The Government Accountability Board in Wisconsin was formed as a result of the ‘Caucus Scandal’ of 2002 when six top state legislative leaders--Republicans and Democrats--were investigated, brought to trial, and ultimately convicted of criminal misconduct in public office. Some served jail time and all were forced from office. Wisconsin’s reputation as a paragon of progressivism and good government for the people was sullied. The state was disgraced.
After years of intensive negotiation and planning, the Wisconsin Legislature passed, 2007 Act I with bipartisan support. Two former agencies, the State Elections Board and the State Ethics Board, were abolished and the responsibilities of both former boards were placed under the direction of the non-partisan Government Accountability Board (GAB). The statute requires that the GAB be structured in such a way that it is further removed from partisan politics than any other state authority in the US. It is made up of six former judges who are nominated by four (one from each district) appeals court judges. The governor then appoints one of the nominees who must be confirmed by at least a two-thirds majority in the Senate. Each six-year term is staggered, allowing for one member’s term to expire yearly. The Board and its staff must be non-partisan. Kevin Kennedy, the present director and general counsel of the GAB, is one of the foremost election law experts in the state. “Wisconsin is the only state with a truly non-partisan board structure. It is unique among the states in requiring supermajority confirmation of new commissioners, so as to insulate board members from partisan pressures. This does not guarantee decision making that is blind to partisan effects, but it provides a greater level of protection against partisan decision making than the structure of any other state” (Daniel P. Tokaji UC Irvine Law Review).
No Katherine Harris for us. At least until now.
Governor Walker and his cronies are making public noise about “reforming” the GAB. Wisconsin’s GAB is the premier system in the country to ensure that the workings of government remain above reproach, so is it any wonder that the Republicans want to shut it down? “Jay Heck, director of Common Cause in Wisconsin, called the proposal ‘completely misguided, self-serving and counter to the interests of all Wisconsinites who value a fair and independent state agency overseeing our elections, campaign finance laws, lobbying and ethics.’
‘Walker's call for the elimination of the GAB is simply revenge and retribution for the GAB approving of an investigation of what was clearly a violation of Wisconsin campaign finance law in 2011-12,’ Heck said. ‘The elimination or evisceration of the GAB will only raise further questions about whether or not Walker and his campaign were involved in illegal activity. And it will be viewed by citizens as an attempt to simply eliminate any entity that puts adherence to the law above partisan fealty’” (The Cap Times, July 20, 2015).
Governor Walker already appears to control the State Supreme Court as was flagrantly demonstrated by the recent decision to end the John Doe II investigation into Walker’s collusion with major donors, the Wisconsin Club for Growth (WCFG) directed by Eric O’Keefe, and Wisconsin Manufacturers & Commerce (WMC). Actually, yes, the same WCFG and WMC that contributed $10million to elect the four Supreme Court Justices who ruled in their and Walker’s favor. This ruling is just the latest in a string of questionable judgements around the allegations of illegal campaigning by the governor and hugely wealthy dark money groups. But we hope it’s not the end of the matter. However, these groups and their many friends at the right wing publications and ‘news’ outlets, have had a field day with the facts, resulting in a well-funded unprecedented assault on the GAB, Kevin Kennedy and John Chisholm, the Milwaukee County prosecutor, among others.
Protestations of innocence and victimhood from Walker and his cabal of right wing operatives are rather hollow. “Given the $9.1 million WCFG spent on Wisconsin's recall elections (and the millions more it funneled to other groups), it is difficult to believe they didn't know about the Coalition for Voter Participation precedent. And, it is difficult to believe that WCFG (or its lawyers) had not seen the GAB's advisory opinion on coordination, which was posted on the GAB website. Groups spending millions of dollars on elections have an obligation to know and comply with the law.
If Wisconsin Club for Growth or Walker advisor R.J. Johnson were unsure about their responsibilities under the law — despite this publicly-available information — they could have requested an advisory opinion from the GAB. Yet instead, WCFG apparently went ahead and coordinated, and then claimed that the state's enforcement of its well-defined rules amounted to a violation of WCFG's free speech rights” (prwatch.org/news)
Meanwhile, in a move that seems tightly orchestrated with efforts to defang watchdog and good government agencies like the GAB, the Joint Finance Committee tried, but failed, in their attempt to destroy the state open records law by slipping poison pill language into Motion 999 of the 2015-2017 state biennial budget on July 3, 2015. Why are Republicans so determined, or so desperate to find a way to remain invisible to public scrutiny? Are they trying to hide the deliberative process that went into the mutilation of the Wisconsin Idea? Walker has yet to surrender those documents. His rationale has been that he is not required, by law, to relinquish anything involving the deliberative process. Oops. We, the people still have the right to know exactly what, when, and who were involved in that deliberative process. Did he jump the gun on that declaration? Is there more to hide?
It is painfully obvious to this humble writer that Walker will not stop until he manages to attain what he believes is ‘God’s Plan’ for him. These attempts by Governor Walker and Republicans to obfuscate freedoms that are the inalienable rights of the people of Wisconsin are just bumps in the road that is Walker’s Destiny. Vigilance is mandatory and the GAB is the preeminent guard defending democracy.
“The attacks on the GAB’s impartiality are a poorly disguised power grab,” said Daniel Tokaji, a national elections expert and law professor at Ohio State University. “The GAB…provides a ray of hope for those of us who believe that the United States should move away from its partisan system of election administration, which has proven so problematic in the years since the 2000 election. The conflicts of interest inherent in the dominant U.S. model make it unsuitable for a country that aspires to be the standard-bearer for democracy around the world. Those looking for an alternative should consider Wisconsin’s model” (UC Irvine Law Review Daniel P. Tokaji).
Below, I've listed some additional reading so you'll be well informed. But we also want you to help us fight back. Exercise your democratic right: speak up loudly, intensely and frequently! Join our RAPID RESPONSE effort on this issue. We will alert you when it is time to marshal our forces to fight back and we will offer tools to help us win this one.
- The 10 most troubling unanswered questions about "Openrecordsgate" (Jessica McBride, OnMilwaukee.com, July 6, 2015)
- A Supreme Conflict Of Interest (Capper, Crooks and Liars, June 30, 2017)
- Five Things to Know About the Scott Walker John Doe Ruling (Brendan Fischer, PRWatch, July 16, 2015)
- How Scott Walker and His Allies Hijacked the Wisconsin Supreme Court (Pema Levy, Mother Jones, May 22, 2015)
- Scott Walker calls for scrapping GAB after lawmakers urge reform (Jessie Opoien, The Cap Times, July 20. 2015)
Kevin Kennedy defends GAB against foes who 'want to have more control' (Todd D. Milewski, The Cap Times, July 26, 2015)
- America's Top Model: The Wisconsin Government Accountability Board (Daniel P. Tokaji, UC Irvine Law Review)