Leader of Wisconsin Ethics and Elections commissions refuses to step down
MADISON, Wis. (AP) — Leaders of Wisconsin's Ethics and Elections commissions refused to step down Friday in the face of calls from the two highest-ranking members of the Legislature for them to step aside, perhaps setting up a highly unusual Senate rejection vote next month.
The calls for Elections administrator Michael Haas and Ethics administrator Brian Bell to resign come in the wake of an attorney general's report critical of how evidence collected in a now-closed investigation into Republican Gov. Scott Walker's campaign was handled.
Attorney General Brad Schimel, also a Republican, recommended last week that nine people involved in the probe be held in contempt over how they handled evidence. Haas and Bell were not among those nine.
But Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald and Assembly Speaker Robin Vos said in separate letters sent late Thursday to Bell and Haas that due to "concerns over partisan influence remaining" from the now-shuttered Government Accountability Board they should resign.
"You have lost the confidence of our caucuses to be an impartial administrator," Vos and Fitzgerald wrote.
Fitzgerald said Friday that if they refused to resign, he would schedule an up or down vote on their confirmation next month in the Senate. While the law is not clear on what rejection of their confirmation would mean, it would at the very least increase pressure on the boards to bow to the will of the Senate, which is controlled 19-13 by Republicans.
Haas issued a statement Friday saying he was "very surprised" by the letter given unanimous support he has received from the bipartisan commission. Haas, who did not resign, instead encouraged the Legislature to support the commission's work to ensure safe, secure and accurate elections next year.
Both the Ethics and Elections commissions this week have publicly supported Bell and Haas remaining in their positions, and neither showed signs of bending to pressure from the legislative leaders.
Elections Commission chair Mark Thomsen, a Democrat, said that "under no circumstances" would he accept Haas's resignation. He branded the resignation call as a "blindsided partisan attack."
"Why the Republican leadership would seek to destroy a good human being is beyond me," Thomsen said.
Removing Haas now, as the agency prepares for the 2018 election, would also endanger "ongoing stability" of elections, Thomsen said.
Walker did not wade into the dispute. His spokesman Tom Evenson said only that Walker believed Schimel's report spoke for itself.
The GAB worked with a bipartisan group of district attorneys investigating Walker's coordination with conservative groups during the 2011 and 2012 recall campaigns. The GAB housed hundreds of thousands of seized emails and other documents the district attorneys collected before the probe was halted by the state Supreme Court in 2015.
The Republican-controlled Legislature, angered over what they viewed as a partisan witch hunt, disbanded the GAB and replaced it with separate Ethics and Elections commissions in 2015.
Unlike the GAB, whose board was made of nonpartisan judges, the Ethics and Elections commissions are made up of partisan appointees. Those boards chose Haas and Bell to be administrators.
Haas and Bell both worked for the previous GAB. Haas reviewed and edited legal filings in the Walker investigation, but was not a part of the core team working on the case. Bell was not involved at all, but Schimel was critical of how he and current Ethics Commission staff responded to the investigation.
Ethics commissioners have defended Bell and said he was doing what they ordered him to do.
Republican state Sen. Steve Naas earlier this week also called for their resignations, as well as those of lead attorneys at the agencies.
Schimel on Wednesday said he would not be calling for Haas or Bell to resign, saying that is a management decision of the separate agencies.
Schimel has called for Ethics Commission chair David Halbrooks to recuse himself from issues involving the Walker probe because he had been questioned and received immunity from an earlier investigation that focused on Walker aides when he was Milwaukee County executive.
Halbrooks has said he won't do that.
Halbrooks said Friday the commission would take the Vos and Fitzgerald resignation call under advisement. He said the commission completed Bell's personnel evaluation on Dec. 5 and determined that he exceeded expectations.