MADISON — No one in Wisconsin has been more forceful in demanding changes to the state’s Government Accountability Board, which oversees elections, campaign finance, ethics and lobbying, than Robin Vos.
The Republican Assembly speaker has deemed the GAB “dysfunctional” and called its director and general counsel, Kevin Kennedy, an “embarrassment” who “needs to be gone.” His critique has been long on vitriol but short on specifics.
Vos likes that the board, which the Legislature created in 2007, is led by six former judges appointed by the governor to staggered six-year terms. But he believes these judges are being manipulated by Kennedy and other staff into serving as “a rubber stamp.”
“The GAB judges are not in charge, and that has to change,” Vos said recently.
Kennedy, noting in an interview that the board has at times overruled staff, is not aware of any board support for legislative intervention. He considers Vos’ comments “an insult to the board members.” The judges seem inclined to agree.
Board Chairman Thomas Barland finds Vos’ criticism “grossly exaggerated and sensationalized.” Gerald Nichol, a board member since 2008, says he’s “never felt misled” by staff. Both praise Kennedy, whom only the board can remove.
Barland, a former Republican lawmaker, laments that in his five years on the GAB “no member of either house of the Legislature has contacted me before making public calls for changes in how the board operates.” Nichol, a former Republican district attorney, sees a need to tweak some GAB rules but is likewise miffed that lawmakers “never come to us” for input.
In other words, the judges Vos says he’s looking out for disagree with his analysis and resent lawmakers’ failure to get their input — the very thing Vos accuses GAB staff of doing.
Vos did not respond to an interview request or to written questions, including whether the judges have expressed concerns to him about being overshadowed by staff. He has stated elsewhere that “the straw that broke the camel’s back” was when GAB staff redesigned the Nov. 4 ballot “willy nilly right before the election” without consulting the judges or others.
In fact, the design was unveiled July 17, well before the election. A lawsuit over these ballots filed by Vos and fellow Republican Scott Fitzgerald was dismissed on technical grounds after a vigorous defense of the GAB’s actions by GOP Attorney General J.B. Van Hollen.
But Vos happens to be right that the judges are not pleased with how this matter was handled.
“The ballot was sent out without the board’s knowledge or review and I believe it was sent out prematurely in terms of staff review,” says Barland, adding that the board is looking into what occurred. But he’s confident its concerns can be fully addressed without the Legislature needing to change any rules.
Jay Heck, executive director of Common Cause in Wisconsin, thinks lawmakers are irked that the GAB backed a John Doe probe into alleged illegal activity involving Republicans and want to end its ability to launch investigations without legislative approval. Fitzgerald, the Senate majority leader, has even proposed having the GAB be governed by partisan political appointees, as was its predecessor, the State Elections Board.
Heck says this shows tremendous amnesia regarding the problems that prompted the Legislature, Vos and Fitzgerald included, to create the GAB in its present form, to ensure independence.
Wisconsin’s GAB has been hailed as a national model and its performance during elections has ranked among the best in the country. A state audit of the board, requested by Republicans, is expected by the end of the year. But already some lawmakers are riled by the GAB’s secrecy regarding its investigations, which extended even to the auditors.
In fact, the Legislature itself insisted on limiting what the board can reveal. A few years back the GAB sought legislative changes to allow it to release more information. That effort went nowhere.
Bill Lueders is the Money and Politics Project director at the Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism (www.WisconsinWatch.org). The Center produces the project in partnership with MapLight.