MacIver News Service
By M.D. Kittle
MADISON, Wis. – With the “nonpartisan” Government Accountability Board (GAB) ship sinking fast in the wake of the political John Doe scandal, one former agent and Ethics Commission leader insists he was never on board with the GAB’s partisan conduct.
In the letters to the state Senate and to his agency, interim Ethics Commission administrator Brian Bell and commission chairman David Halbrooks make it clear that, contrary to reports in the mainstream media, Bell and his counterpart at the state Elections Commission, Michael Haas, are not in the same sinking boat that was the Government Accountability Board.
Between the details of Bell’s laudable military record and his insistence that he was born to serve the public, is a very clear message: The GAB conducted itself very badly, and so did many of its agents, including Haas, who were engaged in the politically motivated and unconstitutional John Doe investigation.
“We believed that we had a solemn duty to cast off the vestiges of the GAB. We were committed to eliminating the errors that occurred in the creation and administration of the GAB. Our duty was to make sure that what happened under the GAB would never happen again,” Halbrooks wrote in his letter to the Senate.
The Ethics and Elections Commissions replaced the GAB in 2016 after details emerged of the GAB’s partner role in the partisan “John Doe II” (and now we learn “John Doe III“) probe into just about every right-of-center group in the state and Gov. Scott Walker’s campaign.
Haas and Bell are now making the rounds to try to save their jobs in advance of next week’s expected confirmation vote in the Senate. Multiple Republican senators have told MacIver News Service they will not support confirmation of the former GAB employees, a move that would force the two interim administrators out.
But Bell and his supporters are attempting to make the case that the Ethics administrator is not part of the GAB John Doe gang. In short, they are suggesting that Bell is not Michael Haas.
Haas, helped by mainstream media depictions, has tried to sell senators and the public at large that he was a nominal player in the John Doe investigation, merely editing some court documents for his colleagues. As MacIver News Service has pointed out, Haas’ assertion simply does not jibe with the facts.
Last week, Haas told Wisconsin Public Television that, “Nobody can point to any decision or action of myself or the GAB or the current elections commission that’s been based on partisan motives.”
MacIver News has pointed to myriad court documents that clearly point to partisan motives in the GAB.
So has one former GAB staff member: Brian Bell.
In a letter to the Ethics Commission, the interim administrator wrote that he left the GAB in 2015 in part to pursue further career development, “but also I did not always agree with how the GAB operated.”
“I left the GAB because I thought I was approaching the limits of what I could positively influence, and wanted to look elsewhere for an opportunity to serve this state,” he wrote.
Bell went to work for the Wisconsin Department of Safety and Professional Services until applying for the Ethics Commission leadership post in 2016.
“I returned to the Ethics Commission because I believed that there was a sufficient foundation to build from and address the shortcomings I witnessed under the old agency.”
During his time at the GAB, Bell served as an Elections Data manager and as an elections and ethics specialists. Haas was his boss in the Elections Division.
“I was frustrated by the lack of a clearly identified strategic vision and a resistance to new ways of operating within the Elections Division,” Bell wrote.
He said he was not involved in any investigation conducted by the GAB.
Bell wrote to the Ethics Commission that staff members at the GAB were given “great latitude” in offering board members guidance on the application of the law, “particularly when permitting someone to register to vote, receive a ballot, or wave further review on potential campaign finance or lobbying violations.”
“These practices created and permitted inconsistent, subjective, and biased actions of unevenly enforcing the laws the agency administered,” he wrote.
He took particular aim at Shane Falk, the GAB staff attorney who drove much of the agency’s activities in the John Doe probe. Multiple communications betray Falk’s partisan nature, and a report issued last month by Wisconsin Attorney General Brad Schimel only further showcased Falk’s bias.
“Incredibly, someone as transparently partisan as Shane Falk was appointed as a 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.”
Haas’ boss, GAB director Kevin Kennedy, also made disparaging remarks in 2016 at a national political speech administrator get-together in which Kennedy pointed to court-sealed John Doe documents. Haas, a former Democratic operative and candidate, offered political commentary in some of his emails to fellow agents.
Critics of the GAB and the new commissions have raised an important point about Bell: If he was uncomfortable with what was happening at the GAB, why didn’t he raise those concerns to lawmakers or administrators at the time?
The letters don’t necessarily answer that question. But Halbrooks, the Ethics chairman, insists Bell is a straight shooter with only the highest interests of public service in mind.
Halbrooks declined to comment when asked directly whether he thought Haas was a partisan agent engaged in a politically motivated investigation. He did say that the root cause of the problems at the GAB can be found in its wide authority and its codified secrecy. Those failings are on the state Legislature, which created the speech regulator in 2007.