MacIver News Service
By M.D. Kittle
MADISON, Wis. – Things are heating up in John Doe Land’s Capitol cooker in advance of a looming Senate confirmation vote on the embattled administrators of the Ethics and Elections commissions.
Tensions have hit new levels in the wake of Attorney General Brad Schimel’s report last month on the illegal leaks of John Doe investigation documents to a liberal publication.
Members of the Ethics and Elections commissions, the agencies that replaced the disgraced state Government Accountability Board, have doubled down on their defense of their directors. The GOP-led Senate appears to have lost whatever faith they had in Ethics administrator Brian Bell and Elections administrator Michael Haas, and it appears likely the bureaucrats will not survive the Senate confirmation process.
On Thursday, Bell received a unanimous vote of confidence from his commission.
Haas and Bell have served in their posts since July 2016, when the GAB was disbanded following revelations of its integral involvement in the unconstitutional “John Doe II” and what Schimel has described as “John Doe III” – investigations into conservative organizations and the campaign of Republican Gov. Scott Walker.
Bell worked at the GAB at the time but was not involved in the politically motivated John Doe probe. Haas was actively involved, according to emails and other communications released as part of a settlement in a lawsuit against the GAB.
The Ethics Commission met Thursday morning, much of that time in closed session, to address Bell’s request for an investigation to clear his name ahead of the confirmation vote.
But there are concerns that Patrick Fiedler, the attorney tapped to look into the Bell matter, is employing the same kind of tactics used in the John Doe investigation – playing the role of the heavy to “intimidate” and impede Republican senators in their legislative duties.
Fiedler, a former Dane County judge, represented Dean Nickel, a former GAB investigator who was a key agent in the John Doe probe. He sought to dismiss a federal lawsuit filed by conservative targets against Nickel and other John Doe agents.
Fiedler recently paid a call on the offices of Sen. Steve Nass (R-Whitewater) and Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald (R-Juneau). The attorney reportedly sought a meeting. The senator’s staffers showed the attorney the door.
On Thursday, Nass sent Fielder a letter acknowledging the attorney’s request for a meeting regarding Bell.
In the letter, Nass objects to the commission using its “powers to investigate potential violations of state ethics law in this situation.”
And the senator wrote that “inferences” by Ethics Chairman David Halbrooks that he would allow the agency to use its subpoena power in response to statements critical of Bell made by Republican lawmakers, “Is nothing short of intimidation.”
“It’s also an attempt to interfere with the Wisconsin State Senate’s role of confirmation as prescribed in statute,” Nass wrote.
Nass wrote that his public comments demanding Bell resign are based on the details in the state Department of Justice report that found myriad instances of misconduct by the GAB and concerns about the Ethics commission’s handling of John Doe documents.
“Based on the information provided by the (Department of Justice), there exist serious questions regarding the level of cooperation that Mr. Bell provided to the (DOJ) in conducting their investigation and the search for records in the possession of the Ethics Commission.”
Halbrooks, a vehement defender of Bell and, he insists, no fan of the politically weaponized GAB, said he is “not aware of any investigation into any state senator at this point.” The investigation is all about clearing Bell’s name, the Ethics commission chairman said.
“There was no one who was more against the GAB than me,” said Halbrooks, a Democrat who served for several years on a previous iteration of the Elections Commission. In the weeks before his term on the Ethics Commission began, Halbrooks served as an ex-officio member of the GAB.
“I was horrified what I saw going on there in closed session (of the GAB). It was absolutely reprehensible,” Halbrooks told MacIver News Service Thursday morning on the Dan O’Donnell Show in Milwaukee, just moments before he stepped into the Ethics Commission meeting.
Halbrooks jumped on the air after listening to state Sen. Dave Craig (R-Town of Vernon) raise several concerns about the commissions and their staff members.
Craig, like other Republican lawmakers, wants to know why the Ethics Commission didn’t turn over the hundreds of thousands of John Doe documents to the Supreme Court, as ordered, long before DOJ investigators sought them, eventually having to serve a warrant to conclude their search.
Halbrooks asserts the commission did not know they had the documents until the DOJ agents came calling, and they were waiting for John Doe Special Prosecutor Francis Schmitz to collect the documents, as he was ordered to do by the state Supreme Court. Why didn’t the commission reach out to the Supreme Court when they learned that they were in possession of John Doe documents? Halbrooks said it wasn’t the commission’s responsibility to make that call. Some of the records Schmitz left behind were secured in a locked filing cabinet, Halbrooks said.
Ethics Commission staff have said they weren’t able to search the records because they were not authorized to. But GAB John Doe agent Molly Nagappala was with the commission until March 2017 when she discovered John Doe records on her hard drive. She certainly would have known where all of the GAB’s John Doe bodies were buried – in the main office and in the agency’s basement that DOJ investigators found in disarray. Nagappala left the Ethics Commission just as the Department of Justice probe was heating up.
Craig said the Ethics Commission and the Elections Commission have yet to call out their predecessor and its staff for its many failings, including, Craig said, lying to the Legislature about the status and security of John Doe records.
“I would like to hear an admission from the chairman that individuals who were employed at the GAB, some who are still employed with one of the two agencies, sat by and watched as the GAB violated the law,” said the senator, who co-authored the bill taking politics out of the state’s unique John Doe procedure.
Such is the criticism against Haas, the interim Elections Commission administrator, who assisted in the defense of his colleagues. Haas’ boss, highly partisan Democrat Mark Thomsen, chairman of the Elections Commission, has stridently defended his administrator. Thomsen, who in recent weeks has said he thinks President Trump should resign, this week called Fitzgerald a “bully” and a “coward” and demanded that Senate Republicans end their “witch hunt.”
Thomsen’s comments are particularly galling for conservatives who had their homes raided before dawn and many others who were spied upon in the real partisan witch hunt that was the John Doe probe. The real cowards, these victims assert, are the overreaching government agents who hid behind a cloak of secrecy, gag orders that demanded complete silence from targets on the threat of imprisonment and hefty fines.
Both commissions have called on the Senate to hold a public hearing on the confirmation vote, a request Fitzgerald has rejected.
Thomsen then audaciously suggested his commission effectively wouldn’t pay attention to the Senate’s decision, should it move to reject Haas’ confirmation. The Senate clearly has authority to confirm or deny agency nominees under state statute.
Craig said ignoring the Senate’s decision would be “uncharted territory,” and that he will be very curious to see what the commissions’ next step will be if Bell and Haas aren’t confirmed.
“It is clear that the individuals that are going to be up for confirmation, I don’t think have the support of the Senate,” Craig said.
Things could get a lot worse for former GAB staffers in the days ahead. One source with intimate knowledge of the GAB’s John Doe activities tells MacIver News Service, “The leak is hardly in the top 10 of the egregious stuff that’s there.”