My column for the West Bend Daily News is online. Here it is:
Late last year, the Wisconsin Legislature euthanized the Government Accountability Board and it breathed its last breath at the end of June. Unfortunately, the early decisions being made by its replacement committees are not comforting.
By the middle of the last decade, Wisconsin had enough of the state’s Elections and Ethics boards. For years, they were mired with bias and corruption to the point that nobody had confidence in them any longer. To remedy this, the Wisconsin Legislature created the Government Accountability Board and Gov. Jim Doyle signed it into existence in 2007.
The theory of the GAB was great: Six retired judges, chosen because they had presumably aged to the point of impartiality, would oversee a crackerjack staff of unbiased functionaries to oversee and enforce Wisconsin’s election and ethics laws. The reality fell short of the theory.
During almost a decade of existence, the GAB devolved into a worse version of its predecessors with indifferent or addled judges losing control of a rogue staff that took every opportunity to twist the system in favor of liberals and punish conservatives. This culminated in the GAB’s participation in the illegal and unconstitutional John Doe persecutions of conservatives all over Wisconsin.
The Wisconsin Legislature responded to the abuses of the GAB by separating its functions again into a state Elections Commission and Ethics Commission. These are created under a more realistic operating theory that every human has biases and it is better to balance and check them instead of trying to find people without them.
The members of both of these commissions have been selected giving each major political party equal representation and they have begun to organize themselves and hire their staffs. This is where the early indications are troubling.
First, in May, the Elections Commission nominated Michael Haas, who spent years as the administrator of the Elections Division of the defunct GAB, as its first administrator. Given that the reason the Elections Board now exists is because of outrage at the actions taken by the GAB, its decision to select someone from that discredited organization to lead its staff is a massive red flag. Haas has been very open in saying he will be fair, but the Commission’s unwillingness to find someone without that baggage is concerning.
Last week the Ethics Commission made the Elections Commissions’ decision look like one of Solomon’s. They unanimously elected former Wisconsin Democratic Attorney General Peg Lautenschlager as chairwoman of the commission.
The fact that Lautenschlager inhabits the kooky fringe of the Democratic Party (just look her up on YouTube to hear her in her own words) is bothersome enough. It demonstrates that the Democrats who appointed her are not even attempting to appoint fair-minded people to the commission. But more outrageous is that Lautenschalger was voted out of office by her own party for ethical violations.
In 2004, then-Attorney General Lautenschlager drove her state car into a ditch while trying to drive home to Fond du Lac from Madison while drunk. She pleaded guilty to DUI. Her abuse of a state car brought other ethical violations to light. She had declared her home in Fond du Lac as the official office of the attorney general of Wisconsin so she could use a state car to drive back and forth to Madison on the taxpayers’ dime. She still maintained her real office in Madison, but the bureaucratic designation opened the door to her receiving thousands of dollars’ worth of personal benefit at taxpayers’ expense. The state Ethics Board at the time found her guilty of an ethical violation for using a state vehicle for personal use and she paid a pittance of $922 for penalties and reimbursements. The Ethics Board’s weak punishment for such an egregious ethical violation was one of the myriad of poor decisions that led to the eventual creation of the GAB.
When Lautenschlager ran for re-election in 2006, she was defeated in the Democratic primary by Kathleen Falk after her own party decided they could not stomach someone with such poor ethical standards being the top law enforcement official in the state. A decade later and many of those same Democrats want the same person to lead the agency tasked with enforcing ethics for politicians all over the state. How times have changed.
By law, the Chairperson of the Ethics Commission must rotate between the Democrats and the Republicans and the Democrats won the first selection through a drawing. They must choose a chairperson from one of the existing commission members. The first outrage is that Lautenschlager, ethically challenged as she is, is on the commission in the first place. The second outrage is that she ran unopposed for the chairperson’s slot from among the Democrats on the commission. The third outrage is that she was elected unanimously. All the Republicans on the commission voted for her, too, including West Bend’s own former assemblywoman, Pat Strachota.
Closing the GAB and creating the new commissions was the necessary and correct thing to do. That agency was too riddled with corruption and failure to continue to exist. But the new commissions that have taken its place are off to a very rocky start. The people of Wisconsin must continue to watch the watchdogs to ensure we have a fair and ethical political process in our state.