Why GAB Must Be Disbanded
Government Accountability Board abused its power and had secret email system.
Wisconsin’s Government Accountability Board, the agency tasked with the dual mission of overseeing elections and enforcing ethics laws, is the source of its own undoing. Lawmakers in Madison this week are pushing through legislation that, when signed by Gov. Scott Walker (R) into law, will split the GAB into two restructured commissions, one to focus on ethics enforcement, the other to focus on election administration.
While opponents of reform claim that eliminating the GAB and replacing it with two new commissions is nothing short of a naked and unprovoked power play by Republicans in state government, they are wrong. To make that claim they must suspend reality and ignore the facts of the GAB’s relatively brief but contentious history.
Assembly Democratic leader Rep. Peter Barca claimed in a press release published on Urban Milwaukee that, “Republicans want to turn our nationally respected system of nonpartisan watchdogs into partisan lapdogs.” Although the state statute chartering the GAB requires the agency to be nonpartisan, that status is now nothing more than a thin veneer existing in the minds of some observers. It has no basis in fact.
In late 2012, Kevin Kennedy, the executive director of the GAB, admitted that GAB staff had taken sides in Wisconsin’s high profile political debate surrounding union reforms. Agency employees were, “a part of what was driving” the 2011 and 2012 recall elections, he said. “They are state employees, and their benefits were being taken away. In addition to having to do their jobs and with a growing workload, they were a part of what was driving all this,” Kennedy told the Isthmus.
Also in late 2012, Reid Magney, the GAB’s spokesman, told The New York Times that conservative groups that asked the agency to look into possible instances of voter fraud were just being racist. “Pick your minority group,” he said of those conservative groups expressed concern about.
More recently, GAB chief Kennedy admitted to lawmakers on October 14th that the agency routinely used private Gmail accounts to conduct government business in secret. While Urban Milwaukee editor Bruce Murphy has had a lot to say about Republicans using private e-mail accounts for government work, he has been silent on the GAB’s extensive use of that strategy.
Finally, as part of the investigative power that it used to harass conservative groups, the GAB made generous use of a secretive, black budget that entitled it to spend unlimited sums of taxpayer money without any accountability whatsoever. Even on the state’s spending transparency website the GAB was allowed to hide its secretive spending behind cryptic payments to “name withdrawn.”
Advocates of the status quo at the GAB insist the entity is a model for other states. But no other state in the union has adopted Wisconsin’s model. True, Kennedy won the Council on Governmental Ethics Laws’ (COGEL) Award for Distinguished Service, but the GAB has sent $2,375 in taxpayer money to COGEL so the award wasn’t handed out apart from a financial exchange.
States have long been considered laboratories of democracy; places where reform ideas can be healthily debated and real-life data can be collected in the wake of innovative solutions. Sometimes the results of those experiments prove contrary to the intentions of policymakers, or generate unintended consequences. When that happens, there is no shame in stopping an experiment that has failed.