make a leadership change.

Haas, in addition to letters to senators, was making his case Thursday in a series of interviews with both conservative and liberal radio hosts. He’s also been active on Twitter, with a mixture of serious and humorous messages about why he should be confirmed.

In one tweet, Haas said he deserves the job because he loves Wisconsin. It included a picture of a Wisconsin sweatshirt featuring images of the Badgers, Packers, Milwaukee Bucks and Brewers. In another he posted a video of a confrontation he had with protesters in the GAB office in 2011, dubbing it a “group interview.”

Bell is an Army veteran who served in Afghanistan and Iraq, where he defused bombs. He said he’s being unfairly targeted and in his defense, he sent senators a letter excoriating the former GAB, saying he left his job there in 2015 because he thought the board was too partisan. He did not work directly on the John Doe investigation.

In an accompanying letter, Bell wrote that he’s worked to ensure that the Ethics Commission is “as fair, objective, transparent, efficient and effective as it can possibly be.” Bell said Thursday he had not received a response from Republican lawmakers to his letter.

The agency enforces ethics and campaign finance laws that office holders, candidates running this year and lobbyists working in the Legislature must follow.

Both the Elections and Ethics commissions, each run by an equal number of Republican and Democratic appointees, stand behind the administrators. The commissions have asked the Senate for a public hearing so they can make the case for confirming them. Fitzgerald has refused, leading to the unusual public relations push leading up to Tuesday’s dramatic vote.

Elections Commission Chairman Mark Thomsen, a Democratic Milwaukee attorney, has said he does not believe a Senate vote rejecting confirmation would force Haas out — a situation that Thomsen has said could lead to a lawsuit. But Bell, who is not an attorney, said Thursday he believed a vote against his confirmation would mean he’s out of a job.

Fitzgerald did not immediately reply to a message seeking comment Thursday.


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