By Emily Zantow/Courthouse News
MADISON, Wis. (CN) – Wisconsin state senators voted 18-13 along party lines Tuesday to reject confirmation of the heads of the state’s ethics and elections commissions because of their connection to an investigation into Republican Governor Scott Walker’s campaign.
Republican Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald said he did not have confidence in Ethics Commission administrator Brian Bell and Elections Commission administrator Michael Haas’ ability to be nonpartisan in the posts they’ve held since 2016.
Bell and Haas were accusing of being involved in leaking secret material to British newspaper The Guardian from the 2012 John Doe investigations into alleged campaign-finance violations by Republican Governor Scott Walker and conservative groups. The investigations were led by prosecutors and the state’s now-disbanded Government Accountability Board, which Bell and Haas served on.
In 2015, the Wisconsin Supreme Court ruled that the John Doe probes were unfounded and ended the investigations, which drove Walker and other Republicans to get rid of the accountability board and replace it with an ethics commission and an elections commission. Both bodies consist of three Republicans and three Democrats.
The state’s high court also ruled to keep the investigation documents rather than destroy them.
The Guardian received the material about a year later and published a story asserting that leaked court documents from the investigation “lay bare pervasive influence of corporate cash on modern US elections.”
Wisconsin Attorney General Brad Schimel, a Republican, sought to find out who was responsible for leaking the secret material.
Schimel’s investigation did not reveal exactly who leaked the documents but found last month that the information came from the Government Accountability Board.
Republican lawmakers then called for the removal of Bell and Haas due to their previous positions on the accountability board.
According to the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, Bell didn’t work on the John Doe investigations and Haas was not part of the main investigation team but reviewed legal filings when it was challenged in court.
On Monday, the Wisconsin Ethics Commission released a 35-page report finding that Bell acted in a professional and nonpartisan way.
“Brian Bell acted in a proper manner as to his cooperation with the DOJ investigation and in his handling of the John Doe materials,” the report states. “There is not a scintilla of evidence that Brian Bell has ever performed any of his governmental duties in a partisan manner.”
The Wisconsin Elections Commission also unanimously supported keeping Haas as its administrator.
But the support didn’t seem to have an influence on state senators, as they voted along party lines Tuesday to reject Bell and Haas’ confirmation, leaving both of their former positions vacant.
Republicans control the Wisconsin Senate 18-13.