It’s baffling that Wisconsin Republicans have picked this particular time — 10 months away from Scott Walker’s fourth run for governor — to raise once again the specter of the John Doe probes into Walker’s 2011 recall election. There must be a poll somewhere suggesting the blurry lines between Walker’s campaign and his official office don’t bother his base of supporters.
Or perhaps the GOP is seizing what could be its last opportunity to get even with every person who had a hand in the investigations, just in case Walker’s voted out of office in November.
Whatever the motivation, there’s something fishy about Republicans rehashing an issue they’ve already used their single-party control of state government to quash.
It began with Republican Attorney General Brad Schimel conducting a yearlong investigation into how secret documents collected during the John Doe probe into Walker’s campaign were leaked to the British newspaper The Guardian in 2016.
The Wisconsin Government Accountability Board filed the information under “opposition research,” which Schimel said was proof that it was political in nature. But the GAB said it was filed that way — and buried in the basement — because it was illegally seized and not prepared by anyone associated with the board.
The bipartisan Wisconsin Ethics Commission insists there was no wrongdoing, and Schimel was unable to identify who might have facilitated the leak. Nevertheless, the AG recommended charging six employees of the now defunct GAB and three employees of the Milwaukee County district attorney’s office with contempt of court for violating court secrecy orders and mishandling evidence.
The chair and vice chair of the Ethics Commission — one a Democrat, one a Republican — blasted Schimel’s report for “omissions and inaccuracies.” All members of the bipartisan commission asked for an independent attorney to examine Schimel’s findings.
At the end of the day, it appears Schimel’s independent undertaking of this convoluted probe was motivated in part to get rid of Mike Haas, the former assistant director of the GAB who now serves as the Elections Commission’s administrator, and Brian Bell, who heads the Ethics Commission. Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald and Assembly Speaker Robin Vos have pledged to reject confirming both men on Jan. 23. Neither man has been charged with anything, and both Republican and Democratic members of the Elections Commission — which along with the Ethics Commission replaced the GAB — stand behind them. They’ve called for a public hearing.
Ironically, in releasing his report, Schimel leaked the same information he’s taking others to task for leaking. Adding yet another wrinkle to this story, the files were first released by a county judge, who later said he made a mistake in doing so.
Disdain for state’s clean government traditions
This complex scheme on the part of Wisconsin Republicans reeks of the pettiest politics imaginable. The state’s GOP leaders want to get even with everyone who had anything to do with the Government Accountability Board, because the board enforced the campaign finance laws that Walker fell afoul of. Until, that is, the Wisconsin Supreme Court justices — bought and paid for by the governor’s wealthy backers — eliminated those laws retroactively.
Then Republicans went on to dismantle the GAB — a nationally respected emblem of clean government — and now they want to punish any do-gooders who interfered with their schemes. It’s all part of their relentless campaign to draw an impenetrable curtain over state government and smear the ideal of ethics in government as a form of anti-business socialism.
Republicans want even more control over Wisconsin’s elections and how they are financed. It’s not enough that they’ve enacted dozens of changes to election laws already in order to assure themselves of a permanent majority — on both the state and local levels. They always want more.
Schimel’s antic report is merely another example of the GOP’s cynical disdain for the Wisconsin tradition of clean government and for the people they were elected to serve.
Begin this new year by writing your state senators and asking them to confirm Haas and Bell.
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