Ethics chief Brian Bell cites liberal bias as reason for leaving Wisconsin Government Accountability Board
Senior Producer Steve Walters talked with Brian Bell, Wisconsin Ethics Commission Interim Administrator, and David Halbrooks, Wisconsin Ethics Commission Chair.
MADISON - Hoping to save his job, Wisconsin's ethics director said he left a post in 2015 with an agency maligned by Republicans in part because he thought it was poorly run and infected with a liberal bias.
Brian Bell, the director of the state Ethics Commission, described his concerns about previously working for the now-disbanded Government Accountability Board at a news conference Thursday and in material he delivered Wednesday to state senators.
Republicans in charge of the Senate have said they plan to vote Tuesday to oust Bell as well as the head of the Elections Commission. They want to remove them in part because they both previously worked for the accountability board, which conducted investigations of Republicans that they believe show that agency was biased against them.
In a letter, Bell disparaged Shane Falk, who served as counsel to the accountability board and has been a focus of the ire of Republicans.
"Incredibly, someone as transparently partisan as Shane Falk was appointed as staff counsel and allowed to continue to serve in that role," Bell wrote. "He displayed open partisanship and blatant insubordination toward division administrators, the director and the board. He also enabled a climate at the GAB that made it acceptable to make offensive or disparaging remarks about political parties, candidates and elected officials. Other staff, including some in management, furthered and tolerated such a climate."
Falk said he did not work much with Bell because he held a low-level position.
"Brian must be under some extraordinary stress," Falk said by email. "I have no idea what he is referencing. It is really sad that he made such generalized and broad statements without any support."
Bell also contended the accountability board deferred too many decisions to its staff — a complaint registered by many Republicans.
“I think what I saw was a culture and organization that didn’t prevent partisanship and allowed subjectivity to occur," he said of the accountability board at his Thursday news conference.
Bell worked for the accountability board from 2012 to 2015 and was not involved in investigations of Republicans.
He said he discussed his concerns about the accountability board with its staff, including its director, Kevin Kennedy. He said he didn't share them more broadly because public attention had already been brought to the issue.
Kennedy — who served as a reference for Bell when he sought the Ethics Commission job — disputed Bell's description of the accountability board.
“His claims of the staff being partisan and letting politics get in the way is just dead wrong," he said.
Kennedy said Falk made his liberal views plain but didn't let them influence his decisions.
Also Wednesday, elections director Michael Haas asked senators to hold a hearing before conducting a confirmation vote for him. Haas was not involved in the investigations that have prompted GOP anger but reviewed and edited legal filings after they were challenged in court.
In a letter and other material Haas provided senators, he said a hearing would allow him to make the case for why he should keep his job and alleviate the concerns of critics and skeptics.
Haas wrote that he hasn't been given reasons for dumping him, "other than to be a convenient scapegoat for any criticism of the GAB."
Haas wrote that criticism is common when dealing with running elections, noting he took heat from legislative leaders when Democrats ran the Capitol a decade ago.
"It strikes me that the current situation is the same tactic, different party," Haas wrote. "It is the unfortunate nature of politics."
Haas, who was recently granted "interim secret clearance" by the U.S. Homeland Security Department to help combat election hacking attempts, emphasized the importance of experience. He wrote that whoever leads the elections agency will need to move quickly when expected decisions come down this year on voter ID, other election laws and the boundaries of legislative and congressional districts.
With their letters this week, both Haas and Bell tried to give lawmakers a full picture of themselves, sharing details about their backgrounds and dedication to their jobs.
Haas wrote about talking to a legislative aide for two or three hours on a Saturday while his family waited for him so they could take a trip to a state park. Bell, a captain in the Army Reserve, described his tours of Iraq and Afghanistan removing roadside bombs and losing a member of his squad when their vehicle detonated an improvised bomb in 2007.
But the two are not working hand-in-hand on their efforts to save their jobs. For a time, Haas supervised Bell at the accountability board, and Bell criticized how Haas ran that board's elections division.
“My perception was that there was a resistance to doing anything differently than it had been done before," Bell said of the unit Haas ran. "There was a resistance to embracing new technology and I don’t feel that as an employee I received clear direction or guidance on what the strategic vision was.”
Haas disagreed, saying other staff members said they enjoyed working with him and Bell never told him he wasn't getting directives.
In 2015, GOP Gov. Scott Walker and Republican lawmakers approved dissolving the accountability board because of how it conducted its investigations. The move came soon after the state Supreme Court terminated a sweeping probe of Walker's campaign that the court concluded was unfounded.
Legislators replaced the accountability board with the ethics and elections commissions, which each consist of three Republicans and three Democrats.
Bell and Haas came under renewed scrutiny last month when GOP Attorney General Brad Schimel issued a report on his attempts to find out who leaked secret material from the Walker probe in 2016 to the Guardian U.S. newspaper.
Schimel wasn’t able to figure out who leaked the material but found it came from the accountability board.
That prompted Republican lawmakers to call for Bell and Haas to go.