MacIver News Service
By M.D. Kittle
MADISON, Wis. – The time for the state Legislature to investigate the investigators is drawing near.
State Sen. David Craig (R-Town of Vernon) and state Rep. Joe Sanfelippo (R-West Allis) were set to send out for co-sponsorship on Monday their bill creating a bicameral legislative committee – with subpoena power – to look into the conduct and activities of the former Government Accountability Board and staff.
The GAB was disbanded in 2016 by the Republican-controlled Legislature in large part because of the “nonpartisan” agency’s integral role in Wisconsin’s unconstitutional John Doe investigations against dozens of conservative groups and Gov. Scott Walker’s campaign.
A lengthy report, issued in December by the state Department of Justice, found hundreds of leaked John Doe documents came from inside the GAB, and that the agency’s political speech cops negligently handled files that were supposed to be confidential. The DOJ investigation also uncovered folders of private emails and texts labeled “Opposition Research” and pointed to other important records that have gone missing.
While Attorney General Brad Schimel, a Republican, recommended the John Doe judge initiate contempt of court charges against nine John Doe agents, the narrow scope of the DOJ’s probe focused only on the leaked, court-sealed documents.
The legislation would create a committee that would have expanded authority to compel former GAB agents and witnesses to testify before the Legislature. It would do so with rarely used legislative subpoena power.
But the bill, Craig said, would protect the identities and personal information of the people who had their lives ripped apart through raids and interrogations, the many conservatives who were spied on for years by government agents for the “crime” of employing their First Amendment rights.
“A subpoena issued under this subsection may not summon or compel production or disclosure of personal identifying information of uncharged persons or organizations or of trade secrets,” the bill states.
The six-member committee would be made up of two lawmakers appointed by the Speaker of the Assembly; one legislator appointed by the Assembly’s minority leader; two legislators appointed by the Senate Majority Leader; and another lawmaker appointed by the Senate’s minority leader. The committee would then select its leaders.
“The committee shall submit the name of each committee member and staff member to the department of justice for a background check to determine if the member is qualified to so serve,” the bill states.
Issuing subpoenas, the committee “may summon and compel as necessary or convenient” public officials, government employees, or a private person who worked for or with the former GAB on an investigation.
Subpoenas could also be used to gather evidence or material, including John Doe records kept by government agents and others employed or connected with the GAB investigations.
The DOJ investigation found dangerous stacks of poorly kept records from state campaign finance and elections investigations going back nearly 30 years, retained in the office of the state Ethics Commission and the Elections Commission – GAB’s successor agencies.
Those who fail to testify or turn over subpoenaed records may be arrested by Capitol police and detained.
Targets and witnesses of the abusive John Doe investigations were told by prosecutors that if they said anything to anyone about the raids, the interrogations, the seizing of their property, they could go to jail for six months and face tens of thousands of dollars in fines.
GAB agents have said many things publicly in defense of their work on the John Doe. Many would also be interested to hear what they would say under oath.
In a lengthy statement issued last week, 11 of the former GAB judges insisted they were only following the law when they approved the agency’s involvement in the “John Doe II” investigation the state Supreme Court declared unconstitutional in 2015. Such assertions fail to note a 2014 U.S. Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals decision that found state campaign finance law and the GAB’s many promulgated rules involving it were unconstitutional. The opinion, written by Appeals Court Judge Diane Sykes, declared Wisconsin’s campaign finance system is “labyrinthian and difficult to decipher without a background in this area of law.” The court scolded the GAB for its unconstitutional interpretations of First Amendment law.
The Craig/Sanfelippo bill dissolves the committee within two years of its inception. The state Department of Justice would then become the custodian of all of the committee’s records.
In an interview last week, Craig said it’s imperative the bill pass this session so the Legislature can begin the important work of fact-finding.
“It’s got to pass. It’s the only way that we can bring some level of closure to the John Doe scandal, to make sure people in Wisconsin understand what happened, to make sure the Legislature understands what happened, and to make sure it never happens again.”