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Ethics complaints over union bill dismissed (UPDATE)

Protesters rally on Feb. 24 in Milwaukee against Gov. Scott Walker's collective bargaining bill. Walker's bill, which would strip collective bargaining power from most public employees, has been tied up by lawsuits. On Wednesday, ethics officials decided to dismiss all ethics complaints relating to the actions surrounding the bill. (File photo by Kevin Harnack)

By Jason Smathers
Associated Press

MADISON, Wis. (AP) — The Wisconsin state ethics board said Wednesday it dismissed all ethics complaints against lawmakers that arose from the dispute over Republican Gov. Scott Walker’s divisive anti-union bill, including a complaint against Walker after he was recorded saying he and his staff considered planting political agitators among demonstrators protesting his the bill.

The Government Accountability Board said in a statement that it reviewed all of the hundreds of complaints filed against Democratic and Republican lawmakers, and decided unanimously to dismiss them all, finding that most concerned the use of political tactics that fell outside of the scope of state ethics laws.

“While the complaints characterized various actions of public officials as morally or politically ‘unethical,’ the Board’s role is to enforce the specific provisions of the Ethics Code for State Public Officials, as well as the campaign finance, elections, and lobbying law,” the non-partisan board said. “It is not to pass judgment on political actions or political positions.”

The board dismissed complaints against Walker for restricting public access to the state Capitol and for saying during a secretly-recorded prank phone call that he and his staff considered planting agitators in the large pro-union demonstrations that clogged the state Capitol for nearly a month. Walker thought he was speaking to billionaire campaign donor David Koch, but he was actually speaking to a blogger.

The board said there was no evidence he or any of his staff acted on this consideration or any other statements Walker made during the phone call.

The board also said the complaint regarding Capitol access was outside its jurisdiction. The Wisconsin State Employees Union Council has sued the state Department of Administration over the access issue. Both sides are expected to meet with a special master next week to discuss whether DOA is in compliance with the judge’s order to restore access to the Capitol to pre-protest levels.

Officials also dismissed a complaint from the Center for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington that claimed Walker and Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald abused state resources by sending Wisconsin State Patrol officers after Senate Democrats who fled the state to try to block passage of the bill. The board cited a response from the Department of Transportation asserting a “broad latitude” in assisting local law enforcement and protecting state lawmakers in their dismissal of the complaint.

The board also dismissed complaints against those Democrats that alleged they had misused campaign money or illegally accepted gifts during their time in Illinois. It said because there was some political purpose involved in the Democrats’ decision to leave the state, they could use campaign money to pay for any food or lodging.

The board said it has consistently interpreted “political purposes” broadly to include acts that both affect state business and are intended to affect the outcome of future elections.

The board, which handles ethics and election issues, is comprised of six former judges who serve six year terms. Each member is selected by the governor from among a group of judges put forth by a panel of randomly selected Wisconsin Appeals Court judges. Each member must be confirmed by the Senate. All six of the current judges were appointed by former Democratic Gov. Jim Doyle.

The dismissed complaints all centered on tactics used during the month-long battle over a bill that would, among other things, curtail collective bargaining rights for most public employees. Legislative Republicans eventually passed the measure and Walker signed it into law, but a judge blocked it from taking effect while she considers a legal challenge to its passage.

Dane County District Attorney Ismael Ozanne decided earlier this year that there was no evidence of criminal activity by either Democrats or Republicans for events during the controversy.

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