Scott Fitzgerald and Robin Vos

Wisconsin Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald, right, with Assembly Leader Robin Vos.

JOHN HART — State Journal archives

The leaders of the state Senate and Assembly need to stop obsessing over the state Elections and Ethics commissions. Lawmakers have little to fear from these weak and subservient state agencies.

If that wasn’t clear enough two years ago, when the Republican-run Legislature disbanded the strong, independent and nonpartisan Government Accountability Board, it certainly is now.

Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald, R-Juneau, and Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, R-Rochester, have been calling for the resignations of the Elections and Ethics administrators in recent weeks — without offering any evidence of wrongdoing.

Apparently, guilt by association is a good enough reason for Fitzgerald and Vos to force Ethics administrator Brian Bell and Elections chief Michael Haas out of their jobs. Fitzgerald and Vos are still mad that the old GAB participated in an investigation of millions of dollars in secret contributions to political groups favoring Republicans, and subsequently looked into whether state employees might be campaigning on taxpayer time.

But Bell and Haas, who previously worked for the GAB, had little if anything to do with those probes. They weren’t recommended for any discipline by Attorney General Brad Schimel, also a Republican, who investigated leaked records from the now-closed cases.

Moreover, Bell and Haas have earned votes of confidence from the bipartisan commissioners who serve as their bosses. Bell has even asked for a public hearing to clear his name — something top lawmakers have so far resisted. Presumably that’s because lawmakers haven’t got any evidence of poor performance or unfairness.

Fitzgerald says he’ll hold a Senate vote Jan. 23 to reject Bell’s and Haas’ confirmations. The message Fitzgerald and Vos are sending to those who works for the Ethics and Elections commissions is clear: Don’t cross or discomfort top lawmakers or your job will be at risk.

The old GAB didn’t have to worry about intimidation as it strived to encourage clean and honest government at the statehouse. The GAB was controlled by retired judges who were insulated as much as possible from partisan influence. The old GAB could launch and pay for investigations without the blessing of lawmakers.

The new and timid Elections and Ethics commissions are controlled by an equal number of GOP and Democratic appointees, meaning either political party can stop just about anything the commissions might want to do. The loss of the independent GAB was a blow to good government in Wisconsin, removing a deterrent to corruption.

Nonetheless, moving forward, the Ethics and Elections commissions are still responsible for tracking lobbyists and overseeing elections. And with the Russian government targeting Wisconsin’s voter registration system last election, these agencies need experienced administrators on the job for elections this fall.

The full Senate should tell Fitzgerald and Vos to leave Bell and Haas alone so their agencies can function with some consistency and less fear.

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