Attorney General Brad Schimel received legislative authority Thursday to expand his controversial probe into the former Government Accountability Board.
Under a provision in state law that allows either house of the Legislature to request a Department of Justice investigation, the Committee on Senate Organization’s 3-2 vote came after the chairman of the state Elections Commission challenged Schimel’s ability to lead a fair and thorough review.
Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald, R-Juneau, Assistant Majority Leader Leah Vukmir, R-Brookfield, and Senate President Roger Roth, R-Appleton, approved an investigation into actions taken in what are known as the John Doe I and John Doe II investigations. Both looked at potential campaign finance and other violations related to Gov. Scott Walker’s recall campaign and former Milwaukee County executive office.
Senate Minority Leader Jennifer Shilling, D-La Crosse, and Assistant Minority Leader Janet Bewley, D-Ashland, voted against the measure. Shilling called Schimel’s investigation “an egregious abuse of power” that “could result in an incredible cost to the taxpayers of Wisconsin.”
The Assembly called on Schimel to investigate a leak of records from the John Doe II investigation in December 2016 after the Wisconsin Supreme Court declined to appoint a special investigator into the matter. Schimel didn’t determine who leaked the records, but he concluded a crime occurred and recommended nine people face contempt-of-court proceedings.
Elections Commission administrator Michael Haas, who previously worked for the GAB but wasn’t recommended for discipline by Schimel, sent a letter Thursday to Fitzgerald and Assembly Speaker Robin Vos accusing them of slandering him and demanding an apology.
Haas told both legislative leaders, who have called for his ouster, “there is absolutely no basis” for their comments that he and other GAB staff might have acted criminally during the 2011 and 2012 recall elections.
“Your elected offices and leadership positions do not give you license to defame and slander my personal and professional reputation,” Haas wrote. “I am requesting that you stop trashing my name and reputation.”
Question of fair review
Before the vote, Mark Thomsen, a Democratic appointee to the Elections Commission, which replaced the GAB last year, sent a letter to the committee asking that Schimel not be involved in the review “to ensure complete impartiality and fairness to the process.”
“My concern about the ability of the Attorney General to conduct an objective and complete investigation is based on the one-sided and incomplete nature of his reports so far,” Thomsen wrote. “Based on media reports we know that DOJ investigators failed to interview key individuals and omitted information from the report which could have cleared up the Attorney General’s questions.
“This self-serving and partisan report gives me little confidence that any additional investigation by the Attorney General will be useful to the public or lawmakers who want to know the truth,” Thomsen added. “His efforts so far have only misled elected officials and others into making uninformed and, frankly, absurd claims about the GAB’s activities.”
Dean Knudson, a Republican appointee to the Elections Commission, responded to Thomsen’s letter, saying the GAB’s investigation of Walker’s campaign was an “unconstitutional invasion of the privacy of dozens of Wisconsin citizens” and “a chilling example of unchecked big government.”
“It was outrageous that the GAB secretly accumulated the bank statements, text messages and millions of emails of politically involved citizens into a searchable, relational database,” Knudson said. “This outrage was compounded when we learned in the recent Attorney General report that the collected data was handled in a sloppy, unprofessional manner without even the most basic security precautions.”
Knudson said those responsible for permitting the circumstances that led to the leak must be held accountable and called for a state Senate vote on Haas’ appointment. He said if the Senate doesn’t approve the appointment Haas should be removed, though Thomsen has said the Senate doesn’t have the authority to force Haas’ removal.
In a letter to the Wisconsin State Journal this week, retired judge and former GAB chairman David Deininger defended Haas.
“He is an outstanding public servant who takes very seriously his responsibility to administer our state elections in a fair, nonpartisan fashion,” he said.
Deininger, a former Republican legislator, also defended Ethics Commission administrator Brian Bell, whom Fitzgerald and Vos have also called on to resign.
The GOP-controlled Legislature dismantled the GAB in 2015 and created separate ethics and elections commissions.
Audit of GAB
The State Journal reported Sunday that Schimel’s report revealed a previously unknown GAB ethics investigation into Republican state employees campaigning on taxpayer time. Schimel referred to it as “John Doe III,” even though it wasn’t a John Doe investigation, a specific type of legal proceeding.
A judge who authorized the release of Schimel’s report has said he shouldn’t have allowed the release. State ethics investigations are supposed to be kept confidential.
Schimel’s office has since insisted the investigation was a John Doe investigation because it was based on evidence collected in John Doe I, which resulted in six felony convictions, including two Milwaukee County employees for campaigning on taxpayer time. Milwaukee County John Doe investigators forwarded evidence to the GAB.
Schimel’s report also described the GAB investigation as having no discernible limit, even though it was authorized by the GAB’s six-member board of retired judges in December 2011 and closed with no charges in March 2013.
Thomsen noted the nonpartisan Legislative Audit Bureau completed a review of the GAB in 2015 and found no significant issues with its investigations. He recommended if another review is needed that it be done by an impartial reviewer or bipartisan body.
Leak of documents
Schimel’s report was investigating the leak of documents related to the John Doe II investigation, which examined the Walker campaign’s coordination with a supposedly independent group during the 2011 and 2012 recalls. The Wisconsin Supreme Court shut down that investigation in 2015 saying the underlying legal theory forwarded by the GAB was invalid.
The Ethics Commission is scheduled to meet Friday to discuss the Senate’s request for an investigation.
A Fitzgerald spokesman declined a request for comment.
Schimel’s office didn’t respond to a request for comment, but said Tuesday if the Senate committee authorized DOJ to investigate the former GAB it would “do so with the utmost integrity and professionalism.”