Wisconsin Republicans held a vote Tuesday effectively ousting the state's chief election and ethics officials, a move that is being construed as highly partisan with elections right around the corner.
Led by Republicans in a vote along party lines, the state Senate voted to oust Ethics Administrator Brian Bell and Elections Administrator Michael Haas from their respective roles by denying to confirm them on a permanent basis. Both men did not get a customary public hearing before the vote.
Under Wisconsin law, the administrators of the two commissions are appointed by the board but must be confirmed by the Senate to establish permanence. In voting against the two officials, Republicans believe they have effectively removed them from duty.
But why the sudden push for their ouster?
Haas and Bell previously worked for the state’s Government Accountability Board when it was probing whether the campaign of Gov. Scott Walker (R) illegally coordinated with outside conservative groups. The probe was shut down by the Wisconsin Supreme Court in 2015, but The Guardian obtained information from the investigation and published an article on its contents.
Wisconsin Attorney General Brad Schimel (R) conducted an investigation into the leak and recommended charges against nine people who worked on the probe, but not Bell and Haas. Despite that, House Speaker Robin Vos (R) and Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald (R) both called on Haas and Bell to resign.
The ethics commission and election commission were established after the Government Accountability Board was dissolved in 2015, and Bell and Haas were chosen unanimously as the new headship.
Fitzgerald was uncomfortable having members of the Government Accountability Board hanging around the new commissions, saying it didn't matter to him if they had been cleared of any wrongdoing.
“I can’t have confidence in an agency that still is employing some of the individuals that were there [the Government Accountability Board],” he told the Wisconsin State Journal on Tuesday.
He said he also wants lawmakers to get rid of the positions of two civil servant lawyers at the ethics and elections commission who worked at the Government Accountability Board.
“It’s just hard to develop any type of cooperative relationship or establish credibility as long as some of those people are over there,” he said, according to the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.
The Wisconsin ACLU and Common Cause groups said the move was suspicious, particularly in light of looming elections. Jay Heck, the executive director of Common Cause, called the GOP decision "one of the most grotesque abuses of power" in the state's history:
“No evidence, no charges, no specific examples of misconduct, nothing. Just secret agreement among the members of the majority party in the State Senate to get rid of them both, right before important elections, and replace them, presumably, with sycophants and pawns that the Republicans will dictate what they decide and what the result of their work on elections and ethics will be,” Heck said in a statement.