MacIver News Service | January 16, 2018

By M.D. Kittle

MADISON, Wis. –  The Michael Haas/Brian Bell defense tour is underway.

Haas, the interim administrator of the state Elections Commission, and Bell, interim administrator for the Ethics Commission, have been making the rounds at various news outlets to personally do what their apologists have been doing for weeks: defending their bureaucratic records and denying their involvement in Wisconsin’s infamous John Doe investigation.

They do so in advance of next week’s confirmation vote in the state Senate, where it appears the Republican majority has lost any faith it had in two men who once worked for the abusive – and sloppy – state Government Accountability Board.

Haas has claimed he had little to do with the John Doe investigation, and he got plenty of cover Monday in another apologist editorial by the Wisconsin State Journal. The paper declared Haas “had little if anything to do with” the probe, an assertion that is not supported by emails and other communications that are a matter of public record.

Last week, Haas told Wisconsin Public Television that, “Nobody can point to any decision or action of myself or the GAB or the current elections commission that’s been based on partisan motives.”

Here are just three examples – of many – that plenty of people, including this news organization, have pointed to as evidence of partisan actions or decisions at the GAB.

  • Haas’ colleague at the GAB, Shane Falk, the staff attorney who helped lead the agency’s activities in the John Doe investigation, wrote the following email to special prosecutor Francis Schmitz on Nov. 27, 2013, nearly two months after John Doe investigators raided the homes of innocent people before dawn:

“Remember, in brief, this was a bastardization of politics and our state is being run by corporations and billionaires.” Falk was referring to (LEGAL) conservative issue advocacy. “This isn’t democracy to say the least, but due to how they do this dark money, the populace never knows.” Interesting to note that Falk, who was an agent in a SECRET investigation, wrote about what he saw as a lack of transparency in the campaign finance system on a secret Gmail account.

GAB-maintained hard drives included transcripts of Google Chat logs between several (conservative) individuals, most of which were purely personal (and sometimes very private) conversations. GAB placed a “large portion” of the emails into several folders titled, “Opposition Research” or “Senate Opposition Research.”

  • And again, Shane Falk, in an email to Francis Schmitz on June 24, 2014, in the heat of the gubernatorial campaign against Gov. Scott Walker and Democrat challenger Mary Burke, wrote:

“If you didn’t want this to have an effect on the election, better check Burke’s new ad. Now you will be calling her a liar,” Falk wrote. Falk was referring to Schmitz walking back earlier statements that Walker was himself a target of the John Doe probe. Falk was clearly concerned about how Schmitz’s statements would impact Burke’s  just-launched campaign ad, which falsely declared that Walker was involved in a criminal scheme. “We said from day one on November 8, 2012, that the election had already started.”

Haas did not return MacIver News Service’s two requests for comment Monday.

The GAB, the predecessor of the Ethics and Elections commissions, was disbanded by the Republican-controlled Legislature in 2016. The dissolution occurred more than a year after the Wisconsin Supreme Court ruled unconstitutional the politically driven John Doe investigation into dozens of conservative groups and Gov. Scott Walker’s campaign. GAB staffers, including Haas, worked alongside the Democrat-led Milwaukee County District Attorney’s office in the widely rejected campaign finance probe.

Bell, an elections specialist with the GAB during the original legal battles over the so-called “John Doe II” investigation, was not directly involved in the secret probe.

The attorney general, however, in his bombshell report, called into question the Ethics Commission’s storage of court-sealed John Doe documents and the interim administrator’s willingness to assist the state Department of Justice in its investigation into John Doe leaks. Ethics Commission Chairman David Halbrooks has said much of the blame lies with John Doe special prosecutor Francis Schmitz, who was ordered by the Supreme Court to turn over all John Doe documents to the custody of the court.

Members of the two commissions have breathlessly defended their administrators as Republican lawmakers have called for Bell’s and Haas’ resignations.

And now the bureaucrats are making their cases to members of a news media that have been generally friendly to the GAB and its partners in the dark probe that silenced conservative speech in Wisconsin.

Bell has asked for an investigation to clear his name. He has said that he differed with GAB staff members in their pursuit of the John Doe investigation. Halbrooks points to an email from former GAB staff counsel Shane Falk criticizing Bell as proof.

“I have noticed significant deficits in Brian’s ‘legislative analysis,’” Falk wrote in an April 25, 2014 email to former GAB director Kevin Kennedy. “I have noticed staff giving conflicting advice on elections matters.” It’s not clear by the email, released in a lawsuit against the GAB, whether Falk is criticizing Bell for opposing the GAB’s involvement in the John Doe probe.

Later, Falk wrote that he hoped “the Court of Appeals doesn’t review the exhibits as closely as we initially desired them to,” referring to a federal lawsuit against the John Doe prosecutors by conservative targets. “If they do, they may claim we have overstated some of the facts, or worse yet, misrepresented them.”

The GAB has been accused of overstating, misrepresenting and outright lying in pushing an illegal campaign coordination theory that was rejected by three courts.

Schimel’s report also found the GAB and its successor failed to secure sensitive court documents and the GAB’s handling of the materials was seriously negligent.

Falk seems to agree in his 2014 emails to the GAB’s director.

“I am not happy how things are going at the GAB. There is no quality control on anything,” the former staffer wrote.

“The (John Doe) investigation database is a complete mess and we are at risk both with PRR (public records request) responses we have sent out and the LAB (Legislative Audit Bureau). I am particularly frustrated with the Doe investigation in general,” Falk wrote in the April 25, 2014 email.

This article appears courtesy of the MacIver Institute.
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