Brian Sikma
Op-Ed

Why GAB Must Be Disbanded

Government Accountability Board abused its power and had secret email system.

By - Oct 22nd, 2015 11:07 am
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Kevin Kennedy, executive director of the Government Accountability Board.

Kevin Kennedy, executive director of the Government Accountability Board.

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.

Not long after the contentious 2011 recall elections, GAB election specialist David Buerger used his Twitter account to praise a liberal blogger’s criticism of a GOP state senator.

During the 2012 recall elections the GAB made the decision to give Democratic candidates an advantage by ignoring legislative district boundaries based on the latest census data by requiring the elections be held in old, no-longer existent districts. The result was hundreds of Wisconsin residents watching their state senator face a recall election without being allowed to participate in the vote due to old district lines.

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.

Brian Sikma is the communications director for Media Trackers, Wisconsin’s leading conservative investigative watchdog group. Their work can be found at www.MediaTrackers.org.

Categories: Op-Ed, Politics

31 thoughts on “Op-Ed: Why GAB Must Be Disbanded”

  1. Vincent Hanna says:

    This is nothing but thinly veiled selective partisan outrage. These arguments would be laughed at in a high school debate. The fact that other states have failed to adopt a similar model is not proof of the model’s failure (not to mention that the GAB is not very old). Experts on these matters hail the GAB. Listen to them, not a rabidly conservative tool who recently wrote a gossipy hit job about Kennedy that referenced totally irrelevant emails about his dinner plans with Lois Lerner.

  2. Dan says:

    What government employees do on their own time, and the politics they support, is frankly none of my and your business. As long as they are not doing these things while on the clock and are able to perform their job objectively then that argument falls flat.

    Seems they were following the law in regards to the recall elections. If the new maps weren’t scheduled to kick in until Nov, why would they switch to them beforehand?

    Isn’t investigating campaign finance part of their job? Just because you don’t like the groups that were targeted doesn’t make it any less so.

    All you’ve really got is the private email system, which is a problem that has popped up throughout our state government and needs to be addressed if it hasn’t already. Is that really justification for dismantling the GAB? Not really.

  3. TF says:

    It’s hard to take seriously anything written by Brian the Sycophant. Less accountability for the rich and powerful, that’s his mantra.

  4. Vincent Hanna says:

    I’m sure Brian is just outraged by Robin Vos and David Craig using private email to conduct government business.

  5. Kevin Baas says:

    “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.” Well yeah, what Reid said is essentially true. So what’s your point? He made a true statement. Good for him. All that proves is he’s honest, compassionate, and not willing to take part in GOP’s underhanded tactics. Those sound like qualifications to me.

  6. Bill Marsh says:

    I give credit to Urban Milwaukee for publishing this op-ed piece. As Mr. Sikma points out, the GAB, Kevin Kennedy, and many GAB employees are compromised by thier bias and partisanship. Hence the unlawful John Doe investigation. Notice the commentors above are not refuting the bias and partisanship within the GAB? Apparently civil liberties are important as long as its their civil liberties. Time to shut down the Madison Star Chamber.

    PS- Did you notice the byline that Sikma is with a conservative group? Does the liberal byline get applied with left leaning editiorialists?

  7. Dave Reid says:

    Bill,
    Brian supplied the byline, so apparently he wanted it that way.

  8. Kevin Baas says:

    I don’t see any evidence that they “are compromised by thier bias and partisanship”.

    Also the John Doe investigation was, of course, “lawful”. Kind of silly to say it wasn’t. And it’s good that they did it, as it uncovered some illegal activities. Kind of shows the value of the GAB in protecting citizens.

    RE: PS- Did you notice the byline that Sikma is with a conservative group? Does the liberal byline get applied with left leaning editiorialists?

    No, as that would constitute a double standard, since a conservative byline does not get applied with right leaning editorialists. However, if the author was with a liberal group, in the same sense that Sikma is with a conservative group, a liberal byline would be applied.

  9. Bill Marsh says:

    RE- Kevin- What illegal activities were uncovered in the recent John Doe investigation? Also, the Wisconsin Supreme Court ruled the GAB and the MKE Co. DA did not have just cause for thier investigation and shut it down. Would it be lawful for them to restart the investigation based on the current information we know of?

    RE- Mr. Reid- If you are with Urban Milwaukee, your comment is fair and I withdraw my accusation.

  10. Dave Reid says:

    @Bill
    Yup I am. And that’s what Brian sent me, so I left it on.

  11. Kevin Baas says:

    Wisconsin Supreme Court is majority republican. So not a credible source on the matter – Republican justices are notoriously partisan and lacking any respect for the law. (Bush v Gore anyone?) Wisconsin is no exception.

  12. Vincent Hanna says:

    Weren’t six people convicted as a direct result of the John Doe?

  13. David Nelson says:

    Quashing an investigation and retroactively changing government oversight law speaks volumes about the current administration. Transparency is a good thing.

  14. Bill Marsh says:

    Kevin & Vincent- The operative word in my comment about illegal activities is “recent”. Please try to at least get the facts straight. Spend a little time to read the Wiki reference- there have been two John Doe investigations, with the GAB involved in the second investigation.

    As to the Wisconsin Supreme Court ruling not being legitimate- does that go with the US Supreme Court rulings on Obamacare, Roe v. Wade, Kelo v New London, etc.? How about prior Wisconsin Supreme Court rulings where dems were in the majority? Can conservatives disregard those rulings? Or do liberals now get to pick and choose court rulings to abide by?

    PS- I believe Kelly Rindfleisch was the only person convicted of campaign law violations- using a government computer for campaigning- the same thing Tom Barrett’s wife got caught doing with a public school computer. Apparently, non-partisan John Chisolm and the GAB are still working on setting up a John Doe investigation for that known violation of the law….is hell freezing over yet?

  15. Vincent Hanna says:

    You seem to have the conservative talking points memorized Bill. Rabid conservatives like you and Brian and right-wing legislators are the only ones objecting to the GAB. Everyone else believes in not dismantling it, including moderate Republicans (there are some left).

  16. pplr says:

    I noticed one of the things Brain complained about is that the GAB had recall elections in the old districts. Well those were the districts the legislators were last elected from so people in them have the most right to decide if they wanted to recall the state senators or not.

    But I wonder if what he is really unhappy about is that an independent party drew those maps rather than a partisan law firm that “erased” the evidence on how the maps were drawn up.

  17. daniel golden says:

    Bill Marsh, until the 4 person right wing majority on the Wisconsin Supreme Court ruled otherwise, coordination between political candidates and so called issue advocacy groups was illegal in Wisconsin. In addition, no U. S. Supreme Court decision or Federal Appellate Court decision has ever said it is legal. On the contrary,the seminal cases in this area, Buckley and Citizens United, make it clear that coordination is illegal. Walker was coordinating with tax free issue advocacy 501 (c) (3) groups. If coordination was not illegal at the time, why did the GOP legislature just pass a law saying it is now legal? There are two problems with what that the scorched earth right wing extremists running Wisconsin now are doing: The IRS may not accept the tax free status of an issue advocacy group that clearly is an extension of a candidate’s political spending, which has never been tax free; Second, what happens when Wisconsin voters wake up and turn out the current crop of radical right wingers, and have in place all these tools to use against the party that enacted them?

  18. David Nelson says:

    Daniel Golden makes some extremely good points. I’d like to hear Bill Marsh directly address these. It’s easy to troll a website. It’s harder to engage in reasonable discourse.

  19. Barb-West Bend says:

    If, when campaigning for reelection in fall of 2014 Governor Walker would have shared his true agenda with Wisconsinites would he have won reelection?

    1. Right to Work. 2. Change prevailing wage. 3. Eliminate the GAB. 4. Change campaign finance laws allowing dark money into campaigns. 5. And, finally, after assuring the public that if he won reelection his goal would be to serve Wisconsin as their governor for the full term. When reelected he immediately pursued his true goal of being the Republican nominee for President, full-time, although he didn’t officially announce until July. He was an absent Governor until September 21 when lack of money and poor performances at the debates forced him out of the race.

    It appears to many citizens that Republican leaders try very hard to keep their true agenda hidden from public view until the last minute, when they “spring” it on the people…with little time for the public to react…and when they do, Republicans refer to them as terrorists. They refuse to work across the aisle and they demonize those who don’t agree with them. Wisconsin is in a very sorry state. Divide and conquer worked well for Republicans. Politics of anger, hate and deceit rule the day in our beautiful State of Wisconsin.

  20. beer baron says:

    Brian Sikma is bankrolled by the people who are under criminal investigation. He knows this and that’s why he is opposing this.

    The big question for Brian is before her became a copperhead and came into this state to push his evil agenda, where did his work appear? What does he know about the blog StormFront? Will he answer these questions or continue to cower behind the gilded gates of the Bradley Foundation?

  21. Vincent Hanna says:

    Was he associated with a white supremacist publication? That’s a heavy insinuation.

  22. Sue says:

    The GAB has a secret email system? Well of course they do – this is Wisconsin. EVERYONE has a secret email system, it’s de regueur. I have several of them in fact. It’s just what you do, you know? No one, including major newspapers and the Wisconsin Supreme Court, seems all that upset about it, so how bad can it be?
    And as for spending ‘unlimited sums of taxpayer money without any accountability whatsoever’, that, folks, is the mission statement of another set of letters, WEDC, and no one’s getting upset about that, are they? How much money did they misplace this week?
    Chill, honey. Just because the last thing the GAB did for you was allowing all those recall signator names to float forever in the e-verse, doesn’t mean you have to kill it. Can’t you just bend it to your will like everything else in WI?
    Oh, you couldn’t? Well that explains it then.

  23. beer baron says:

    Vincent he refuses to answer such questions though he does often talk about “heritage” and how President Obama doesn’t share our “heritage.”

  24. Kevin Baas says:

    My point regarding judges is that conservative judges are more “tribal” whereas democratic judges are more equality-centered. So to answer your question: no, it doesn’t work in the reverse. Unless you present to claim hat democrats are more tribal and vice versa, but then we both have to defer to the evidence. I offered an example of bush v gore, and although a single example is not definitive, it at least demonstrates that my statement is not arbitrary or capricious, but evidence-based.

  25. Kevin Baas says:

    As regards the broader point of potential bias, whether or not they are biased, the evidence is out that the GAB is at least of some value. If bias is a problem – and that is enigmatically hard to measure – it seems to me the thing to do is to focus on ways to eliminate bias, and not to delete the whole effort altogether.

  26. Al Lindro says:

    Non-partisan question:
    What is the evidence that the GAB has had a liberal bias? Is there a set of decisions it has made that have rightfully earned it that label? Role in the Scott Walker John Doe investigation (which I have some reservations about) acknowledged. But is there more?

    Anyone?

  27. Jake formerly of the LP says:

    Al Lindro- The “evidence” is that they investigated the WisGOP money-laundering scheme in accordance to state law, which hurt the feelings of the WisGOPs and the Bradley/Koch organizations that pull their puppet strings.

    And as beer baron brings up, Mr. Sikma gets his paycheck from the same Bradleys that were fronting a lot of the money in this laundering scheme. Which is why he and the Bradley-funded Wisconsin Watchdog keeps trying to smear the people involved- they don’t want you to know what’s really going on behind the scenes at the Capitol, so they make stuff up and intentionally take things out of context.

    Then they get fellow Bradley Foundation front men like Sykes to catapult their propaganda, knowing the gutless Wisconsin MSM won’t call them out on it, since they’re beholden to the dirty campaign money that the Bradleys shell out.

  28. Kevin Baas says:

    To the question of whether it was 6 people or 1 person, looks like it was 6: http://www.nytimes.com/2015/10/24/us/wisconsin-governor-signs-bill-limiting-political-corruption-inquiries.html?_r=0 Also congrats, we made national headlines again, thanks once again to Scott.

  29. Bill Marsh says:

    RE Dan Golden- I’m not an expert in campaign finance law, but I believe the US Supreme Court has ruled coordination is illegal with respect to campaigns. The second John Doe case was about issue advocacy coordination. If I recall correctly the Wisconsin Supreme Court ruled the state law with respect to issue advocacy regulation is unconstitutional. Coordination of issue advocacy by politicians has been going on for years and at some points the left has been on the other side of this issue. See this article: http://www.moresoftmoneyhardlaw.com/2015/07/campaign-finance-states-fight-wisconsin/

    If the GAB and DA Chisolm believe a federal campaign finance law has been violated where is there case in federal courts? From the limited amount of material I have read about laws regulating issue advocacy, it appears that such laws are on very shaky ground as they bump up against first amendment rights. It is standard operating procedure for Presidents to meet with like-minded advocacy groups and appear at their events, such as fund-raising dinners, for the very reason that those advocacy groups are simpatico with a President’s political and legislative agenda. Should that be illegal?

  30. TJP says:

    Sikma – you’re nothing but another Grebe talking puppet. You and the rest of the talking radio propaganda machine have poisoned WI with your fear mongering.

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