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Ethics head asks for investigation to clear his name

The Wisconsin State Capitol dome in Madison is seen, Aug. 24, 2017. (WLUK/Courtney Ryan)

MADISON (AP) -- The administrator of the Wisconsin Ethics Commission made an unusual request Friday for the panel to investigate him, seeking to clear his name after the Legislature's Republican leaders questioned his impartiality.

Commissioners moved into closed session to discuss Brian Bell's request. If they do launch an investigation it would be done in secret, but Bell said he looked forward to making its findings public.

Investigating Bell would give the commission the power to subpoena records and compel witnesses to testify under oath, a move that could force Republicans questioning Bell's qualifications to provide proof of their claims.

Republican Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald and Assembly Speaker Robin Vos have called for Bell to resign, saying that lawmakers have lost confidence over his ability to lead because of what they said are partisan influences leftover from when he worked for the former Government Accountability Board.

The Legislature dissolved the GAB in 2015 amid anger over secret John Doe investigations into alleged wrongdoing by Gov. Scott Walker and other Republicans. Bell worked at the GAB but was not involved in the John Doe probes. The Wisconsin Supreme Court ended the second John Doe in 2015 after determining there was no illegal conduct.

The Ethics and Elections commissions, made up of an equal number of Republicans and Democrats, replaced the GAB.

Bell, and commissioners, pushed back GOP claims questioning Bell's ability to lead at a hastily called meeting Friday.

"I believe, with all my heart, that an objective review of my conduct in service to the state would definitely show that I have consistently conducted myself in a nonpartisan and impartial manner," Bell said.

He said he welcomed an investigation and the public release of its findings, saying it would "refute the baseless allegations that have been made against me."

Vos and Fitzgerald have also called for the resignation of Elections Commission administrator Michael Haas, who also worked at the GAB. Haas sent them a letter Thursday accusing Vos and Fitzgerald of slander and defamation for suggesting he may have acted criminally. He called for them to apologize. Haas attended the Ethics Commission meeting but did not speak.

Ethics commissioners again publicly defended Bell, just two weeks after they completed his performance review and previously publicly supported his confirmation. The Senate has not scheduled a confirmation hearing or vote. Fitzgerald has said that Bell would be rejected, but it's unclear whether a Senate vote alone would force his removal from the job overseeing administration of the state's ethics laws as they apply to office holders, lobbyists and other government officials.

It appears that Bell is "being unfairly tarred by the dark shadow of the Government Accountability Board misconduct and perceived partisanship," said Republican commissioner Mac Davis, a former state senator and judge.

"In my opinion there has not been one whiff of partisanship whatsoever from our administrator," said Commissioner Jeralyn Wendelberger, a Democrat.

Commissioner chair David Halbrooks, a Democrat, predicted if there were a hearing Bell would receive broad, bipartisan support. The commission agreed to send Fitzgerald a letter asking if the Senate planned to hold a public hearing on his confirmation and if not it may hold its own hearing to give those who oppose Bell a chance to speak out.

"I'd love to hear what their reasons are," Halbrooks said.

Fitzgerald's spokesman Dan Romportl did not immediately return a message Friday.

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