Wisconsin elections panel retains embattled administrator
MADISON, Wis. (AP) — A divided Wisconsin Elections Commission voted Wednesday to retain its embattled leader through early spring, thumbing its nose at state Senate Republicans who a day earlier refused to confirm him.
One Republican commissioner joined with three Democratic commissioners to retain Michael Haas as interim administrator through April 30. The 4-2 vote sets up a likely legal fight over whether Haas legally holds the position and whether any decisions he makes are legitimate.
“You are creating chaos,” said Dean Knudson, one of the two Republican commissioners who voted against retaining Haas. “What is best for the state is not to reappoint Michael Haas.”
Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald and other Republicans have said they can’t trust either of them because both previously worked for the state Government Accountability Board. The now-defunct agency investigated whether Gov. Scott Walker and others in the GOP violated state campaign laws.
The Senate voted 18-13 along party lines Tuesday to reject confirmation of both Haas and Ethics Commission Administrator Brian Bell. The state Department of Administration sent Haas a letter after the vote saying he could stay at the commission in his old position as staff attorney, a $30,000 pay cut.
Commission Chairman Mark Thomsen, a Democrat, has characterized Senate Republicans’ push to oust Haas as a witch hunt and believes the refusal to confirm Haas means nothing because only the commission can fire him. Knudson has countered that the Senate vote clearly means Haas is out as administrator.
Republican and Democratic commissioners Wednesday traded statutory citations and legal opinions over the meaning of the Senate vote. Ultimately, Republican Commissioner Beverly Gill sided with Thomsen and the two other Democratic commissioners, Anne Jacobs and Julie Glancey, in voting to retain Haas and table Knudson’s motion for a national search for his replacement until next week.
“An independent agency has an obligation to stand up and do the right thing,” Thomsen said. “Voting on this makes everybody think about what is an independent agency as opposed to what 18 people in the Senate feel.”
Knudson warned the Democrats they’re picking a fight they can’t win. They’re inviting lawsuits over Haas’ legitimacy, and Republican lawmakers will simply change state statutes to clarify a refusal to confirm means Haas is gone.
Fitzgerald said the courts will have to decide whether the chamber’s refusal to confirm means Haas is out.
“I assume it will end up in court,” he said. “I think we’re on solid legal standing with what the vote was yesterday.”
The Ethics Commission planned to meet Thursday to discuss the hiring of an interim administrator. Commission chairman David Halbrooks declined to say whether it too would consider re-appointing Bell to his position.