Wisconsin Senate set to vote on Ethics, Elections leaders
MADISON, Wis. (AP) — The Wisconsin Senate was scheduled to vote Tuesday on whether to confirm the administrators of the state agencies that run elections and oversee ethics laws that office holders, candidates and lobbyists have to follow.
Here’s a look at the issues at play in the fight between the current leaders of the Ethics and Elections commissions who are trying to save their jobs and Republican senators who say they’re going to oust them.
THE KEY PLAYERS: Michael Haas is administrator of the Elections Commission, a post he’s held since May 2016. Brian Bell leads the Ethics Commission, a position he’s had since July 2016. Both Haas and Bell previously worked for the now-disbanded Government Accountability Board, which was involved with secret John Doe investigations into Republican Gov. Scott Walker and conservative groups. Republican Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald, along with other top Republicans, has called for Haas and Bell to resign, saying they’ve lost confidence in their ability to be nonpartisan in part because of their past employment with the GAB.
THEIR JOBS: Haas and Bell were both hired by the commissions, each comprised of an equal number of Republicans and Democrats. The Legislature created the bipartisan commissions after voting to disband the GAB in 2015 over anger with how it conducted the John Doe investigations.
ATTORNEY GENERAL REPORT: The call for Bell and Haas to resign came after Republican Attorney General Brad Schimel released his report last month into the leak of secret information obtained during the John Doe investigations. Schimel determined the leak came from the GAB, but he couldn’t determine who was behind it. Neither Bell nor Haas were among the nine people Schimel recommended be disciplined for their roles in the leak. Fitzgerald had previously said when Haas was appointed in 2016 that he might not get confirmed due to concerns about his past work at the GAB.
THE CASE AGAINST THEM: Critics of Haas point to his work for the old GAB as an attorney where he helped review court filings in lawsuits over the John Doe investigations. Haas never worked on the probes themselves. Both Bell and Haas have also been criticized for their handling and storage of documents collected during the probes and compliance with a Wisconsin Supreme Court order requiring all of the information to be turned over to the court. Fitzgerald and other Republicans say they have lost confidence in Bell and Haas.
THE CASE FOR THEM: Both bipartisan commissions stand behind Bell and Haas, saying their work has been exceptional and they’ve seen no signs of partisan bias. The Elections Commission argues now is not the time to change who administers elections, given that this is an election year and Russian hackers targeted the state’s system in 2016. In a letter to lawmakers last week, the Ethics Commission cited Bell’s past military record and other public service and said he is committed to leading the agency in a “fair, non-partisan, and decent manner.” Both Bell and Haas have been publicly defending themselves, saying they’re being unfairly tainted by anger over the old GAB. Bell has been critical of the former GAB, saying he left the agency in 2015 in part because of inconsistent, subjective and biased enforcement of the law.
CONFIRMATION VOTE: The Senate is controlled by Republicans 18-13 with two vacancies. Republicans could lose two votes and still have enough to reject confirmation of both Bell and Haas. Bell has said if the Senate rejects his confirmation, he believes he will be out of a job. But Elections Commission Chairman Mark Thomsen, a Democratic attorney, says a vote rejecting Haas would not force him out. Thomsen says only the commission can hire and fire its administrator and he’s open to a legal fight to resolve the issue.
THE LATEST: The Ethics Commission said Monday it completed an investigation into Bell and “there is not a scintilla of evidence that Commission Administrator Brian Bell has ever performed any of his governmental duties in a partisan manner.” Bell also defended himself Sunday in a response to a series of questions from Republican state Sen. Tom Tiffany about his role handling records from the John Doe investigation inherited from the old GAB. Haas told Tiffany he only heard about his questions through media reports Monday and he would not have time to thoughtfully answer them unless Tuesday’s vote was delayed. Thomsen renewed his call for Haas to be confirmed.
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