Hours before Senate vote on his future, Ethics report says administrator acted properly, impartially

January 23, 2018 GMT

A new report on the state’s top ethics official, Brian Bell, says he acted properly and impartially in leading the agency and working with state Justice Department investigators -- with its release coming hours before a vote that Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald said will force Bell out of his post.

Fitzgerald also has vowed to oust the state’s top elections official, Mike Haas, in confirmation votes during Tuesday’s Senate session.

Both administrators have fought the move, as have the bipartisan Ethics and Elections commissions that employ -- and continue to support -- them.

The new report, released late Monday, was compiled by a former federal prosecutor, Patrick Fiedler, and the law firm for which he works, Hurley, Burish and Stanton. They were retained by the Ethics Commission to investigate Bell, who asked the commission to probe him -- which he said would clear his name -- after Fitzgerald and Assembly Speaker Robin Vos last month called for Bell’s and Haas’ resignation.

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“There is not a scintilla of evidence that Brian Bell has ever performed any of his governmental duties in a partisan manner,” the report says.

Fitzgerald and Vos have been tight-lipped about why they’re seeking to oust the administrators -- saying simply that they have “lost the confidence of our caucuses to be an impartial administrator” and noting they used to work for the state’s former ethics and elections agency, the Government Accountability Board. GOP lawmakers and Gov. Scott Walker ended that agency after the state Supreme Court quashed a secret investigation, to which the officially nonpartisan accountability board contributed, into Walker’s 2012 recall campaign.

Bell, while working at the accountability board, had no role in the so-called John Doe II investigation into Walker. Haas reviewed legal documents relating to the case but was not directly involved in the investigation.

The calls to oust Bell and Haas came after Republican state Attorney General Brad Schimel released a report into the illegal leak of classified documents from the John Doe II investigation to The Guardian newspaper, which reported on them in 2016.

The report called for 10 public officials to face disciplinary measures in connection with the leak -- none of which were Haas or Bell. It suggested Bell and the lead attorney for the Ethics Commission, David Buerger, had not fully cooperated with the state Justice Department probe. The Ethics Commission has strongly objected to that, saying it did everything possible to comply.

The report released Monday said Bell “acted in a proper manner as to his cooperation with the DOJ investigation.”

Sen. Tom Tiffany, R-Hazelhurst, in questions submitted to Bell and Haas Friday, asked both why they continued to employ the lead attorneys for the commissions: Buerger at Ethics and Nathan Judnic at Elections.

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Judnic was part of the core team at the accountability board that assisted state prosecutors with the John Doe II investigation; Buerger played no role in it.

While Bell and Haas both have fought the moves to oust them, they’ve taken markedly different tacks.

Bell, a U.S. army veteran of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, has publicly criticized the accountability board, saying he left in part because it was subjective and inconsistent, and one of its top attorneys, Democrat Shane Falk, was “transparently partisan.” He also has criticized Haas for his work at the accountability board and his management of investigative records.

Haas has struck a more defiant tone. He has pressed senators to hold a public hearing on his confirmation, which Fitzgerald has refused to do.

“My confirmation has become a lightning rod for any complaint ever lodged against the (Government Accountability Board), whether or not it was justified in the first place,” Haas wrote in a recent release.

The chairman of the state Elections Commission, Mark Thomsen, also has objected to Fitzgerald’s claim that a Senate vote against confirming Haas would effectively fire him. Thomsen maintains that state law only allows the Elections Commission to do that.

A spokesman for the ACLU of Wisconsin, Chris Ott, said last week that it agrees with Thomsen. The ACLU and other civic groups, including Common Cause of Wisconsin, have left open the possibility of court action if state senators follow through on trying to force out the administrators.

Bell said last week that he believes a Senate vote to not confirm him would effectively fire him.

Both the Elections and Ethics commissions have six appointees, three Republicans and three Democrats, named by legislative leaders and the governor.