Gov. Scott Walker says he supports dismantling and replacing the state’s independent elections and ethics board, ratcheting up Republicans’ calls for change to a board that helped investigate Walker’s 2012 recall campaign.
Walker told reporters Monday he wants to scrap the state’s Government Accountability Board, or GAB, which enforces campaign finance, elections, ethics and lobbying laws.
In its place, Walker said, he supports the creation of “something completely new that is truly accountable to the people of the state of Wisconsin.” Walker left open the possibility that a replacement board could have partisan leadership, compared to the current board, made up of six former judges.
The Government Accountability Board’s director and supporters quickly responded. They called the board a national model that’s being targeted by politicians who resent its watchdog role.
“The attacks on the GAB’s impartiality are a poorly disguised power grab,” said Daniel Tokaji, a national elections expert and law professor at Ohio State University.
Walker’s remarks come after the state Supreme Court ruled last week to end an investigation into whether conservative groups illegally coordinated with Walker in the 2012 recall election campaign. The board assisted prosecutors in the John Doe investigation, and since then, many Republicans have questioned its impartiality.
Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, R-Rochester, on Thursday called for the state Department of Justice to investigate the board. The co-chairpersons of the Legislature’s Joint Finance Committee, Rep. John Nygren, R-Marinette, and Sen. Alberta Darling, R-River Hills, called for the board’s director, Kevin Kennedy, to step down.
Walker, speaking at an event in Oshkosh Monday, went further. He joined a group of Republican lawmakers, including Sens. Leah Vukmir, R-Wauwatosa, and Devin LeMahieu, R-Oostburg, who say it’s time for the GAB to go.
“More so than an investigation, I think it’s appropriate just to get rid of (the board) and replace it,” Walker said.
A Vos spokeswoman, Jenny Toftness, said replacing the GAB with a new agency “is one of the options we have been exploring.”
The office of Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald, R-Juneau, didn’t immediately respond Monday to an inquiry about whether he agrees with Walker. Fitzgerald, speaking in 2012, called for reconstituting the board, claiming it too often favors Democrats.
The board began operating in 2008, led by former judges who are nominated by a panel of current judges, then appointed by the governor and confirmed by the Senate.
It was created a year earlier in a near-unanimous vote by lawmakers from both parties, replacing the former state Elections and Ethics boards — which were criticized at the time as ineffective or partisan.
Some faulted the former boards for not rooting out what became known as the “Caucus Scandal” of 2001-2002, in which legislative leaders used public money and resources to pay for their private political campaigns.
GAB director Kevin Kennedy said in a statement Monday “there has been a great deal of misinformation” circulated about the board.
“The GAB has established itself as a model to be emulated throughout the country,” Kennedy said. “Unfortunately, it has become more expedient to use the GAB as a political target than to honestly assess its performance.”
Jay Heck, director of Common Cause in Wisconsin, a group that advocated for creation of the GAB, said the board, because of its watchdog role, has become a target for whatever party is in power — be it Republicans or Democrats.
In 2009, when Democrats controlled all three branches of state government, Senate Democrats unsuccessfully pushed for an amendment to limit funding for the board.
“They’re not supposed to please partisan masters,” Heck said of the board. “They’re supposed to act independently according to the law.”
The day after last week’s Supreme Court ruling, Wisconsin Club for Growth — the conservative group at the center of the John Doe investigation — led the charge to abolish the GAB.
“GAB was a bad idea whose time has gone,” the group’s director, Eric O’Keefe, told radio host Charlie Sykes. “They need to eliminate it.”
Reporter Matthew DeFour contributed to this report.