MacIver News Service | January 23, 2018
By M.D. Kittle
MADISON, Wis. – After a lengthy and heated debate Tuesday, the Republican-controlled Senate effectively sent Wisconsin’s embattled political speech administrators packing.
But state Ethics Commission chief Brian Bell and Elections Commission administrator Michael Haas may not be going gently into that bureaucrat good night.
One thing’s for certain: The dark chapter in Wisconsin’s history that is the infamous John Doe investigation has yet to be fully written.
Republicans rejected Senate Dems’ allegations of GOP “hatchet jobs” and “witch hunts” in rejecting the confirmations of the interim administrators, who have been in their leadership positions since July 2016. All Senate Republicans voted for dispatching the administrators, all Democrats voted against the motion.
“I can’t tell you how offensive it is, how disturbing that is to see your name on a list of captured communications, of your personal emails turned over to people I don’t think are trustworthy,” Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald (R-Juneau) said on the Senate floor in leading the move against confirmation.
“I believe the answer is right in front of us. It has been for some time,” the senator said.
There were no long, sentimental goodbyes from a Republican administration that has been a target of prosecutors and their partners at the disbanded Government Accountability Board. Fitzgerald told reporters late Tuesday that the state Department of Administration moved swiftly in cutting ties with Bell and Haas.
“I can confirm that DOA has terminated them as state employees this afternoon,” he said.
“I don’t think he’s on the payroll anymore and his state access has been shut down,” said Fitzgerald of Haas, not at all pleased with the government bureaucrat taking to the state Elections Commission’s official Twitter account on taxpayer time to tweet out defenses and accusations during the Senate floor debate.
Republicans said they had lost any faith in Bell and Haas, both former GAB employees during the unconstitutional John Doe probes into dozens of conservative organizations and Gov. Scott Walker’s campaign.
A report last month by Wisconsin Attorney General Brad Schimel, a Republican, underscores what previous records have indicated: That the GAB assisted the Democrat-led Milwaukee County District Attorney’s office in a politically motivated spying operation against Republican leaders and their conservative allies. The John Doe featured raids on the homes and offices of citizens over debunked campaign finance crimes and the lead prosecutor was blasted by the state Supreme Court for leading a “perfect storm of wrongs” against people who were simply using their constitutionally protected First Amendment rights.
“That should scare each and every one of you that that happened,” Fitzgerald told his colleagues on the right and the left. “That they schemed against one of the two parties in this building is unbelievable. I can’t have confidence in an agency that has some of those people still working there.”
Some of the former GAB agents, such as Haas and attorney Nathan Judnic, still work for the Elections Commission.
Bell and Haas and their apologists have gone on an unprecedented media tour in recent days, attempting to defend themselves and save their jobs. It was a quixotic mission. Capitol insiders say even more moderate Republicans found the administrators’ positions untenable.
Haas insisted that he performed only a minor role in the John Doe investigation, despite a long line of emails showing his involvement from the beginning.
Bell was not involved in the investigation and in a letter to senators said he left the GAB in 2015 in part because he was unhappy with how the agency operated. Sen. Lena Taylor (D-Milwaukee) even read a letter from Bell’s 12-year-old niece comparing Republican leadership to bullies for pushing to get rid of her uncle.
Republicans weren’t buying any of it.
“The idea that he worked for over two years and had no idea what was going on, I don’t believe it,” said Fitzgerald, asserting Bell was “complicit” in the John Doe.
The Senate Majority leader said he believes GAB staff have tilted elections against Republicans “based on things I lived though.” He said he was told by state Department of Justice investigators that John Doe agents were targeting the Committee to Elect a Republican Senate during the 2011 recall campaigns. Fitzgerald accused the legal counsel of the GAB at the time of “working overtly to make sure things broke toward Democrats winning the recalls.”
State Sen. Jon Erpenbach (D-Middleton) led the Democrats’ assault on the Senate floor, accusing Republicans of taking the rare step of holding a confirmation vote without scheduling a hearing.
“There is a process here. This is a spat in the face of what we are supposed to be about in the Wisconsin state Senate,” Erpenbach said.
Sen. Fred Risser (D-Madison) called the Republicans’ confirmation vote a “first-rate hatchet job” by a party “looking for a fall guy.”
“It’s not fair. You’re guilty here of a hatchet job. I’m embarrassed of this body,” Risser said.
Others called the move to oust the administrators a witch hunt, failing to see the irony of a secret criminal investigation that demanded silence from the people targeted on peril of jail time and hefty fines.
“Put yourself in these shoes: Homes raided at predawn hours … Donors to nonprofits and political campaigns harassed, lives were upended and innocent citizens were forced to spend thousands of dollars defending themselves in court,” Sen. Duey Stroebel (R-Saukville) said of the John Doe targets.
State Sen. Chris Larson (D-Milwaukee), another defender of the illegal John Doe, insists he’s “against witch hunts.”
“We’re trying to fire the firefighter because he put out the fire,” Larson said.
Conservatives targeted in the John Doe probes would say it’s more like firing the firefighter for starting the fire.
The bureaucratic battle could be far from over.
Mark Thomsen, the highly partisan Democrat chairman of the Elections Commission, has threatened that the commission may simply disregard the Senate’s decision not to confirm Haas. He issued a letter Monday warning that getting rid of Haas, a nationally-recognized expert in elections and cyber security, in an election year would be detrimental.
Ethics Commission Chair David Halbrooks, a vehement defender of Bell, told MacIver News Service the commission will call a special telephonic meeting for 4:30 p.m. Thursday to consider the appointment of an interim administrator. Will Bell be back? Halbrooks would not say. He said he did not have a Plan B going into Tuesday’s vote.
Halbrooks warned Republicans could pay a hefty price at the polls for pushing Bell out.
“I’m not sure why the Senate Republican caucus made an issue where there wasn’t an issue, an issue that could be going for some time” should there be litigation, the commissioner said. “They can explain to their constituents why they fired a war hero for absolutely no reason.”
Bell, Halbrooks and others made Bell’s military service in the War in Iraq a key part of their defense of the administrator in recent days.
Fitzgerald said he would hope the commissions would deadlock on bringing back Haas and Bell “out of respect to the Senate vote” and the legislative process. That would require Republicans on the commissions do what they have not done thus far – withdraw their support of the administrators. Fitzgerald pointed to legislation that could ultimately eliminate the administrators from the leadership positions should it come to a standoff.
Watch Sen. Fitzgerald speak during the Senate debate below: