Steven Walters
The State of Politics

Here Lies the Government Accountability Board

Whether GAB should be praised or damned depends on who you ask.

By - Jun 27th, 2016 11:40 am


The newest tombstone in state government’s cemetery says this:

Here lies the Government Accountability Board (Jan.1, 2008-July 1, 2016). Conceived in a good-government one night stand by Republican and Democratic legislators. Birth certificate signed by Democratic Gov. Jim Doyle. Killed by Republican legislators. Death certificate signed by GOP Gov. Scott Walker.

Democrats and leaders of non-profit groups say creating GAB was one of the wisest things the Legislature has done in decades. But Republican legislators say they put down a GAB that had become a Frankenstein invading privacy rights and ignoring the constitutional promise of “innocent until proven guilty.”

Once upon a time…No, let’s be specific.

In 2007, Doyle was starting his second term. Embarrassed that past legislators and officials, including the old state Elections Board, had not stopped or investigated an illegal decades-old practice allowing legislative aides for both parties to campaign on state time, there were calls for reform. Democrats controlled the Senate; Republicans, the Assembly.

Then-GOP Rep. Mark Gundrum, now a Court of Appeals judge and a finalist for the state Supreme Court vacancy, forged this compromise: In 2008, merge the old Elections and Ethics boards into the GAB. Have six retired judges serve on its oversight, and decision-making, board. And, each of GAB’s judges must have won an election. Give GAB the right to conduct secret investigations.

Fourteen judges served on the GAB – including former Dane County Circuit Judge Gerald Nichol, who served for its entire lifespan.

In a “benediction for GAB” he wrote this month, Nichol said everyone agrees on the non-partisan progress it made:

*“Serving and training the 1,857 municipal and 72 county clerks,” and armies of polling place inspectors and poll workers.

*Building and maintaining WisVote, the statewide master list of voters.

*Making sure polling places are accessible to the disabled.

*Developing Websites that allow anyone to follow campaign-finance spending, lobbying and financial disclosures.

*“Handling the 2011-12 recall elections of 15 state senators, the governor and lieutenant governor,” after reviewing two million signatures on petitions demanding recall votes.

Although Nichols didn’t say it, GAB also oversaw the weeks-long statewide recount of the 2011 election of Supreme Court Justice David Prosser, and implementation of the requirement to show a photo ID to vote. Judges took turns blocking and reinstating the photo ID law, parts of which are still being challenged in federal court.

After that, whether GAB should be praised or damned depends on who you ask.

Republican Rep. Dean Knudson, a Joint Finance Committee member who led the charge to kill the agency and go back to the old partisan model of separate elections and ethics panels, said GAB signed its death warrant when it actively joined a secret John Doe investigation of Walker and third-party groups supporting him.

“Evidence came forward” showing GAB’s anti-Walker bias, Knudson said in a  WisconsinEye exit interview. “The referee had an agenda.”

But the “great national embarrassment” was that GAB secretly gained access to “millions of emails” from people who hadn’t been charged with any crime after the agency paid a company to develop a “relational data base,” Knudson said.

That specialized data base let GAB go through the emails of anyone who sent an email to a target of the John Doe investigation – even though the sender was not a target – and search for “certain words,” Knudson said, adding:

“That’s the most chilling thing I’ve ever heard of in American politics.”

Wrong, Nichol said in his benediction. GAB was abolished for “doing its job.”

“I give thanks to the Board for evaluating complaints about violations of [law] over which it had jurisdiction based upon the facts and the law – not the status of any party who was the subject of a complaint,” Nichol said.

The John Doe probe Knudson cited “started with a Democratic district attorney and was referred to [GAB] by a Republican attorney general,” Nichol added.

“The Board fulfilled its duty to conduct a nonpartisan search for truth in enforcing established Wisconsin case law banning campaign coordination with outside groups, but it was cut short by politicians and outside groups who want no accountability.”

The new Ethics and Elections commissions have little of GAB’s powers. That’s too bad, Nichol said. He ended his benediction with a prayer that “the public will come to its senses.”

Steven Walters is a senior producer with the nonprofit public affairs channel WisconsinEye. Contact him at

2 thoughts on “The State of Politics: Here Lies the Government Accountability Board”

  1. tomw says:

    One more nail in the coffin of transparency in democracy! Never forget that a politician whether dem or repub has two important goals/jobs — 1. Get elected. 2. Get re-elected regardless of the cost to one’s soul!! The mistake was to design an agency which could actually investigate those who created it! How shameful! To think what we, the public, would want is elected officials who stood for something besides their two main goals/jobs.

  2. Gary says:

    tomw – it is a sad day for Democracy, and just plain decency.
    It’s sadder that there are many people who are not politicians who wanted exactly what you described.

    But decent Wisconsinites also weathered the horrific period of McCarthyism (destruction of people, their lives, families and careers by a right-wing Wisconsin ideologue) and even the much longer period of the destruction of people, their lives, families and careers caused by Prohibition — another much longer effort of right-wing religious ideologues who rallied around a symptom but not the problems of people, their lives, families and careers.

    (Although a lot of small and medium size businesses developed during Prohibition, which WEDC should really look in to.)

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