The Wisconsin state Senate voted Tuesday to oust the administrators of the state's Ethics and Elections commissions after Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald, R-Juneau, said he and most Republicans have "no confidence" in them.
The votes fell on party lines. Fitzgerald said Tuesday evening that both administrators had been terminated as state employees.
Fitzgerald and Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, R-Rochester, called for Elections Commission administrator Michael Haas and Ethics Commission administrator Brian Bell to resign last month, citing concerns with "partisan influence remaining" in the two commissions that replaced the now-defunct Government Accountability Board.
Neither official stepped down, both instead mounting campaigns to preserve their jobs.
Fitzgerald said Tuesday he knew more than a year ago the two administrators would not receive enough votes in the Senate to be confirmed in their posts because lawmakers and staff did not trust them to act impartially. Fitzgerald said he told both Haas and Bell they would only serve as interim administrators during a meeting in his office 14 months ago.
Bell told reporters after the vote that he had been told senators had concerns about confirming Haas, but that he was never made aware of concerns with him. Haas said he and Bell were never in a room together with Fitzgerald, and that Fitzgerald never told him his appointment would not work out.
"Quite the opposite," Haas said. "It’s not a comfortable position for me to be in to say that one of the state’s top policymakers is recalling the meeting differently than I did, but my recollection is, and I’m quite certain, that Sen. Fitzgerald never told me that this was not going to work out."
Fitzgerald clarified after the votes that the conversations occurred during separate meetings. He said he "absolutely" told both Haas and Bell they would not be confirmed because of their association with a John Doe investigation into Gov. Scott Walker and his allies, and that it wouldn't make a difference if they appealed to individual senators.
The calls from Republicans for Haas and Bell to step down came after a state Department of Justice report on the results of an investigation into leaked documents from a now-shuttered probe into Walker and his allies.
The DOJ report blamed "the systemic and pervasive mishandling of John Doe evidence" at the GAB for the leak to the Guardian U.S. The report argued the GAB was weaponized "by partisans in furtherance of political goals" and collected personal information about Wisconsin Republicans, including private emails and instant messages, without taking steps to secure it.
Senate Republicans have since voted to allow the DOJ to reopen and expand its investigation of the former GAB.
"I can’t tell you how offensive that is. I can’t tell you how disturbing that is, to see your name on a list that Google says was subpoenaed, emails were captured, your personal emails turned over to people that I quite honestly don’t think are trustworthy," Fitzgerald said.
Sen. Leah Vukmir, R-Brookfield, said she is "sickened" to know emails between herself and her daughter, including some with medical information, are "floating around God knows where in a place where (she) has no control over them."
"This has had an effect on my family," Vukmir, who is running for U.S. Senate, said. "This is a gross abuse of power that should frighten every single member in this body. You don’t know if your emails could be a part of this as well. The fact that a government agency was weaponized in this manner is absolutely unconscionable."
Sen. Jon Erpenbach, D-Middleton, argued neither Bell nor Haas could have authorized the subpoenas that led to the collection of personal emails or other information.
Republicans dismantled the GAB in 2015 in part because they believed it had a bias against their party, replacing it with the Ethics and Elections commissions. Commissioners from both parties have voiced their support for the administrators they appointed.
"There is not a scintilla of evidence that Brian Bell has ever performed any of his governmental duties in a partisan manner," the Ethics Commission found in an opinion released hours before the Senate votes.
The Ethics Commission spent Monday afternoon reviewing a report compiled by former Dane County Circuit Judge Patrick Fiedler and his fellow attorneys at the law firm Hurley, Burish and Stanton, completed after Bell requested an investigation of his own behavior on the job.
In a letter sent to senators last week, Bell said he left his previous position at the GAB in 2015 in part because he had concerns with the way it was run, including a perceived liberal bias among its employees. Former GAB officials have disputed his assessment.
"I’ve behaved and conducted myself in an incredibly impartial, nonpartisan manner and in fact worked very proactively to address, to ensure, that this could not happen with this commission," Bell told reporters after the vote.
Haas has taken a different tack with his appeals, making the rounds on political talk shows, tweeting at least 25 reasons in favor of his confirmations and outlining his qualifications in a letter.
"Whatever the complaints about the G.A.B., they do not involve my work or conduct. They are irrelevant to my qualifications & to our excellent administration of elections in Wisconsin, which are not seriously disputed. A vote against confirmation is a vote against excellence," he tweeted on Monday.
Democrats railed against the Republican majority for holding confirmation votes without having held public hearings first. Erpenbach accused them of conducting "character assassination" without allowing the administrators to defend themselves.
Senate Minority Leader Jennifer Shilling, D-La Crosse, said she was "embarrassed" by the "politics of personal destruction" employed against Haas and Bell.
"This is a first-rate hatchet job on the part of the Republican establishment," said Sen. Fred Risser, D-Madison.
Both Bell and Haas said it is up to their respective commissions to determine what comes next.
Bell said he believes his appointment does require Senate confirmation, adding that he is "still looking at what options may exist."
Haas said the statutes are unclear as to whether the Senate's rejection vacates his position. Asked if he would agree to serve again as administrator if appointed the commission, he said he would "absolutely" be willing to consider it.
"This is a job that I really love, I think I’m well suited for, and I think that I have demonstrated a strong track record in it," Haas said.
Both commissions plan to meet Wednesday afternoon to discuss the votes.