Walker’s Hands Dirty on Political Purge
Why didn't he oppose axing Elections, Ethics heads? Because he wanted revenge.
So far state Sen. Scott Fitzgerald has been getting all the criticism for the Senate’s irresponsible vote to remove the administrators of the Wisconsin Ethics and Elections commissions. The Republican Majority Leader was unable to explain the “hatchet job” to his fellow members of the Senate, as Matt Rothschild reported, leaving only the conclusion that it was an “act of mindless vengeance,” as I’ve written.
But there is a back story here that is being overlooked: the key role of Gov. Scott Walker.
Walker repeatedly refused to offer an opinion on whether Elections Commission administrator Michael Haas and Ethics Commission administrator Brian Bell should be removed from their positions, as the Journal Sentinel’s Patrick Marley recently reported. “I’ll leave that up to them,” Walker said, referring to Fitzgerald and state senators.
You might think this is the governor deciding not to meddle in a legislative issue. Except that it is just as much the governor’s issue. It was Walker, after all, who, along with Republican legislative leaders, decided to overthrow the Government Accountability Board (GAB). Never mind that Republicans were part of a bipartisan legislative majority that created that entity, with the law getting overwhelming GOP support. Never mind that its board members were retired judges, more than half of whom had Republican backgrounds. Walker, Fitzgerald and other GOP politicians were convinced the GAB was somehow running an anti-Republican agency.
So the Republicans, with no support from Democrats, replaced the GAB with the Elections and Ethics Commissions, and Walker signed this measure into law. As governor, Walker also appoints two (of six) board members who serve on each commission. These were commissions the governor and legislature structured not to be answerable to legislators or any politicians, but to be independent agencies whose bipartisan boards set policy. Could anything be more important to the Wisconsin governor than the proper functioning of citizen boards entrusted with overseeing the state’s electoral system and enforcing ethical behavior by politicians?
The report was supposed to discover and prosecute whoever leaked information from the probe to the media, but failed. Instead, this angry, error-filled document made all sorts of accusations against staff of the old Government Accountability Board, which both Haas and Bell worked for. In fact, neither were among the nine people Schimel recklessly (without specifying the evidence) suggested should be investigated for contempt of court. Yet Fitzgerald and Assembly Speaker Robin Vos said they had concerns that Haas and Bell might be “partisan” administrators and felt they should be removed from their current positions.
This was back in December, and Walker soon found a way to signal he favored the liquidation of Haas and Bell. As Wisconsin Radio Network reported back then, the governor repeatedly declined to say whether he agreed with calls for them to resign: “Walker said only that he was standing by the attorney general’s findings. ‘I think the Department of Justice’s report speaks for itself,’ Walker said multiple times when pressed to comment.”
In short, the report that Vos and Fitzgerald were using as a pretext to purge the two state officials was all good, as far as Walker was concerned, a clear signal he approved of their plan.
In response to Fitzgerald and Vos, both the Elections and Ethics commissions — all six members of each bipartisan board — voted unanimously to retain Haas and Bell. This included all four members appointed to the boards by Walker. Did the governor come to the aid of the citizens he appointed, and side with them against Fitzgerald’s decision to override two independent boards? Nope.
Later, the Elections Commission unanimously voted in favor of a resolution proposed by GOP appointee Dean Knudson asking Fitzgerald and the Senate to hold a public hearing on whether Haas should be fired. Did Walker support this call, and back up his commission appointees? Nope.
The Ethics Commission hired former federal prosecutor, Patrick Fiedler, and his law firm, Hurley, Burish and Stanton, to investigate Bell’s performance, at Bell’s request, at a cost to taxpayers of $25,000. The report’s conclusion: “There is not a scintilla of evidence that Brian Bell has ever performed any of his governmental duties in a partisan manner.” Did Walker back up the findings of the commission he helped create? Nope.
And after Fitzgerald and his gang of Republican hangmen and women voted to remove the two men — without any public hearing, and without providing any evidence that Haas or Bell were “partisan” or had done their jobs in anything but an exemplary fashion — Walker had yet another chance to step in. A majority of the Elections Commission — including a Republican appointee of Walker’s — voted 4-2 to keep Haas on as administrator until the April election. The action will prevent potential disruption of the February and April statewide elections, and give the already short-staffed commission time to find a new administrator.
Did Walker support this idea? On the contrary. A spokesman for Walker’s administration “said it viewed the effort to keep Haas in the job as invalid and would not give him his full pay,” Marley reported. Walker’s Department of Administration immediately moved to stop paying Haas and Bell their salaries as administrators, as Wisconsin Public Radio reported. Walker, in short, was doing everything he could to enforce the Senate’s overthrow of the two citizen boards.
It’s not hard to figure out who most wanted Haas and Bell to be punished. Besides Walker, the Doe Probe had targeted the Wisconsin Club for Growth and the Wisconsin Manufacturers and Commerce for allegedly illegal coordination of their campaigns. The WMC, in particular, is a fat cat donor whose support is critical to Fitzgerald and all the Republican senators. The message being sent by Fitzgerald, and strategically supported by Walker, was one of sheer fear: don’t you dare investigate, or even come near anyone investigating the state’s top Republicans or its fat cat donors, or your careers will be ruined.
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