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Public still paying for fraud probe records fights

Public still paying for fraud probe records fights

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Former Wisconsin Supreme Court Justice Michael Gableman, an investigator hired by Republicans to look into former President Donald Trump’s 2020 loss in the battleground state, takes the stand and refuses to answer questions from Circuit Court Judge Frank Remington on June 10 at the Dane County Courthouse in Madison. (Amber Arnold/Wisconsin State Journal via AP)
Bill Lueders is the president of the Wisconsin Freedom of Information Council, a group dedicated to open government.

Many people in Wisconsin are under the impression that the disastrous probe into the state’s 2020 presidential election conducted by former state Supreme Court Justice Michael Gableman is over, as are its costs to taxpayers.

They’re wrong.

The probe, conducted over 14 months by Gableman at the behest of Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, failed to find any evidence of significant fraud. It did, however, reveal ample evidence of incompetence on the part of Gableman and his team, the Office of Special Counsel (OSC), including multiple spelling errors. It also led to contempt charges against both Vos and Gableman, and to a judge’s referral of Gableman to the office that regulates attorney conduct for his disgraceful behavior during a court proceeding.

Vos, whose name the OSC routinely rendered as “Voss,” fired Gableman last August, after relations between the two had soured to where Gableman endorsed the speaker’s GOP primary opponent. At the time, the cost of the probe and associated records battles was tallied at more than $1.1 million, all paid for with taxpayer dollars. Remarked state Sen. Melissa Agard (D-Madison): “I’m glad that Speaker Vos has stopped the bleeding for these tax dollars going to a sham investigation.”

In fact, the bleeding never stopped. The amount paid by taxpayers now stands at more than $2 million, including nearly $1.5 million in legal fees, according to a report by WisPolitics.com; it could yet rise by hundreds of thousands more. That’s in part because Vos and attorneys for OSC are continuing to drag out litigation over the four records-related lawsuits brought by American Oversight, a liberal watchdog group.

One case, involving contractors’ records controlled by Vos, awaits resolution on various issues, including whether American Oversight can recover its in-house counsel fees. Vos is arguing, against logic and history, that attorneys who work for a group bringing a fight cannot recover their fees. A second case, involving records in Vos’ own files, is being briefed in the circuit court on attorneys’ fees; which Vos is contending are too high, though they are well within the norm.

A third case, in which a judge ruled in American Oversight’s favor and awarded it $197,510 in attorneys’ fees, is being appealed over every aspect, including attorneys’ fees and a contempt finding against the OSC. The group’s attorney, Jim Bopp, received permission from the court to file a 35,000-word brief, more than three times the usual limit. In this case, according to WisPolitics.com, “Assembly Republicans have already spent more fighting a judge’s order that they cover legal fees for American Oversight than the $197,510 taxpayers are currently on the hook to pay.”

A fourth case, regarding preservation of OSC records, remains pending.

In all of these legal challenges, taxpayers are footing the bill for the outside counsel; if American Oversight prevails, which I think is likely, taxpayers will also have to cover the group’s legal costs.

“All of this could have been avoided if Speaker Vos and OSC had simply followed the law” by preserving and providing records of their investigation, says Heather Sawyer, executive director at American Oversight.

Enough already. It’s time for Vos and the Legislature to truly turn off the spigot of tax dollars flowing into this ill-begotten cause.

Your Right to Know is a monthly column distributed by the Wisconsin Freedom of Information Council, a group dedicated to open government. Bill Lueders is the council’s president.

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