MacIver News Service
By M.D. Kittle
MADISON, Wis. – As the state Senate prepares to vote on whether to fire him, embattled Ethics Commission interim administrator Brian Bell is responding to one senator’s pointed questions.
Sen. Tom Tiffany (R-Hazelhurst), who led efforts to reform Wisconsin’s controversial John Doe law, wants to know about Bell’s involvement in maintaining court-sealed records from the so-called “John Doe II” investigation.
A report last month by the state Department of Justice found illegal leaks of hundreds of pages of John Doe documents more than likely came from inside the GAB. The Legislature disbanded the accountability board, a partner in the unconstitutional John Doe probe, and replaced it with the Ethics and Elections commissions in July 2016.
Bell was tapped to serve as administrator of Ethics, and Michael Haas was hired to lead Elections. Both men worked at the GAB, but Bell has been trying to make the case that, unlike Haas, he was not an agent in the political probe into dozens of conservative groups and Gov. Scott Walker’s campaign.
Bell, however, was in charge of Ethics when the state Department of Justice repeatedly sought hundreds of thousands of John Doe documents housed at the former GAB office, now the home of Ethics and Elections.
On Monday, a day before the Senate’s scheduled confirmation vote, Tiffany said he was still reviewing Bell’s answers to his questions. But he said, “They beg more questions.”
“I’ll finish my analysis today, and then decide the course of action I’m going to take tomorrow (Tuesday),” said Tiffany, who helped lead reforms to Wisconsin’s unique John Doe law. “It’s the whole question of who had responsibility for what within the GAB and then the handoff to the Ethics Commission and so I think there’s a lot of questions to be answered there.”
Tiffany wants to know what records did Bell and Ethics Commission general counsel David Buerger, and former GAB/Ethics staffer Molly Nagappala give to John Doe special prosecutor Francis Schmitz in November 2016. Schmitz was ordered by the state Supreme Court to return to its custody the illegally seized John Doe records.
In his response, Bell notes the Ethics Commission “inherited custody” of all GAB records, including John Doe investigation documents.
“However, at no point did anyone from GAB provide me or anyone else at the Ethics Commission with an overview, let alone an inventory, of the records transferred into our custody,” Bell wrote.
“I was very concerned about the security and organization of records in general from the very beginning of serving as Administrator. At the time the Ethics Commission came into existence, records left behind by the previous agency were poorly organized and improperly secured,” he wrote. “Not only were confidential records improperly secured, but the condition of the storage rooms was so disorganized that they presented a safety hazard. Throughout the basement and the third-floor office space, records were inconsistently organized and often commingled with other records.”
The Department of Justice investigation noted the disorder and the failure by the agencies to secure records.
Bell and his supporters claim the Ethics Commission attempted to correct the problem.
“In contrast, I witnessed only a few Elections staff (office operations associate(s) and their public information officer) occasionally reviewing and sorting records,” Bell wrote. “I repeatedly spoke with Elections Commission Administrator Haas and Staff Counsel (Nathan) Judnic (who was integrally involved in the John Doe) about the unacceptable state of records management, the lack of security, and the requirement to segregate records to the appropriate new commission. They consistently dismissed my concerns as something that would eventually be gotten around to being addressed, and stated that separating and securing records was not as high of a priority for them.”
When the John Doe special prosecutor informed Bell that he would stop by to pick up the John Doe documents, as ordered by the Supreme Court, Bell said he and Buerger worked to make sure “all relevant records were properly turned over.”
Nagappala told the administrator that Judnic had “maintained in his office all John Doe investigation records that were in the possession of the GAB, and that he had these records at least since the closure of the investigation,” according to Bell. “Both Administrator Haas and Staff Counsel Judnic also told us that they believed that Judnic had possession of all GAB John Doe investigation materials.”
Buerger, who also worked for the GAB, gathered the records from Judnic and locked them in a filing cabinet in the Ethics Commission Office. The records included electronic files.
“As neither Buerger, nor myself, were admitted to the John Doe, we could not inventory the records Judnic provided, but simply placed them in secure storage without examination. To this day, I do not have any personal knowledge of what records Judnic provided to us, but I can state with certainty that our staff provided 100 percent of those records to former Special Prosecutor Francis Schmitz in October of 2016,” Bell wrote.
Tiffany asked if Bell and the others signed written statements declaring that they had turned over all John Doe documents to Schmitz. Nagappala, a sworn agent in the John Doe probe, did, according to Bell. Schmitz did not require Bell or Buerger to sign an affidavit.
The senator asked about the contents on the hard drive Judnic turned over to Buerger, and who was the last person to have possession of the hard drive of John Doe documents before, according to the DOJ report, it disappeared. Bell said he couldn’t answer the questions because the Ethics Commission staffers were not legally allowed to look at the John Doe records.
He added that Schmitz took a hard drive as part of the records he collected.
And Tiffany wants to know who instructed Judnic to turn over the John Doe documents to Buerger and the Ethics Commission rather than handing it over to the special prosecutor or the Supreme Court directly prior to shutting down the GAB.
Bell said he didn’t know.
Tiffany said he believes there is a difference in the “degree” of involvement of Bell and Haas in the now-infamous John Doe investigation, but both bureaucrats were in leadership roles during collections or retention of the records.
“Our job is to make sure as a state Senate that we have people who are above reproach managing these agencies and commissions that come before us for confirmation,” the senator said. “That’s even more heightened since the John Doe.”
For those who are still laboring under the belief that politics and partisan motives had nothing to do with the John Doe investigation, Tiffany advised talking to the targets of the abusive probe.
“Go set up a meeting with the targets of the John Doe, the people who had their homes raided. Go see them personally and listen to their stories and tell me whether there’s any doubt what happened with the John Doe, that the GAB, at the time in league with the Milwaukee County District Attorney’s office, tried to destroy people’s lives,” Tiffany said.