MacIver News Service
By M.D. Kittle
MADISON, Wis. – In a surprising move – in a government abuse saga with plenty of twists and turns – the Democrat who chairs the bipartisan state Ethics Commission on Thursday called for Milwaukee County District Attorney John Chisholm’s impeachment as he likened Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald to Joseph McCarthy.
Seeing the writing on the wall, David Halbrooks urged his fellow commissioners to leave their administrator post open and take a wait-and-see approach to whether they bring back embattled Elections chief Brian Bell.
The commission, with three Democrats and three Republicans, mostly agreed, voting 5 to 1 for Halbrooks’ motion. Commissioner Pat Strachota, a Republican, voted against, saying the move sends the wrong message to the Senate and stalls the commission from moving forward.
It was a different approach than the one taken by the state Elections Commission, led by combative Democrat Mark Thomsen. Less than 24 hours before, the bipartisan commission voted 4-2 to reappoint the agency’s controversial interim administrator, Michael Haas – openly defying the GOP-led Senate’s vote this week rejecting the confirmations of Haas and Bell.
Halbrooks said his commission had little choice but to not follow the Elections Commission’s lead. Bell was told by the state Department of Administration that he could return to his old job at the Department of Safety and Professional Services, but, Halbrooks said, that post would be filled should the commission appoint the Senate-rejected bureaucrat to the administrator job.
Halbrooks seems to want to play defense, giving Bell the opportunity to continue collecting a state check while waiting to see if the Elections Commission wins what would be an unprecedented legal battle against the Senate.
Gov. Scott Walker’s administration has made clear that, despite the Election Commission’s position that it, not the Senate, has the authority to hire and fire, Haas and Bell are not considered administrators in the eyes of the executive branch. Under the state’s civil service system, Haas “bumps” down into a staff attorney position at the Elections Commission, according to the Department of Administration. His annual salary drops from $124,000 to $94,161. Bell takes a similar sizable pay cut, from $92,000 as administrator to $59,197 at his old position as budget and policy analyst at DSPS.
Bell reported for work Thursday at the Safety and Public Service job; Haas never left Elections. Bell was locked out of his computer at Ethics Wednesday, and he would have forfeited any salary had he remained at Ethics.
The turmoil follows the Senate’s party-line vote Tuesday. Republican senators have lost whatever faith they had in two administrators who worked at the infamous state Government Accountability Board. The GAB partnered with the Democrat-led Milwaukee County District Attorney’s office in the so-called “John Doe II” investigation, a secret, unconstitutional probe into dozens of right-of-center groups, scores of conservatives, and the campaign of Republican Gov. Scott Walker.
Bell was not involved in the abusive investigation that included predawn, armed raids on conservatives’ homes and the illegal seizure of millions of documents. But he was a GAB agent in both elections and ethics, and Republicans have criticized him for not speaking out against the abuses and for his handling of John Doe records at the Ethics Commission.
Haas led the elections division at the old GAB and, despite his and his apologists’ contentions, was an active agent in the John Doe, involved from the beginning of the politically driven probe.
Halbrooks and his fellow commissioners have vehemently defended Bell. At Thursday’s commission meeting, Halbrooks blasted Republican senators for their partisan vote after they moved to dissolve a clearly partisan GAB, “and then firing a person along partisan lines without any real reason whatsoever.”
“It is my impression that Sen. (Scott) Fitzgerald has gone a long way towards cementing his name right alongside Joseph McCarthy,” he said, comparing the Senate Majority Leader to the late Wisconsin U.S. Senator who made a name for himself by his abusive pursuit of communists in the federal government.
Halbrooks declared that Fitzgerald should “consider resigning at this point” for saying he hoped Republicans and Democrats on the commission would deadlock over keeping Bell and Haas. A tie vote would have the effect of jettisoning the administrators without the looming legal complications ahead.
But Halbrooks aimed the brunt of his ire at what he described as the root of the John Doe abuses: Milwaukee County District Attorney John Chisholm, a fellow Democrat and a very partisan one at that.
It was Chisholm and his assistant DAs and investigators who launched two extremely political John Doe investigations into conservative groups and former aides and associates of Walker. His office partnered with the “nonpartisan” GAB in the ever-expanding John Doe II probe.
“I’ve spent the past several years trying to find a way to get justice for the people whose houses were raided, for the children who were dragged out of their beds at gunpoint and told they had to be quiet (about the raids or face going to jail),” Halbrooks said. “And I’ve spent every day on this commission trying to put right some of the things that occurred at the GAB that were just wrong.”
The Democrat scolded his party members, including Dem senators, who have helped the mainstream press push the false narrative that the secret investigations were justified because Chisholm and crew boasted six convictions in the John Doe I.
Chisholm’s office launched the first Doe in 2010 when Walker was Milwaukee County executive. The investigation opened long after Walker’s chief of staff urged the district attorney to investigate a discrepancy in a veterans fund. Halbrooks said he knew of no justifiable reason why Chisholm would need to open a John Doe probe over a possible theft. But he did, just as Walker was becoming the Republican candidate for governor in the 2010 election.
The DA did get two convictions from the actual Doe, two guys who did indeed steal money from veterans. Another “John Doe conviction” involved the partner of one the thieves who was found to have inappropriate photos and communications with a 17-year-old male – evidence collected in sweeping searches.
Halbrooks pointed to the three other convictions that had nothing to do with the original John Doe, including a county executive employee who wrote complimentary comments about Walker on the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel website on the government clock. She received probation after facing jail time.
It is interesting that Haas spent much of Tuesday tweeting out criticisms of Senate Republicans – on the Elections Commission twitter account and apparently on the clock.
“For my Democratic friends to continue to say that there were six convictions that came under the John Doe, please stop,” Halbrooks said. “And for the Republicans who went through the horrors of those raids, please work with me. I want to get to the bottom of this and make sure none of this happens again.”
The commissioner says the Ethics Commission can help the state Department of Justice in its broadened investigation into the John Doe. Last month, Attorney General Brad Schimel, a Republican, released a bombshell report on illegal leaks of court-sealed John Doe documents. The leaks, Schimel said, likely came from the GAB, and he recommended the John Doe judge initiate contempt of court proceedings against nine John Doe agents from the agency and the Milwaukee County District Attorney’s office.
Curiously, Halbrooks said, John Chisholm was not among said agents – a glaring omission that needs to be corrected. He said Walker, who has the authority to do so, should begin impeachment proceedings against the man who presided over what was commonly referred to around the Milwaukee County DA’s office as the “Walker John Doe.”
“I am trying to convince people in this state that there is nothing partisan about raiding people’s homes at gunpoint for campaign finance or taking people’s emails and phone records without their knowledge. It is just wrong,” Halbrooks said. “The blame lies with the Milwaukee County DA. They were involved in the John Doe I. They were involved in organizing the raids in John Doe II …”
In 2015, a group of Milwaukee County citizens – from the right and left – petitioned the governor’s office to initiate the proceeding to remove Chisholm from office on multiple allegations of misconduct in office. The request was declined.