Madison – A Republican lawmaker on Thursday called on a state Justice Department lawyer to resign for sending an e-mail offering legal advice to Democratic state senators after they fled the state in February.
Rep. Steve Nass sent Republican Attorney General J.B. Van Hollen a letter asking for an investigation into Assistant Attorney General Thomas Bellavia for e-mailing the Democrats on Feb. 27 and telling them he supported their efforts to block the Republican-backed bill that would strip most public workers of collective bargaining rights.
In his e-mail to Senate Minority Leader Mark Miller and Sen. Jon Erpenbach, which Bellavia sent on a Sunday from his private account, the prosecutor warned the Democrats that they could be arrested, even hiding out in Illinois, and suggested they seek legal advice.
“You may already be aware of this issue, but just in case, I want to bring to your attention a potential danger in your current situation,” Bellavia wrote.
Bellavia apparently mistakenly sent the e-mail to an aide of Republican Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald, who forwarded it to Nass’ office. Bellavia didn’t immediately respond to a phone message left at his office seeking comment.
Nass said he thinks Bellavia should resign and seek outside counsel because he thinks the e-mail raises serious ethical and legal questions about Justice Department’s ability to push forward with its efforts to allow the collective bargaining law to be implemented. The law is currently tied up in the courts.
“There are legitimate concerns that Assistant Attorney General Bellavia could attempt to sabotage the defense of the Wisconsin Legislature based on his partisan political activities,” Nass said in a letter to Van Hollen.
Erpenbach said Nass should back off given that Bellavia sent his message from his home account and never identified himself as working for the Justice Department.
“He’s a constituent contacting his local elected official,” Erpenbach said. “I think Rep. Nass has got better things to do.”
Miller said Nass was trying to “intimidate and silence the voices of people that personally disagree” with him.
Justice Department executive assistant Steve Means said in a statement that DOJ was aware of the e-mail.
“It was sent from a personal e-mail address and Mr. Bellavia was not acting on behalf of the Wisconsin Department of Justice with regard to any of the matters he was addressing,” Means said. He said anyone following the Justice Department’s work to get the law enacted would recognize the “absurdity” of Nass’s suggestion that the DOJ wasn’t vigorously defending the Legislature’s actions.
The Justice Department argues that the collective bargaining law should be allowed to take effect, but a judge has put it on hold while she considers a lawsuit that contends that the state open meetings law was broken in the process of its passage.
Democrats fled the state for three weeks in an effort to stop the bill, but Republicans found a way to pass it without them present.