MADISON, Wis. — Wisconsin Republicans are moving at breakneck speed to abolish secret investigations into political corruption such as one that haunted Gov. Scott Walker, do away with the state’s unique nonpartisan elections board and legalize coordination between candidates and shadowy issue advocacy groups that don’t disclose their donors.
The moves come after Republicans were angered by a secret investigation of Walker approved by the elections board that focused on coordination with conservative issue advocacy groups.
Republicans deny they’re seeking retribution for the probe, which the state Supreme Court in July ended as unconstitutional. But Democrats and independent observers say the changes will transform the state’s elections and regulatory process, making it more difficult to investigate politicians for wrongdoing in office.
“It’s overreach. It’s arrogance. It’s the arrogance of power,” said Jay Heck, director of the nonpartisan government watchdog group Common Cause in Wisconsin. “These changes in the law benefit the people in power, and it just happens to be Republicans at this point. If Democrats had enacted this same agenda, it would benefit them.”
One bill would replace the nonpartisan elections board with one comprised of partisan appointees. A second would relax campaign finance restrictions. A third — just signed into law by Walker on Friday — ends a tool unique to Wisconsin known as the John Doe investigation.
“We have a party here going after one party rule forever with the laws that they’re putting in place,” said Democratic state Rep. Terese Berceau. “They have redistricting. They’re going to get rid of our watchdog. They’re going to change state law regarding whether politicians can be investigated for wrongdoing. What more can they possibly do? There’ll be something next week, I’m sure.”
Republicans defend the changes, saying they’re bringing Wisconsin law into line with recent court opinions and with other states. Assembly Speaker Robin Vos accused Democrats of having “Walker derangement syndrome” that blinds them to the need for the legislation.
The Government Accountability Board overseeing elections, campaign finance laws, ethics issues and lobbying was created in a nearly unanimous vote in 2007, after a scandal that ensnared legislative leaders from both parties in 2002.
Wisconsin is the only state with such a model, which features a board consisting of nonpartisan judges.
Republicans cite audits that show the board didn’t check voter lists for felons casting ballots as required by law. They say emails from its staffers show a partisan bias. And they complain that the ballot designs and scheduling of recall elections favored Democrats.
It was the board’s role in approving the John Doe investigation into Walker and the conservative groups that finally led to the proposal to do away with the board’s director and remove the judges, replacing them with an equal number of Republican and Democratic appointees. Republicans say it is more honest and transparent than pretending that former judges have no bias.
A John Doe investigation is similar to a grand jury, but done before a judge. Witnesses can be compelled to testify and they, as well as prosecutors and defense attorneys, are prohibited from speaking publicly about anything related to the investigation.
Republicans say the probes can drag on for years, leaving those involved not knowing whether charges are coming and not able to speak about it.
While Walker’s signature on Friday eliminated use of the tool to investigate political misconduct, including bribery, theft and campaign finance wrongdoing, it still can be used for some drug crimes and violent felonies. Walker also is generally supportive of the proposed changes to the election watchdog and campaign finance law.
Every other state is able to use the grand jury process to prosecute crimes and Wisconsin district attorneys can do the same, Assembly speaker Vos said.
But district attorneys who have used the John Doe process say it’s more effective, more efficient and less expensive than grand jury proceedings.
Heck, of Common Cause, said doing away with the John Doe law and nonpartisan elections board will open the door to more corruption.
“I don’t think any citizen views this other than just a self-serving agenda for politicians,” he said. “I think there’s a bit of anger and concern about that.”
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