Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald has ratcheted up the pressure on the state’s ethics and elections chiefs to resign, threatening to hold Senate votes to force them out if they don’t step down.
But it’s unclear whether he has the authority to remove them.
So far the officials, Elections Commission administrator Michael Haas and Ethics Commission administrator Brian Bell, haven’t gone anywhere.
That’s creating a power struggle between the bipartisan commissions and the GOP lawmakers who created them in 2015 to oversee elections, public officials and those who influence them.
On Thursday, Fitzgerald and Assembly Speaker Robin Vos demanded resignations from Haas and Bell. The GOP legislative leaders cited their past employment at the commissions’ predecessor agency, the Government Accountability Board, as grounds to question whether the administrators would be impartial.
Haas and Bell were appointed last year with unanimous support from the commissions, both made up of three Democrats and three Republicans.
Fitzgerald, R-Juneau, upped the ante Friday, saying he would hold Senate confirmation votes in January on Haas’ and Bell’s appointments — and that they would not receive enough votes to be confirmed.
Differences over law’s implications
There was disagreement Friday about what state law says happens in that scenario.
Fitzgerald spokesman Dan Romportl maintained, in a statement, that the administrators “are forced out and the commissions begin a search for their replacements.”
Elections Commission chairman Mark Thomsen, appointed by a Democrat, disagreed. Thomsen argued the law makes clear the commission “has sole power to decide whether Mr. Haas stays on” in an interim role — while making clear Haas has the commission’s support.
Rick Champagne, chief of the nonpartisan Legislative Reference Bureau, emphasized state law says the administrators serve with the Senate’s “advice and consent.”
A Senate “no” vote on confirming the administrators would mean “you do not have their consent. The appointment is no longer valid” and the position vacated, Champagne said.
Haas said in a Friday statement that he was surprised by the calls for him to resign and that he has requested to meet with Fitzgerald about it.
“I believe he and other legislators know that our agency has operated in a completely nonpartisan manner under the direction of the bipartisan commission,” Haas said.
Ethics Commission chairman David Halbrooks, a Democrat, said he was surprised by the call for Bell’s resignation. Bell did not immediately respond to an email late Friday.
Legislative Democrats, meanwhile, panned the Republican calls for Haas and Bell to step down, which they said lacks “any rational explanation.”
“Republican leaders who continue to struggle with scandals and corruption allegations have a clear motive to disrupt election integrity, loosen ethics enforcement and rig the system in their favor,” said Assembly Democratic Leader Gordon Hintz, D-Oshkosh.
Meanwhile Gov. Scott Walker, speaking to reporters Friday, steered clear of the controversy. Walker said only that a report into leaked court documents by GOP Attorney General Brad Schimel, the release of which preceeded the calls for Haas’ and Bell’s departures, “speaks for itself.”
‘Concerns over partisan influence’
In 2015 Republicans, angered by a secret investigation into Walker’s 2012 recall campaign, eliminated the Government Accountability Board and created the commissions.
Fitzgerald and Vos issued letters late Thursday calling for Haas and Bell to resign, citing “concerns over partisan influence remaining” from the accountability board.
“Any leftover remnants of the partisan (board) will never have the confidence of the public to ensure complete non-partisanship in the administration of elections or the oversight of government ethics,” Fitzgerald said in a Friday statement.
Bell is a former employee of the accountability board but was not involved with the accountability board’s assistance to prosecutors in the investigation into Walker’s recall campaign.
Haas was an attorney for the board and played a secondary role in the probe, reviewing and editing court filings, according to the attorney general’s report.
Neither was among the nine current or former public officials that Schimel, in his report issued last week, recommended face contempt-of-court charges for what he described as a failure to follow court orders in the John Doe II case.