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WI GOP Wants to Dismantle Nonpartisan Gov’t Accountability Board Because It’s…Nonpartisan

WI GAB Director and General Counsel Kevin Kennedy (via AP)

WI GAB Director and General Counsel Kevin Kennedy (via AP)

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In an enlightening article for the Huffington Post, Mary Bottari of The Center for Media and Democracy and ALEC Exposed uncovers the efforts of the Wisconsin GOP to dismantle the state’s nonpartisan Government Accountability Board (GAB) and replace it with a more partisan version that would be rendered ineffective.  The uniquely independent board was created out of necessity after a 2002 scandal wherein leaders of both parties faced felony charges for shaking down donors in the halls of the state Capitol building.  The scandal led to a special session in 2007 and bipartisan passage of Wisconsin Act 1.

The timing of the change is alarming. One would think that probes into Scott Walker’s campaign finances and potentially illegal coordination between the governor and independent campaign finance groups would make Republicans more introspective. They might even want to ramp up oversight efforts. But the opposite is true. Walker and co. would rather have the folks charged with accountability “dismantled”.

As Bottari notes, the irony of the situation is that the vast majority of the retired judges that make up the board are Republicans Walker appointees.  In response to the GAB destruction plan, Minority Leader Peter Barca took a stroll down memory lane, saying: “130 out of 132 legislators voted less than 10 years ago to get rid of the old system because it was fraught with so many problems.”

Jay Heck, who worked with the group Common Cause to create the uniquely bipartisan GAB, provided his own analysis of why there is a new push to make changes to the board:

“The only thing that has changed since the creation of the GAB in 2007 and now is an enhanced need by the party in power to control decisions affecting elections, campaign finance and ethics. All the other false charges do not stand up to scrutiny.”

The rationale being used by the Wisconsin GOP is that the judges have become too partisan.  Among their main targets is Kevin Kennedy, director and general counsel for the GAB, who House Speaker Robin Vos called a “rubber stamp” who “must go.”  However, the perception of Kennedy by the state GOP compared to the perception of Kennedy by his peers is telling. Former GAB Chair, Thomas Barland, called Vos’ comments “grossly exaggerated and sensationalized.”  

Current GAB Chairman, Judge Gerald Nichol, spoke out against the extreme proposal. He, too, is a Republican appointed by Walker:

“I think the GAB in its current structure is very responsive to the people and the public of the state of Wisconsin. You have six retired, reserve judges who are nonpartisan and can’t be involved in politics that have the oversight of the agency and meet on a regular basis to review the agency and all of its obligations to the people of the state.”

Nichol went on to defend Kennedy, arguing:

“In the eight years I have been on the board, I have nothing but the utmost respect for him. He is a national leader and the people of Wisconsin are well served by his service. He serves at our pleasure and we review him every year, I have no qualms with his leadership and he certainly has a great staff…I am the chair and my wife tells me I talk to Kevin Kennedy more than I do her. In the eight years I have been on the board, I have always been aware of what is going on.”

What, then, is the reason for call for drastic changes? In many Wisconsinites’ eyes, the answer is simple: The GAB approved the Milwaukee district attorney’s John Doe investigation into Governor Walker’s campaign practices.  

For a primer on the first John Doe investigation, read our piece on the subject from January of 2012.

Speaking to WISN, Nichol explained the GAB’s involvement with the investigation for the first time publicly:

“You have to remember that the Attorney General JB Van Hollen referred the Milwaukee District Attorney to the GAB with the subject matter of the John Doe, and DA John Chisholm came to us with information and material and asked us to evaluate it, which was our obligation. Based upon what we thought was the existing law at that time, we authorized an investigation and gave assistance, but did not conduct the John Doe.”

Read Bottari’s piece in its entirety as she details the changes being sought, the history of the GAB, and the current state of politics in Wisconsin.


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