The bipartisan state Ethics Commission has made a public show of support for its administrator, Brian Bell, as Republican legislative leaders are vowing to force him out later this month.
The commission, made up of three Democrats and three Republicans, cast a formal, unanimous vote of confidence in Bell at their meeting Thursday.
GOP lawmakers have made a similar threat to oust the administrator of the state Elections Commission, Michael Haas — who also has the support of that bipartisan commission.
State Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald says he will hold a Senate vote Jan. 23 to reject their confirmations. Fitzgerald, R-Juneau, also has rejected calls from the commissions to hold public hearings on the administrators’ performance.
The Republican legislative leaders have said the problem with Bell and Haas is that both are former employees of the now-defunct Government Accountability Board and there is concern about “partisan influence” leftover from that agency. The GAB was nonpartisan, led by retired judges.
Bell, asked by commissioners at a Thursday meeting why he left the accountability board, said he departed it in 2014 in part because “I didn’t necessarily always agree with how things operated.”
“I didn’t feel there were enough policies and procedures in place to ensure objectivity and consistency,” Bell said in a subsequent interview.
Democratic commissioner Jeralyn Wendelberger said she doesn’t understand what concerns about partisanship apply to Bell.
“We still are in the dark as to those allegations,” Wendelberger said.
Wendelberger advocated the commission holding its own hearing on Bell if the Senate won’t. Republican commissioner Pat Strachota said that while she supports Bell, she’s not sure what would be accomplished by a hearing because the final word on confirmation is in the Senate.
Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, R-Rochester, and Fitzgerald last month called on Haas and Bell to resign. Vos, asked Thursday why they needed to go, said “for a sizable chunk of the electorate and especially of elected officials, they question the ability of folks who aren’t taking responsibility for what actually occurred during the GAB fiasco to now be the ones with their thumb on the scale as to what is right and what is wrong in our elections and ethics process.”
“I just felt it would be easier to kind of wipe the slate clean,” Vos said.
The Republican lawmakers’ call for Bell and Haas to resign came immediately after Republican Attorney General Brad Schimel released a sweeping report on a probe of leaked records from a now-shuttered secret investigation into Gov. Scott Walker’s 2012 recall campaign. The backlash from that so-called “John Doe” investigation was what led to the dissolution of the accountability board.
The Attorney General’s report recommended disciplinary action for nine public officials — none of whom are Bell or Haas.
Sen. Steve Nass, R-Whitewater, said in a letter made public Thursday that he will oppose Bell’s confirmation, in part, because of the report. Nass said it raises questions about the extent to which Bell cooperated with the Attorney General’s probe, and about how he stored records left over from the accountability board.
Bell last month took the unusual step of asking the commission to investigate him in response to allegations that he is partisan.
Nass, in the letter, said attorney Patrick Fiedler contacted Nass and informed him that he had been hired as an investigator by the commission “regarding an ethics inquiry of Mr. Bell.” Fiedler formerly was a federal prosecutor, state Department of Corrections secretary and Dane County Circuit Court judge for 18 years.