Going back to bad old days with death of GAB

REST IN PEACE, Government Accountability Board. Wisconsin’s strong and nonpartisan watchdog agency is being put down this month by Republican politicians who feared the agency’s independence.

Instead of retired judges with long reputations for fairness overseeing elections and ethical standards, top lawmakers are appointing their partisan pals to look the other way. That’s clear from most of the appointments so far to the ethics and elections commissions, which will replace the GAB at the end of the month.

In fact, the commissions — weak and politically connected — will mostly serve at the pleasure of top lawmakers. That means lawmakers will essentially be in charge of policing themselves. So little scrutiny will occur.

A similar scenario was in place a decade ago, when the old ethics and elections boards had to ask lawmakers for money to investigate some of those very same lawmakers. It was a sham.

And the absence of strong enforcement of campaign rules contributed to the caucus scandal, in which state leaders turned public employees into private campaign soldiers. Only incumbents and the favorite candidates of top lawmakers were given taxpayer-subsidized staff, providing an unfair advantage in elections.

After a State Journal investigation exposed that public workers for the legislative caucuses were blatantly campaigning on state time, several top lawmakers went to jail. And the Legislature, in near-unanimous votes, eliminated the ineffective elections and ethics boards, creating the nonpartisan and independent GAB nearly a decade ago.

The GAB’s retired judges are insulated from politics as much as possible, and they can investigate suspected wrongdoing without having to ask the politicians for permission.

The GAB was a powerful force for good government in Wisconsin.

Now Gov. Scott Walker and the Legislature are going back to the bad old days — before the caucus scandal — when enforcement of rules was weak. They’re stacking the elections and ethics commissions with their political allies.

Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald,

R-Juneau, has appointed Katie McCallum, a former GOP Senate staffer and now secretary of the Republican Party of Wisconsin, to the ethics panel. She’s also the daughter-inlaw of a former GOP governor.

Who do you suppose she’ll be loyal to when ethical questions are raised?

At the same time, Senate Democratic Minority Leader Jennifer Shilling, D-La Crosse, has appointed Peg Lautenschlager to the ethics board. Lautenschlager is a loyal Democrat who, as attorney general, drove drunk in a state car, violating state rules.

Then there’s Steve King, appointed to the elections board by Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, R-Rochester, who is a Republican National Committee member with ties to former Watergate conspirator John Mitchell.

Add to the mix David Halbrooks, appointed by Assembly Democratic Minority Leader Peter Barca, D-Kenosha, to the ethics commission. Halbrooks served as a loyal Democrat on the old elections board more than a decade ago, appointed by then-Senate Majority Leader Chuck Chvala who went to jail in the caucus scandal.

Wisconsin’s watchdog agency is devolving into a pair of lap dogs, which risks corruption. — Wisconsin State Journal, June 5

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