GOP senators vote to oust ethics and elections leaders
MADISON - Republican state senators Tuesday denied the confirmations of the directors of Wisconsin's ethics and elections commissions — and the leader of the state Senate said he hoped to remove two civil servants at those agencies next.
Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald (R-Juneau) said Republicans had lost faith in the Ethics Commission and Elections Commission because they continue to employ people who worked for the now-disbanded Government Accountability Board. The accountability board participated in a sweeping investigation of Republicans that was shut down in 2015 after the state Supreme Court concluded nothing illegal occurred.
"I wish they'd all resign," Fitzgerald told reporters of former accountability board employees.
Also Tuesday, senators sent Gov. Scott Walker a bill providing help to replace lead pipes. The issue took on renewed urgency after the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reported last week that city officials had not acted on a memo sent nearly three years ago that detailed the risk to thousands of children posed by lead pipes.
The bulk of Tuesday's floor debate focused on Brian Bell, the director of the Ethics Commission, and Michael Haas, the director of the Elections Commission. The Senate voted to deny their confirmations on party-line, 18-13 votes.
Fitzgerald said he wants the Legislature's budget committee to review jobs at the two commissions to find ways to cut the positions for two other employees — Nathan Judnic, counsel at the Elections Commission, and David Buerger, counsel at the Ethics Commission.
Both previously worked at the accountability board but have more job protections than Bell and Haas because they are civil servants who can be fired only for specific reasons, such as not performing their duties. Fitzgerald said he believed the budget committee could push them out by eliminating or reclassifying their jobs.
The fates of Bell and Haas are unclear. According to GOP senators and the Department of Administration, they no longer have their posts but have the ability to move into different state jobs.
But Mark Thomsen, the chairman of the Elections Commission, said a vote denying Haas' confirmation would have no effect. The Elections Commission — not the Senate — has the power to remove Haas, Thomsen said.
"They can't fire him," he said of the senators.
Thomsen scheduled a commission meeting for 3 p.m. Wednesday — the same time Walker hopes to capture Wisconsin's attention by delivering his annual "state of the state" speech.
He said he still considered Haas the head of the agency and would support having the commission vote to make that clear on Wednesday. That could set up another showdown with the Senate.
"I would certainly hope there would be six votes to continue with Mike Haas as interim administrator," Thomsen said.
David Halbrooks, the Democratic chairman of the Ethics Commission, said his commission would likely meet Thursday to decide whom to hire as its interim director. He declined to say whether he would consider re-hiring Bell for that job.
The commissions each consist of three Republicans and three Democrats. They have unanimously backed Bell and Haas.
During Tuesday's floor debate, Democrats criticized Republicans for tarnishing the reputations of Bell and Haas without holding a hearing to allow them to make the case for why they should be confirmed.
“This is a first-rate hatchet job,” said Sen. Fred Risser (D-Madison).
After the state's high court terminated the probe of Republicans, Walker and Republican lawmakers dissolved the accountability board and replaced it with the Ethics Commission and Elections Commission, which went on to hire Bell and Haas.
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 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 Republicans to schedule the votes to deny Haas and Bell's confirmations.
At the accountability board, Bell did not work on the probe of Republicans. Haas was not part of the core investigation team but reviewed legal filings when the investigation was challenged in court.
The Senate majority leader said he told Bell and Haas more than a year ago that they could not stay in their jobs.
“I flat-out told them, both of those men, you’re going to be interim,” Fitzgerald said. “You’re not going to be confirmed.”
Bell and Haas denied that claim, with Haas writing on Twitter that Fitzgerald "never told me that he considered my appointment to be interim or short term."
Republicans said they were shocked to find out in Schimel's report that the accountability board had obtained and cataloged millions of pages of emails from Republicans, including Sen. Leah Vukmir (R-Brookfield), who is seeking the GOP nomination this year to challenge Democratic U.S. Sen. Tammy Baldwin.
Sen. Jon Erpenbach (D-Middleton) noted a judge's approval is needed to get subpoenas.
"There must have been cause, otherwise a judge wouldn’t have signed off on it," Erpenbach said.
Vukmir took issue with Erpenbach saying he was sick of listening to people talk about Bell and Haas in press releases and on Twitter instead of at a public hearing. She noted emails taken from her included discussions with her daughter about a health issue.
"While he may be sick of hearing about this, I am sickened that my personal correspondence with my daughter — email correspondence that included sensitive information, health information — was taken without my knowledge," Vukmir said.
Fitzgerald told reporters he'd learned from Schimel's office that the Committee to Elect a Republican Senate that Fitzgerald heads had been targeted as part of an accountability board probe. No charges were issued in that probe, but the agency obtained large quantities of emails from Republicans.
Schimel is continuing to review the conduct of the accountability board.
Bell asked the Ethics Commission to conduct an independent review of his behavior. The commissioners hired Hurley, Burish & Stanton and released the Madison law firm's report on Bell on Monday.
The firm conducted dozens of interviews with people who worked with Bell, all of whom praised him for his work and said they saw no signs of partisanship.
"I was very impressed with him from the get-go and I’ve been very impressed with him since then," said J. Mac Davis, a former Republican state senator and former Waukesha County judge who sits on the Ethics Commission. "He wants to make sure that we’re tethered to statutory authority."
The Ethics Commission agreed to pay the firm up to $25,000, though Hurley, Burish has not yet billed the state.
Lead pipes. Also Tuesday, on a voice vote the Senate adopted Senate Bill 48, which would help homeowners and water utilities replace lead pipes.
The bill would allow utilities to use money from ratepayers to give grants and loans to homeowners to help pay for replacing more than 170,000 lead service lines to their houses.
The Senate unanimously passed it in October but took it up again Tuesday because the Assembly attached an amendment to it in November that would limit the maximum size of a grant to half the cost of replacing a line and would require water utilities to offer the same discounts to all its customers.
The bill goes to Walker.