By SCOTT BAUER
MADISON, Wis. (AP) — Wisconsin Senate Republicans voted Thursday to authorize Attorney General Brad Schimel to start an investigation into the conduct of former workers at the now-dissolved agency that oversaw state elections and ethics laws.
The vote came even as the chairman of the Wisconsin Elections Commission, one of two entities that replaced the Government Accountability Board, said Schimel, a Republican, can’t be trusted to do an “objective and complete investigation.”
The Senate organizational committee voted 3-2. All the Republicans on the committee voted in favor of the proposal and the Democrats against. Democrats criticized the step. Minority Leader Jennifer Shilling called it “an egregious abuse of power.”
The elections chair, Mark Thomsen, a Democrat, sent a letter to legislative leaders asking that, if they want to review past actions of the GAB, they order an independent investigation by an “impartial factfinder or by a bipartisan factfinding body.”
Republicans contend that previous secret John Doe investigations into alleged illegal campaign activity involving Gov. Scott Walker and Republicans were part of a partisan witch hunt. The Wisconsin Supreme Court ended the second John Doe investigation in 2015, saying any coordination that occurred between Walker’s campaign and conservative groups was legal.
Schimel released a report earlier this month finding that a crime was committed when secret information collected during the investigation were leaked to the Guardian newspaper. Schimel accused the former GAB of being “weaponized” to make partisan attacks against Republicans.
Schimel couldn’t learn who leaked the more than 1,300 pages of documents, but he concluded the information came from a missing hard drive once belonging to former GAB attorney Shane Falk. Schimel recommended that nine people, including Falk and five other former GAB employees, be held in contempt for violating judicial secrecy orders.
Schimel did not recommend disciplinary actions against the elections chairman, Michael Haas, or the ethics chairman, Brian Bell. Both are former GAB employees.
But the top two Republicans in the Legislature said Bell and Haas must resign because they have lost trust because of “concerns over partisan influence remaining” from the GAB. Both have refused to step down and the boards that hired them have stood by them.
Elections Commission member Dean Knudson, a Republican and former state representative who helped write the law doing away with the GAB, supported Haas with a statement Thursday calling on the Senate to vote on his confirmation.
“Unless more evidence comes to light, it is unlikely a majority of the Commission will vote to remove Haas based solely on his previous employment with the Government Accountability Board,” Knudson said.
The Ethics Commission scheduled a meeting for Friday to discuss the call for Bell to resign. Board chairman David Halbrooks, a Democrat, said Thursday that his support for Bell hadn’t waivered but that he wanted all six commissioners to meet to discuss the matter. The board is composed of three Democrats and three Republicans.
Thomsen, the Elections Commission chairman, told lawmakers he had no qualms with there being a thorough review of past GAB actions but that he doesn’t want Schimel being the one doing it. He also asked for a legal opinion from a lawyer representing the Legislature over whether such a review by Schimel would be permitted by law.
Thomsen said he was concerned about Schimel’s fairness, given what he called “incorrect assumptions and flawed logic” in his report on the leak to “paint GAB investigative activities in the worst possible light.”
“This self-serving and partisan report gives me little confidence that any additional investigation by the Attorney General will be useful to the public or lawmakers who want to know the truth,” Thomsen wrote.
He called it “wrong and morally repugnant” for lawmakers to attack the motives and reputations of former GAB employees.
“This character assassination and slander must stop,” he said.
Schimel’s spokesman, Johnny Koremenos, declined to comment, citing the ongoing investigation. But Schimel has previously shown support for taking on the broader look into the GAB’s actions.