Wisconsin’s Walker leads attack on Government Accountability Board

Civil service was created in Wisconsin 115 years ago, the nation’s first successful workers compensation system in 1911, first unemployment compensation law in 1932, public service unions in the form of AFSCME in 1936, collective bargaining codified in 1957 and even as recently as 2007, in reaction to corruption scandals in both parties, the admired Government Accountability Board (G.A.B.).

Every innovation cited has been crippled, changed or attacked in the last five years under Gov. Scott Walker. The most recent one, G.A.B., is now under the cleaver. The bill speeding through the legislature would split the G.A.B. into two (elections and ethics/finance), drop its ability to investigate and replace its independence with partisan politicking.

The G.A.B. was created in a nearly universal gasp of bipartisan pain after the caucus scandals in 2001-2002 that snared, fined or imprisoned leaders in both parties for steering special interest money to pet candidates and engaging in a power tit for tat with legislative staffs.

The G.A.B. that emerged in 2007 was so thoughtful that it seemed the national standard for open election information and guidelines insulated from political corruption. The only reason more states haven’t rushed to adopt it, notes Ohio State University law professor Daniel Tokaji, is those states didn’t have the same degree of caucus scandal or the same traditional commitment to clean government. He calls the G.A.B. “the best American model designed to promote impartiality.”

Under parity rules, the governor chooses and the state senate approves six retired judges to run the G.A.B.. This board authorizes an independent nonpartisan staff to monitor, verify and process every voter database and form. The bill also gave the board a blank check to investigate alleged violations of elections, ethics, and lobbying and campaign finance laws. A big reason for the G.A.B.’s success, national voting experts agree, is director and general counsel Kevin Kennedy administering fair, reliable and transparent elections.

But this is Scott Walker territory and impartiality won’t fly. He’s too used to gaming the system. He already has. The first side to vindictively use this G.A.B. integrity and accuracy was the Republicans. Almost a million people signed the recall petitions against Walker  and several state senators, and the G.A.B. carefully verified and published every name. The GOP still uses that database to deny government jobs and positions and alert the news media to anyone running for office who signed.

GOP legislators view Kennedy as No. 1 Enemy, calling his independence and thoughtfulness “dysfunctional.” They swear he will be the first to go under the new bill that creates two boards. Each will have six members, two chosen by Republicans in the legislature, two by Democrats and two by the governor.

For the Elections board the governor’s two choices have to be from local election clerks, which gives him enormous leeway in a state with 72 counties, Republican strongholds and many clerks like Waukesha’s former Kathy Nickolaus, whose conservative candidate for supreme court in 2011 was losing until she “found” 14,700 mislaid voters to put David Prosser over the top.

The recall days of 2011-2013 that gained national praise for G.A.B.’s careful actions on “hot-button” issues. But that care infuriated state Republicans – why win power if some legal expert can set the rules?

The G.A.B. insisted that senate recalls should be conducted in the geographic districts the voters occupied in 2010, not the gerrymandered districts concocted later to increase the GOP majority. Senate majority leader Scott Fitzgerald admits it was the handling of the recalls that angers him the most.

Under the law, the G.A.B. cooperated with several DAs using the John Doe investigative tools to probe for campaign coordination still illegal under state law. That’s when the GOP really raged – except they could find no evidence of wrongdoing, even after forcing audits.

Their determination to kill the G.A.B. has gone beyond name-calling and defiant technical language. In October they tried to pull a guilt by association trick that makes the Benghazi hearings look like child’s play, asking about Kennedy’s acquaintance with IRS figure Lois Lerner (they exchanged emails).

The hatred extends to the board’s six retired judges who approved G.A.B. actions. A few years ago the senate refused to confirm David Deininger, a highly regarded jurist who had been a Republican legislator and admits to being mystified at the sudden animus. “To this day, no one in a position to know has ever explained or given any indication as to why specifically my name was not advanced,” he told reporters in 2014.

Another retired judge on the board and former Republican elected official, Gerard Nichol, recently criticized a state high court decision over the appearance of bias. Since the GOP bought those justices they pounced on Nichol, demanding an investigation by the attorney general into how the G.A.B. board interacts with G.A.B. staff.

Now that hearings are underway, the split needs to be justified to some confused GOP senators. So the excuses are desperate. “It’s a failed experiment,” argued Republican Assembly leader Robin Vos. “We should embrace partisanship,” said Rep. Joe Sanfellipo. The six judges in charge are out of their depth, suggested co-sponsor Rep. Dean Knudson. “They just weren’t very well matched for the job that they were given.”

“No,” one of those judges emailed me. “He just means we’re out of his reach.”

Photo: At recall Walker rally, Madison, Wisc., March 10, 2012.  |   PW flickr album


Dominique Paul Noth
Dominique Paul Noth

Dominique Paul Noth for the past decade was editor of the Milwaukee Labor Press and website, milwaukeelabor.org. He now writes as an independent journalist on culture and politics.