Ethics Commission

The Wisconsin Ethics Commission has conducted only a single investigation during its first year of existence, providing more evidence it will be weak and ineffective.  Commissioners, seated from left, are​ Jeralyn Wendelberger, Timothy Van Akkeren, David R. Halbrooks, Katie McCallum, Pat Strachota, and Mac Davis. 


The state’s partisan Ethics Commission, which is supposed to uphold good government rules, conducted just one investigation during its first year of operation.

The single inquiry, which remains unresolved, adds to growing evidence the panel will be weak and ineffective — which is why Republicans who control state government created it in the first place. They don’t want a powerful and independent watchdog agency sniffing around for violations of campaign finance, lobbying and ethics laws.

The new Ethics Commission is more of a lap dog. Most commissioners are picked by — and serve at the pleasure of — top lawmakers. The commissioners can be politically active, giving political donations to the very politicians they’re supposed to keep an eye on. So they have little incentive to go after signs of wrongdoing or corruption.

A state report highlighted in Sunday’s State Journal by statehouse reporter Mark Sommerhauser showed the Ethics Commission is far less active at investigating the politicians and their campaigns than its predecessor, the nonpartisan and independent Government Accountability Board. The Ethics Commission and a partisan Elections Commission replaced the accountability board last year, despite the GAB being hailed nationally as a model for encouraging clean government.

The Ethics Commission fielded 39 complaints of alleged legal violations from July 2016 through June 2017, according to the commission’s first annual report. Of those, 30 were within the commission’s jurisdiction, and only one (dealing with campaign finance) led to an investigation (of possible use of public resources for private benefit).

The many complaints that weren’t investigated, as well as the commission’s deliberations about them, are hidden from public view under the law.

What is clear, however, is that the old accountability board, which consisted of retired judges insulated from partisan politics, was much more aggressive in pursuing cases of possible violations. And no wonder — it actually had the power to do what it wanted without asking lawmakers for permission to spend money in pursuit of fairness and justice.

Lawmakers have limited what the Ethics Commission can do, and reduced its staff.

The old GAB conducted 17 investigations over three years. That’s far more than the Ethics Commission has pursued. The comparison isn’t perfect because of differing political environments and weaker campaign finance laws. But it still provides strong evidence that the GAB did a much better job of enforcing high standards at the statehouse than the current panel of mostly obedient party loyalists.

That’s a shame, leaving the state more ripe for government waste and corruption.