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Although it has conducted just one investigation this year, the Wisconsin Ethics Commission has boosted compliance with state ethics and campaign finance laws by responding swiftly to complaints or requests for advice, supporters say.

M.P. KING, STATE JOURNAL

A new report shows the state Ethics Commission, in its first year in operation, investigated just one alleged violation of ethics, campaign finance and lobbying laws — a far less active investigatory pace than its predecessor, the Government Accountability Board.

The disclosure comes from the first annual report issued by the commission, which, along with a new Elections Commission, replaced the accountability board last year.

The report gives a glimpse into the commission’s workings, much of which are shrouded, by law, in secrecy. Hidden from public view under the law are complaints to the commission alleging violations of ethics, campaign finance or lobbying laws, as well as deliberations by the bipartisan, six-member commission on whether to investigate complaints.

From July 2016 through June 2017, the commission fielded 39 complaints of alleged legal violations, according to the commission’s administrator, Brian Bell.

Thirty of those were within the commission’s jurisdiction, and one led to an investigation of alleged use of public resources for private benefit, according to the report. Bell said the investigation is ongoing, precluding the release of further details about it.

The commission fielded 18 requests for legal advice and issued 14 legal opinions in response, according to the report. It also provides recommendations to lawmakers to clarify and streamline ethics, campaign finance and lobbying laws.

Republican lawmakers and Gov. Scott Walker passed a law in 2015 creating the commissions, contending the accountability board’s approach was partisan, inconsistent and too guided by staffers. The accountability board came under particularly fierce fire for its role in the secret criminal probe into ties between Walker’s campaign and outside conservative groups, which the state Supreme Court ended in 2015.

Critics of the creation of the Ethics Commission, which included Democrats and government-transparency groups, predicted it would be a far less aggressive watchdog of state ethics and campaign finance laws.

But Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, R-Rochester, said the commission has proven to be responsive to legislators and staff.

“The Commission’s success should not be judged based on the number of investigations but whether violations were prevented and the laws were followed,” Vos said. “The people of Wisconsin should be pleased that the new bipartisan commission is working and that the state is no longer operating under the Government Accountability Board, which was used as an instrument for partisan witch hunts.”

Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald, R-Juneau, declined to comment.

More investigations in previous years

Investigating alleged violations of those laws is one — though not the only — means by which the commission may ensure compliance.

From fiscal 2010-11 through 2012-13, the now-defunct accountability board conducted 17 investigations of ethics, campaign finance or lobbying matters. That information is public through a 2015 audit of the accountability board by the state’s Legislative Audit Bureau.

The former director of the accountability board, Kevin Kennedy, said the three-year period examined in the audit is an imperfect benchmark because it included the recall elections of 2011 and 2012, which he said triggered an unusually large volume of complaints.

Bell said attempting to draw conclusions from the volume of enforcement actions by the commission “could be quite misleading.” He said the pace of investigations can be dictated by election cycles, which tend to bring more complaints, and other factors such as the extent to which candidates, elected officials and groups regulated by the commissions are educated on the law.

Other factors in play

A legal change that requires subjects to be notified when a complaint is filed also may play a role in the drop-off of investigations, Bell said. The law allows subjects of complaints to respond quickly and in writing, which Bell said gives commissioners both sides of the story when considering whether to open an investigation.

A new state law dialing back state campaign finance regulations also may play a role, said Kennedy and Jay Heck, director of Common Cause in Wisconsin, a nonpartisan government-transparency group that opposed the creation of the commission. That law was passed in tandem with the one creating the Ethics and Elections commissions.

“There’s much less for (the Ethics Commission) to investigate because there’s less regulation,” Heck said.

The commission also is more restricted in its ability to probe alleged wrongdoing than was the accountability board, in part because it may not initiate investigations; it may only investigate in response to allegations made in formal complaints.

Heck said the report shows the Ethics Commission is operating “exactly as it was designed.”

“It was designed to take a hands-off approach,” Heck said.

Bell said the commission has taken other steps to boost enforcement and compliance. It increased auditing of campaign finance and other reporting, Bell said, and automated functions that enable staffers to respond more swiftly to complaints or requests for legal advice.

“I would estimate that even though the Ethics Commission has a considerably smaller staff than the GAB did, we have either maintained or improved upon the timeliness with which the Ethics Commission has responded,” Bell said.

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Mark Sommerhauser covers state government and politics for the Wisconsin State Journal.