KEVIN KENNEDY

Government Accountability Board director Kevin Kennedy said a call to dissolve the agency was "short-sighted."

PHOTO BY MIKE DeVRIES

Gov. Scott Walker has called for the dissolution of Wisconsin's nonpartisan elections and campaign finance agency, but the Government Accountability Board's director said that's a "short-sighted" opinion.

Kevin Kennedy also said in an interview on WKOW-TV's "Capitol City Sunday" that recent suggestions that his agency teamed with the Internal Revenue Service to investigate conservative groups were "absolutely ridiculous."

The GAB has been the target of scorn from Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, R-Rochester, who specifically has mentioned ousting Kennedy as a goal.

Vos and other Republicans have been critical of the GAB's role in the John Doe investigations into alleged campaign finance coordination between Walker's 2012 recall campaign and an outside advocacy group.

Walker weighed in last Monday, saying he wants to eliminate the GAB and replace it with "something completely new that is truly accountable to the people of the state of Wisconsin."

In the WKOW interview, Kennedy defended the GAB, saying its staff and board made up of six nonpartisan former judges represent an independent watchdog.

"I think most of the work we do takes place outside of all the political dramas, and it's not unusual that the referees can make calls that the people in power don't like," Kennedy said.

He said he's not sure whether Republicans, who control the Legislature and the governor's office, want a partisan structure for an elections board.

"The people who have control, they want to have more control," Kennedy said. "And the whole idea of keeping your elections, your ethics, your campaign finance and your lobby administration and enforcement separate is so that those kind of strings aren't being pulled."

Criticism from the right ramped up earlier this month when a Wall Street Journal editorial linked Lois Lerner, a former IRS official who has been accused of pushing for audits of conservative groups, with Kennedy and the GAB.

The editorial cited anonymous sources who said administrators "asked the IRS to look into a conservative group that was among the primary targets" in the Milwaukee County district attorney's John Doe investigation.

Republicans called that a coordinated effort to inhibit the Wisconsin Club for Growth's campaign finance abilities, but Kennedy denied that.

"That's absolutely ridiculous that there's any kind of conspiracy," he said. "It's guilt by association. Any professional campaign finance administrator has known Lois Lerner because she's been with the Federal Elections Commission and then with the IRS throughout her career. Our paths crossed through professional organizations. We served on a steering committee together.

"To suggest that either one of us would handle things unprofessionally with no facts — you see emails that say, 'Let's get together for dinner. Here's something that's going on in my state.' There's nothing in there that says let's do any kind of targeting of individuals."

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State Rep. David Craig, R-Town of Vernon, called for the GAB to produce all records sent to or received from the IRS since 2010, a request that Kennedy said he is in the process of finishing.

Craig also questioned any communication between the GAB and the IRS, which he said "has nothing to do with the administration of elections."

"The truth is it has a lot to do with the administration of campaign finance law," Kennedy said. "Both regulate areas of political speech, and you want to make sure you have an understanding of what the IRS requirements are. We get called on constantly by political groups and organizations — what can I do? And if we don't know what the IRS regulations are in a general sense to say, 'Here's what we do, here's where you need to check with them,' we're not doing our job."

In an interview that aired Sunday on "UpFront with Mike Gousha," GAB board chairman Gerald Nichol said he doesn't think Kennedy should resign even though it might placate Republican leaders.

Nichol, who won election as Dane County District Attorney as a Republican in 1970 and has been appointed to the GAB board by Democratic and Republican governors, said criticisms of a lack of communication between GAB staff and the board are unfounded.

"My wife tells me I talk to Kevin Kennedy more than I do her," Nichol said. "There is constant contact. In the eight years I've been on the board, I've always been aware of what is going on, except that we don't want to micromanage."

"Capitol City Sunday" host Greg Neumann asked Kennedy whether he thought the die had already been cast on the GAB's fate with Republicans in control of the Legislature.

"It shouldn't be about the GAB," Kennedy said. "We should be looking at what are the services that our agency provides to the public and how well have they been delivered. To target the head of the agency or to target activities that are politically unpalatable is really not a reason to change all the success that this agency has had."

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Todd D. Milewski covers Wisconsin Badgers men's hockey and the UW Athletic Department for the Wisconsin State Journal.