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Wisconsin GOP set to rebuke elections, ethics agency heads

By SCOTT BAUER
Associated Press

MADISON (AP) — Republicans still smarting from a secret investigation into conservative groups and Gov. Scott Walker have scheduled a vote to oust leaders of the bipartisan state agencies charged with running elections and overseeing ethics laws.

The highly unusual Senate vote on Tuesday could force out two former employees of the now-shuttered Government Accountability Board, who were selected unanimously to head the new bipartisan Elections and Ethics commissions.

Elections administrator Michael Haas and Ethics leader Brian Bell were fighting to save the jobs they’ve held since mid-2016, but Republicans who control the Senate were expected to have enough votes to reject their confirmations.

Republicans have said they’ve lost confidence in the ability of Bell and Haas to be nonpartisan, in part because of their past work at the GAB.

The Ethics Commission on Monday night, just hours before the scheduled vote, released findings of its own internal investigation conducted by a former federal prosecutor, Patrick Fiedler, and his law firm. Their investigation determined “there is not a scintilla of evidence that Brian Bell has ever performed any of his governmental duties in a partisan manner.”

The law is unclear on what it means if the Senate rejects the confirmation of both Bell and Haas. Elections Commission Chairman Mark Thomsen has said rejection would not force Haas out, while Bell has said the vote would mean he’s fired.

Thomsen and government-watchdog groups have also raised the possibility of filing lawsuits to keep Bell and Haas in their jobs.

The move to replace Bell and Haas is the latest reaction by Republicans to exact revenge on the former GAB, which conservatives believe unfairly investigated Walker and others in the GOP for alleged illegal campaign coordination. The Wisconsin Supreme Court ended the secret investigation, known as a John Doe, in 2015 and no one was charged.

The Legislature disbanded the GAB in 2015, but the new bipartisan commissions they created unanimously hired Bell and Haas.

Haas did not work directly on the John Doe investigation, but did review legal filings made in lawsuits over the probe.

Bell did not work on the investigation and publicly criticized the former GAB last week, saying he left it because he thought it was mismanaged and unfairly enforcing the law.

A report from Republican Attorney General Brad Schimel released last month faulted the GAB with poor security measures that allowed secret documents to be leaked to a newspaper. Schimel did not conclude who turned over the information and did not name Bell or Haas among nine people who should face disciplinary action.

Both Bell and Haas have been defending themselves in the days leading up to the Senate vote, trying to make their case after Republicans declined to hold a public hearing on their confirmations.

The Senate is controlled by Republicans 18-13 and has two vacancies, meaning Republicans could lose two votes and still have enough to reject the confirmations.

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