MacIver News Service
By M.D. Kittle
MADISON, Wis. – Long-time state government bureaucrat Michael Haas has decided to end his personal resistance campaign against the Republican-controlled Senate, a move that would appear to conclude a month-long constitutional crisis.
On Tuesday, the defiant “interim administrator” of the Wisconsin Elections Commission informed his bosses that he will “no longer pursue continuing as administrator and urged commissioners to appoint a new administrator at their meeting Friday,” according to a lengthy letter.
Last month on a party-line vote, the Senate voted not to confirm Haas, in large part because of his involvement in Wisconsin’s unconstitutional “John Doe II” investigation into dozens of conservative organizations and Republican Gov. Scott Walker’s campaign.
In open defiance of the Senate’s decision – and the body’s constitutional “advice and consent” authority – the Elections Commission voted 4-2 to subsequently appoint Haas again as interim administrator.
Two of the three Republicans on the bipartisan, six-member commission urged their colleagues to honor the Senate’s decision and appoint a new interim administrator. That motion was rejected by the commission’s three Democrats and other Republican.
Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald (R-Juneau) said he wasn’t sure what to think of Haas’ decision to stand down, and his printed diatribe explaining it. He said he’s suspicious about Haas’ motives, and he’s not buying the bureaucrat’s selfless government servant routine.
“I’m glad he’s gone, I just don’t know what the fallout from it will be yet,” Fitzgerald told MacIver News Service Tuesday.
Despite his statements to the contrary, a good deal of evidence shows that Haas was a key player in the abusive John Doe probe when he served in the elections division of the disbanded state Government Accountability Board.
A state Department of Justice investigation into the GAB, the predecessor of the Wisconsin Elections and Ethics commissions, found the GAB badly mishandled court-sealed John Doe records, and that someone from inside the GAB likely leaked records to a liberal publication. The investigation also found that a former agent in the politically driven John Doe probe maintained “evidence,” hundreds of thousands of professional and personal emails, labeled as “opposition research.”
Haas, who once worked in Democratic politics and twice ran for public office as a Dem, said he “decided not to spend additional time, effort and resources in the negative environment of litigation.”
“I do not wish for my personal situation to be used as an excuse for not providing the agency with the resources it needs to be successful, and which both parties in the Legislature have agreed are necessary,” he wrote.
Haas took parting shots at Republican lawmakers, some of whom the John Doe investigation illegally targeted, in his swan song to the commission.
“Rather than celebrating (the WEC’s) success and taking credit for it, some have focused on settling scores with imaginary ghosts of the Government Accountability Board. My appointment was a casualty of that obsession.”
Conservative citizens who had their homes raided before dawn, who had their possessions illegally taken from them, who were constantly told that if they said anything about the secret investigation they could go to jail, will tell you that they are casualties of abusive government agents.
Several emails released in a lawsuit against the GAB show Haas’ involvement, from the inception of John Doe II. Yet, the bureaucrat continued to insist that the GAB, John Doe partner to the highly partisan Milwaukee County District Attorney’s office, did nothing wrong.
“The lack of any credible criticism of my work and the work of the Commission illustrated the folly of the Senate’s vote,” Haas wrote.
“Obviously, I strongly disagree with the Senate vote. I am proud of what we have achieved at the WEC and what we have in the works. But the reality is that the Senate’s action has created a major distraction and an untenable situation for the Commission,” he added.
Fitzgerald noted that Attorney General Brad Schimel has been given legislative authority to expand his previous investigation into the GAB leak.
“At some point (Schimel) will come up with additional findings way beyond what he did in the leak investigation and hopefully that will tell the whole story and everyone will be fully aware of how corrupt the GAB was,” Fitzgerald said.
Haas, it seems, sees himself as a bureaucrat martyr, sacrificed at the altar of politics.
He defends the GAB and its illegal investigations while taking great pains to declare that he had little to do with them.
In his letter, he insists that “it is time for this foolishness to end.” But it was Haas and his apologists at the Elections Commission, conservatives assert, who have foolishly spent the past month trying to defy the will of the elected Senate, thereby the will of the people.
They did so despite a fellow commissioner, former state Rep. Dean Knudson, imploring them to stop the foolishness.
“I think the Senate has voted. I think the administrator position is vacant,” Knudson, one of three Republicans on the six-member bipartisan body, told his fellow commissioners late last month. “I would encourage the commission to move forward, to come together and recognize what is best for the state is for us to begin a thorough, methodical, nationwide search for long-term leadership for this commission.”
Now, perhaps seeing the writing on the wall, Haas has conceded Knudson’s point and is encouraging the commission to appoint assistant interim administrator Meagan Wolfe to replace him. Knudson repeatedly has suggested the same over the past month.
In the wake of the Election Commission’s resistance movement, Fitzgerald made clear that the commission had 45 days to appoint a new interim administrator – not Haas – or risk having the Senate appoint one.
Haas took a sizable pay cut when he decided to defy the Senate. A day after the Jan. 23 Senate vote, the state Department of Administration changed his position and pay, from interim administrator to staff attorney, with a corresponding $30,000 cut in pay, from $124,000 to $94,161.
The government agent has a personal bottom line to consider. So, he says, he will serve as a staff attorney in the short term, assisting the “new administrator in the transition” before he leaves the agency to “pursue other professional opportunities in the near future.”
“Given the fixation of some in the Senate on removing me from agency service, it would likely be a distraction for me to continue in that position. At this time, I do not intend to exercise those restoration rights, and I plan to pursue other professional opportunities in the near future,” Haas wrote.
The letter is effectively an op-ed against the Republican lawmakers who, for myriad reasons, have lost faith in Haas’ ability to remain a nonpartisan administrator of Wisconsin election law. In it he defends himself and his former GAB agents who worked with him on John Doe II, including Nathan Judnic, an Elections Commission staff attorney who could face contempt of court charges for his handling of John Doe documents.
“… I believe it is important that the Commission ask legislative leaders and the Joint Finance Committee to stop any further attacks on the agency’s Staff Counsel position and on Nathan Judnic personally. Attorney Judnic has had an accomplished career with the G.A.B. and the WEC and has been unfairly targeted simply for doing his job as a civil service employee,” Haas writes.
The Department of Justice investigation and emails released in previous lawsuits dispute Haas’ assertion of Judnic’s conduct, at least in the John Doe investigation.
Fitzgerald said he doesn’t know what to think about Haas’ letter, but he is concerned there may be a little “jockeying going on” to save Judnic’s job. The majority leader said the Department of Administration has issued Haas a 60-day layoff notice, and in his letter Haas noted that he “must either take an unpaid leave of absence or return to my original classified position of Staff Counsel which I held at the G.A.B.”
DOA spokesman Steve Michel said Haas was bumped down to the staff attorney position last month and has been paid at the lower rate since.
Republican leaders have said they do not trust GAB agents involved in the John Doe investigation to be in top posts at the Elections and Ethics Commission.
“To the best of my knowledge and with what the DOJ investigation found, there was a circle of individuals at the GAB conspiring outside of state government, for the purposes of not being subject to open records, to have an impact on (the 2011-12) recall elections. Until someone proves to me that didn’t happen I’m going to proceed that way,” Fitzgerald said.
Also on Tuesday, the state Ethics Commission voted unanimously to begin the search for a new administrator.
The Senate last month also voted to reject the confirmation of then-Ethics interim administrator Brian Bell. Bell formerly worked at the GAB but was not involved in the John Doe investigation. Republican senators, however, expressed concerns about his handling of records kept in the Elections and Ethics offices and basement space.
The commission voted 4-2 to appoint Colette Reinke, an ethics specialist attorney at the agency, to serve as interim administrator for the next 90 days – while the commission conducts its search. Commissioners Katie McCallum and Pat Strachota, appointed by Republicans, voted against the motion.
Commission president David Halbrooks said it was either the commission appoint an interim administrator or risk having the Senate do it.
Although Bell has taken a position in another state agency, Halbrooks holds out hope that the commission might one day bring him back to the post – should the Senate flip to Democratic control after the November elections. He acknowledges, however, that “there still wouldn’t be consensus to bring Brian back.”