Government Showdown: Elections Commission Defies Senate, Reappoints Haas

Elections Commissioner Dean Knudson: 'I am imploring you not to take this vote. I can’t emphasize it any more strongly.' The power struggle continues between the Senate and the Elections Commission. #wiright #wipolitics Click To TweetMacIver News Service | January 24, 2018

By M.D. Kittle

MADISON, Wis. – Rejecting the Senate’s rejection, the state Elections Commission voted 4-2 Wednesday to appoint (or reappoint) interim administrator Michael Haas as interim administrator – at least through April.

“If you put an individual in there who clearly already has been rejected by the Senate you are opening the door for chaos. In fact, you are creating chaos,” GOP Commissioner Dean Knudson implored.

A partisan commission that had backed the controversial former Government Accountability Board agent saw that unanimity crack Wednesday afternoon. Two of the three Republicans voted against the Democrat-led motion, warning that openly bucking the Legislature’s will is a recipe for disaster.

“I am imploring you not to take this vote. I can’t emphasize it any more strongly,” said Commissioner Dean Knudson, the former Republican state representative who crafted the law disbanding the now-infamous GAB and replacing it with the separate Elections and Ethics commissions.

“If you put an individual in there who clearly already has been rejected by the Senate you are opening the door for chaos. In fact, you are creating chaos,” Knudson added.

Commissioner Jodi Jensen, a Republican, agreed with Knudson that those who supported retaining Haas were reading the statutes incorrectly in insisting that the commission could simply disregard the will of the Senate. Knudson and Jensen said keeping Haas will leave a “dark cloud” over an agency that is supposed to be committed to fair and efficient elections.

Commissioner Beverly Gill, a Republican appointee of Gov. Scott Walker, voted with the Democrats.

Knudson said the commission is spoiling for a legal fight it simply cannot win.

A spokesman from Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald’s (R-Juneau) office could not immediately be reached for comment Wednesday, but the lawmaker earlier reaffirmed the Senate’s authority to remove Elections Commission administrators by rejecting their confirmations.

Commission Chair Mark Thomsen, a Democrat and bombastic critic of the Republican-controlled Senate’s move this week to reject Haas, said that keeping Haas on was upholding the law. Commission Democrats insist the statute creating the Elections Commission gives the authority to hire and fire administrators to the Commission, not the Senate – a point Knudson vehemently rejected.

Thomsen said it wasn’t fair for the Republican majority to reject a committed and talented public servant like Haas.

“It seems to me it would be wrong for us as commission not to vote 6-to-0 in our belief and faith of Mr. Haas,” Thomsen said.

He continued to push the Haas apologist narrative that the interim administrator was a minimal player in the unconstitutional John Doe investigation into dozens of conservatives and the campaign of Gov. Walker.

Despite the protests of Haas and Thomsen, records released in lawsuits show Haas was a key actor in the government-funded spying operation on untold scores of conservatives and predawn aids on the homes of Democrats’ political enemies. He was present at the launch of the GAB’s involvement in the “John Doe II,” driven by the Democrat-led Milwaukee County District Attorney’s Office, and he reviewed and edited legal documents after the John Doe judge ruled investigators had no probable cause that any alleged campaign finance crimes had been committed.

Haas was at the meeting, and at his desk Wednesday, just hours after the Republican-controlled Senate voted along party-lines to reject confirming Haas and Ethics Commission interim administrator Brian Bell. It was not clear whether Bell showed up for work Wednesday. His commission is expected to meet Thursday to discuss appointing an interim administrator.

A memo sent Wednesday afternoon from the state Department of Administration advised Haas and Thomsen that upon review, the Department of Justice believes that “any reappointment of Michael (Haas) to the same position would be invalid.” In other words, his work here is done.

Not according to the majority position on the commission.

Commissioner Ann Jacobs, a Democrat, insisted state statutes agree that only the commission on at least a four-two vote can remove an administrator.

She said the DOJ’s interpretation of Haas’ status “essentially rewrites the law to comport with a desired outcome.”

But Jacobs and Thomsen are no fans of Attorney General Brad Schimel’s findings in a lengthy investigation of leaks in the John Doe investigation. The Republican AG last month released a bombshell report showing the GAB and Milwaukee County District Attorney agents mishandled John Doe documents and even kept hundreds of thousands of John Doe records in folders titled “Opposition Research.” Haas is named in the report for his involvement in the probe that the state Supreme Court found unconstitutional and an abuse of innocent citizens’ rights.

Haas’ supporters say the bureaucrat has an exemplary record of running a tight Elections ship, and deserves a raise, not removal.

Knudson reminded the commission what they knew at the time, that while Haas was an acceptable interim administrator to assist in the transition after the GAB was disbanded, his fate was pretty much sealed by his involvement in the John Doe investigation.

“I think it’s time to put behind us the question of how qualified Michael Haas is as an administrator. It has all become a moot point,” the commissioner said. “The fact is he was rejected by the Senate. Now it is time to come together and move forward.”

He warned that a “dark cloud” of suspicion will have over the agency as long as Haas is in the leadership post.

Knudson said he doesn’t believe the commission is on solid legal standing, and that the Legislature could pass a law clarifying any perceived confusion in the language.