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Wednesday, May 7, 2008

Was the State Campaign Finance Reform Bill of 2007 Actually a St

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If an elected official is under investigation for campaign finance violations, will Wisconsin voters ever know it? Not likely, according to rules governing the new Government Accountability Board (GAB), which was created last year to clean up ethical lapses in government.

Unfortunately, its investigations will most likely never see the light of day. According to the legislation that created the GAB—the result of the merger of the state Elections Board and the state Ethics Board in 2007, with much fanfare from legislators and the governor—this new agency is prohibited from disclosing any information about campaign finance investigations.

GAB staff members are able to acknowledge the receipt of a complaint—but only if that information has already been disclosed publicly by some other person or the media. They can also disclose whether the complaint has been dismissed or if the GAB has taken some other action.

Otherwise, it’s “no comment” from the GAB staff. No other information can be disclosed, such as the nature of the complaint, why a matter has been dismissed, the parties that were involved or the information turned up during the investigation.

GAB staff members who disclose information can be fined up to $10,000. Previously, investigations into campaign finance violations by the state Elections Board had been open records— even though the board had been partisan. It was a transparent system and the public’s right to know was protected. This all changed with the new “reform” legislation.

Now the transparency is gone. Instead, the GAB is following the process of the old state Ethics Board, which conducted investigations into lobbying and ethics violations in secret. George Dunst, staff attorney for the GAB, said he disagrees with the decision require the agency to withhold information about investigations.

“In my view, instead of making campaign finance confidential and secret, the reverse should have been done,” Dunst said. “Ethics and lobbying should have been made public so the people’s business conducted in the open, as it should be.”

The great irony is that the legislation creating the GAB gave the agency a blank check for its investigations, as well as the political independence to pursue controversial allegations. Yet none of those efforts will be known the public. Mike McCabe, executive director of the Wisconsin Democracy Campaign, said that while the GAB has many resources at disposal, the lack of transparency is one the weaknesses of the new agency.

“They have the ability to investigate,” McCabe said. “They’ve got all of the tools they need, but I think the fact that they are required under the law to do all of this behind closed doors will ultimately undermine public confidence in their work. I think it’s bad for the new agency.”

McCabe said the original version of ethics reform legislation that created the GAB, authored by Sen. Mike Ellis (R- Neenah) and Sen. Jon Erpenbach (D- Middleton), did not include the non-disclosure requirement. That was added during negotiations between leaders of the state Senate and Assembly. McCabe said Assembly Speaker Mike Huebsch (R-West Salem) and Rep. Mark Gundrum (R-New Berlin) added that provision—as well as the ability to have a case heard in their home district, instead of in Madison—in exchange for their approval of the final deal.

“Legislators prefer to keep these investigations out of the public eye,” McCabe said. McCabe noted that the Wisconsin Democracy Campaign sent the GAB a letter regarding two possible campaign contribution violations earlier this year.

“But we won’t know, unless a decision is made to fine them, whether the board is even acting on this issue,” McCabe said. “We won’t know what they’re investigating, or whether they’re investigating it until they come to a final conclusion. So even though we raised the issue, I haven’t a clue if the board is acting on this matter.

I hope they are.” The GAB isn’t able to change these rules—only new legislation can. McCabe said he knows of no such bills in the works, which means that violations during the upcoming elections will most likely be kept secret from Wisconsin voters.

What’s your take? Write: editor@shepex.com or comment on this story online at www.expressmilwaukee.com.

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