Wisconsin Senate votes to reject Ethics, Elections leaders
MADISON — The Wisconsin Senate voted Tuesday to oust leaders of the bipartisan state agencies charged with running elections and overseeing ethics laws, the latest move by Republicans to exact revenge on anyone connected with a now-closed investigation into Gov. Scott Walker and other conservatives.
The highly unusual Senate vote was designed to force out two former employees of the now-shuttered agency that approved the Walker probe who were later selected to head the newly created bipartisan Elections and Ethics commissions.
But Elections administrator Michael Haas said after the vote rejecting his confirmation that he plans to show up for work on Wednesday and if the commission chooses to appoint him as an interim director, he would do it.
Ethics leader Brian Bell declined to say what his next steps would be after the Senate rejected his confirmation. But Ethics Commission chairman David Halbrooks said legal options would be considered. The commission planned to meet Thursday to appoint an interim administrator and Halbrooks wouldn’t say if Bell would be considered for the post.
Senate Republican Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald said after the vote that Haas and Bell were no longer employed as the commission’s leaders, although they do remain state employees. Fitzgerald said he hoped the commissions would not re-hire them as interim directors but would not say if he would pursue legal action if that happened.
Fitzgerald also said he wanted to reclassify other jobs at the Ethics and Elections commissions to get rid of others who worked for the previous agency involved in the GOP investigations.
Both Haas and Bell, who have served as interim directors pending Senate confirmation since mimd-2016, had unanimous support of their bipartisan commissions. But Republicans who control the Senate said they didn’t have confidence in their leadership given their past work for the agency that investigated Walker and others in the GOP.
“I wish both of these men would have resigned by now,” Fitzgerald said.
Fitzgerald also said that he had told both Bell and Haas when they were appointed that their jobs would be temporary given their past work for the Government Accountability Board. Haas disputed that Fitzgerald had ever told him the job would be temporary.
Democratic Sen. Jon Erpenbach, of Middleton, objected to the confirmation vote coming without a public hearing, breaking with the long-held practice for appointees.
“This is a smack in the face to what we’re supposed to be about in the Wisconsin state Senate,” Erpenbach said.
The Senate voted 18-13 to reject Haas and Bell, with all Republicans in support and all Democrats against.
Bell watched the vote from the Senate gallery while Haas defended himself on Twitter during the debate.
The Ethics Commission on Monday night, just hours before the vote, released findings of its own internal investigation conducted by a former federal prosecutor, Patrick Fiedler, and his law firm. Their investigation determined “there is not a scintilla of evidence that Brian Bell has ever performed any of his governmental duties in a partisan manner.”
Fitzgerald said he could never support Bell or Haas because of their work for the GAB, which conservatives believe unfairly investigated Walker and other Republicans for alleged illegal campaign coordination. The Wisconsin Supreme Court ended the secret investigation, known as a John Doe, in 2015 and no one was charged.
The Legislature disbanded the GAB in 2015, but the new bipartisan commissions they created unanimously hired Bell and Haas.
Haas did not work directly on the John Doe investigation, but did review legal filings made in lawsuits over the probe. Bell did not work on the investigation and publicly criticized the former GAB last week, saying he left it because he thought it was mismanaged and unfairly enforcing the law.
A report from Republican Attorney General Brad Schimel released last month faulted the GAB for poor security measures that allowed secret documents to be leaked to a newspaper. Schimel did not determine who turned over the information and did not name Bell or Haas among nine people who should face disciplinary action.