As a vote on his fate draws near, state Ethics Administrator Brian Bell is ripping the former state ethics agency, the Government Accountability Board, saying he left it in 2015 because it enforced the law unevenly and one of its top attorneys, Democrat Shane Falk, “displayed open partisanship.”
In a memo released to lawmakers Wednesday, Bell gave his sharpest public denunciation yet of the now-defunct accountability board. It comes as the state Senate is poised to hold pivotal votes Tuesday on the confirmations of Bell and the state Elections Administrator, Mike Haas.
Wisconsin civic groups signaled Wednesday they may go to court over whether Republican legislators can forcibly remove the state’s Ethics and Elections administrators — as Fitzgerald is vowing to do through the confirmation vote.
Both Bell and Haas have held their positions since 2016. They have full-throated support from their employers, the bipartisan Ethics and Elections commissions.
But Fitzgerald, R-Juneau, and Assembly Speaker Robin Vos say the administrators must go because they worked at the accountability board — which was officially nonpartisan and overseen by retired judges. GOP lawmakers and Gov. Scott Walker disbanded the board, effective in 2016, after the state Supreme Court ended a secret investigation into Gov. Scott Walker’s 2012 recall campaign. The GAB helped in that investigation.
Bell, in a memo to lawmakers Wednesday, singled out Falk — the accountability board’s former staff counsel — saying he “displayed open partisanship,” defied his supervisors and “enabled a climate at the GAB that made it acceptable to make offensive or disparaging remarks about political parties, candidates and elected officials.”
“Other staff, including some in management, furthered and tolerated such a climate,” Bell wrote.
Falk, in an email response to the State Journal, said “Brian must be under some extraordinary stress.”
“I barely (worked) with him at the GAB because he was in a low entry level position. I have no idea what he is referencing. It is really sad that he made such generalized and broad statements without any support,” Falk wrote.
Bell also wrote that the accountability board didn’t properly train staff or give them opportunities to advance and experienced high employee turnover. It also gave staffers “great latitude” to interpret and apply elections, ethics, campaign finance and lobbying laws, he wrote.
“These practices created and permitted inconsistent, subjective and biased actions of unevenly enforcing the laws,” Bell wrote.
Fitzgerald said a Senate vote to not confirm Bell and Haas would forcibly remove them. Elections Commission chairman Mark Thomsen, a Democrat, has said the law only allows the Ethics and Elections commissions to do that.
At a press conference Wednesday, civic groups signaled their opposition to ousting Bell and Haas.
“We’ll certainly reserve the right to go to court after the confirmation vote, if there is one,” Jay Heck of Common Cause of Wisconsin.
Chris Ott, director of the ACLU of Wisconsin, said the Senate does not have authority to oust the administrators if the six-member commissions — each of which include three Democrats and three Republicans — want them to stay.
Both commissions, whose members were appointed by state lawmakers, have been unanimous in their support for Haas and Bell.
“They created these commissions and gave them the authority to hire and fire,” Ott said.
Fitzgerald and others disagree. The nonpartisan Legislative Reference Bureau has said state law allows the administrators to serve with the Senate’s “advice and consent.” A Senate vote to not confirm them would mean their appointments are no longer valid and their positions vacated, according to the bureau’s general counsel, Rick Champagne.
The calls for Bell and Haas to step aside came shortly after the state attorney general released a report last month into leaked documents from the investigation of Walker’s 2012 recall campaign, known as John Doe II. The report by Attorney General Brad Schimel, a Republican, called for discipline against 10 current or former public officials in connection with the leak. Neither Bell nor Haas were on that list.
Fitzgerald has refused to hold hearings in the Senate to allow the administrators to argue their case.
Matt Rothschild, director of the Wisconsin Democracy Campaign, said he’s not convinced Republican senators are united in a desire to oust Haas and Bell. Republicans currently hold an 18-13 edge in the Senate, with two seats vacant due to senators’ resignations.
Democratic senators are expected to support the Bell and Haas confirmations — meaning at least three Republicans would need to join them in order to confirm the administrators.
Rothschild said he has been in contact with four GOP senators about the issue: Sens. Rob Cowles of Green Bay, Luther Olsen of Ripon, Jerry Petrowski of Marathon and Roger Roth of Appleton.
Roth’s office cited a December tweet in which Roth said he would oppose the Bell and Haas confirmations “after reviewing the DOJ report” into the John Doe leak.
The offices of Petrowski and Cowles did not immediately respond to inquiries about how they’ll vote.
Olsen said he’s leaning toward supporting confirming Haas and Bell, adding that he’s scheduled to meet with Fitzgerald Thursday to discuss the matter.
Olsen said he read the Schimel report but found no evidence that Haas or Bell were involved with wrongdoing at the accountability board. He said he respects the will of the Ethics and Elections commissioners, who want to retain Bell and Haas.
“They’re a lot closer to the situation than I am,” Olsen said.