SLASH AND BURN

02.08.15 11:45 AM ET

Scott Walker’s War on Good Government

Why do the Wisconsin governor and his allies want to gut an independent anti-corruption agency?

Here’s a good government rule of thumb: foxes ought not guard the henhouse. When self-interested politicians rig the rules to protect themselves against independent scrutiny, citizens have a reason to be concerned.  Common sense tells us that any politician – especially one with White House dreams like Wisconsin’s Governor Scott Walker – should know that undermining an independent government agency sure makes it look like you’ve got something to hide.

Gov. Walker gained office – and won reelection last fall – by casting himself as a conservative reformer. His zeal for cutting budgets and bashing unions has made him popular on the right. Following a reportedly “strong performance” at Iowa’s Freedom Summit, sponsored by Citizens United, the same organization that brought you unlimited and unaccountable secret money in politics through its infamous Supreme Court case, Gov. Walker filed paperwork last week to set up a 527 political organization, “Our American Revival,” to explore a run for President in 2016.

This first move towards a presidential run is sure to bring Walker plenty of attention from reporters and Republican activists. Yet it seems Walker’s dreams for the Oval Office might lead him, or allies helping to position him, to interfere with an independent investigation into his campaigns. Walker’s loyalists are attempting to defund, undermine, and destroy Wisconsin’s Government Accountability Board (GAB), an independent investigative agency, which enforces ethics, campaign finance, and election laws. It’s an agency that investigated alleged illegal campaign finance violations that plagued Walker’s 2012 recall election.

Top election law experts around the country call Wisconsin’s GAB, “America’s Top Model” of agencies charged with administering state elections.  Most modern democracies around the world have independent election overseers to avoid partisan hacks writing election rules to favor their party. Unfortunately, impartial election boards are not common in American democracy yet.  Wisconsin’s GAB is the gold standard, and is watched closely by reformers eager to modernize our political system so that voters set the rules for politicians, instead of politicians writing rules for themselves.

The GAB was created in 2007 with virtually unanimous, bipartisan support in the state legislature. It replaced a collection of ineffective, partisan state elections and ethics boards.  By law, six retired judges make up the board. They are selected in a deliberate, three-part process to ensure that they’re non-partisan and politically impartial. A key provision of the law blocks legislative appropriators from meddling in the agency’s investigations.   

Allies of Gov. Walker are unhappy because in 2012 the GAB voted unanimously to investigate possible illegal coordination between the governor’s recall campaign and two outside special interest groups, Wisconsin Club for Growth and Wisconsin Manufacturers and Commerce. Those organizations spent millions of dollars on Walker’s behalf in the recall election.   The GAB also cooperated and pooled resources with another probe, “John Doe II,” led by Republican and Democratic District Attorneys and a Republican Special Prosecutor.

The John Doe investigators considered potential criminal charges of illegal coordination between Wisconsin Club for Growth and other groups with the Walker campaign during the 2012 recall elections. The John Doe process in Wisconsin is similar to a grand jury investigation - it’s largely secret and permits grants of immunity from prosecution to witnesses in exchange for their testimony.

Some of Gov. Walker’s political allies want to eviscerate the GAB. Others are trying to gut longstanding campaign finance protections. Wisconsin Club for Growth has filed a lawsuit against the GAB, claiming that it lacked power to investigate the possible illegal campaign coordination. Another lawsuit implies that anti-coordination rules, designed to prevent circumvention of contribution limits, impinge on free speech.  

Meanwhile, the GAB also is facing legislative attacks.  The legislature has cut GAB funding in the last three state budgets and launched an audit of the agency in an attempt to embarrass and undermine it.  Most recently—and alarmingly – Wisconsin’s speaker of the assembly and the senate majority leader, both Republicans, have pledged an ill-advised effort to ram through legislation adding partisan appointments to the nonpartisan panel of retired judges, or replace it altogether with partisans.

Either move would destroy the agency’s independence and ability to hold Wisconsin’s government accountable.  To date, the ongoing John Doe investigation (now enjoined by a federal court) has not produced charges against Gov. Walker or his campaign.  But if the governor allows allies in the Legislature to eviscerate an independent state agency that voted unanimously to investigate his past campaign, he will face plenty of questions about his role in the debacle that may turn his White House dream into a nightmare.