A nonpartisan state agency with a once-pristine record could fix its recent miscues by shining a light on a sham election “investigation.”
Everyone falls short of expectations from time to time, and not every misstep is followed by an opportunity for redemption. The team at the Legislative Audit Bureau (LAB)—and, by extension, the lawmakers on the Legislative Audit Committee—would be wise to take another crack at setting the record straight on who’s providing a public service when it comes to Wisconsin elections and who is fleecing the taxpayers of our state.
It is no secret that Republicans in the state Legislature continue to do everything possible to conjure the illusion of fraud or impropriety that never existed during the 2020 presidential election. Charitably put, it’s being done to stroke the ego of twice-impeached former President Donald Trump. A more abhorrent motivation increasingly appears to involve an organized effort in several states to fraudulently overturn a fair and professionally conducted election.
Just days into President Joe Biden’s term, GOP lawmakers ordered the LAB to conduct a review of an election that had already been conducted, counted, recounted, audited, and litigated. Few eyebrows were raised, though, because the LAB has never had anything but a spotless reputation for professionalism and nonpartisan oversight of state government.
In normal times, an LAB review would have examined the conduct of the Wisconsin Elections Commission (WEC)—a bipartisan commission created by Republicans to interpret and administer state election law—and confirmed, once again, that there was no widespread fraud. The report would be expected to outline the usual minor changes that could be made after any undertaking as broad as a presidential election.
But we are not living in normal times, and the LAB report last October raised eyebrows and genuine concerns about whether its work was influenced by or caved in to partisan pressure.
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The LAB report made 30 recommendations based on recommendations WEC made during the 2020 election—many by unanimous vote, and many more with five of six members creating a bipartisan majority. The WEC reviewed the report in December, even as Republican commissioner Dean Knudson called the recommendations “somewhat petty” and Democratic commission chair Ann Jacobs called them “fairly innocuous” and said they “didn’t have much to do with vote counting, vote assessing, and the like.”
“A lot of legislators told me the Legislative Audit Bureau was completely nonpartisan,” Jacobs said. “‘Boy, they’re really good guys.’ And I gotta tell you, whatever that reputation was, it’s not deserved today. And that’s unfortunate if they’re expected to be a neutral arbiter.”
Audit Bureau staff know they can’t get everything perfect the first time, so audits are typically shared with the office or agency being reviewed so that mistakes can be caught. An audit is not a criminal probe, and, again, there is no credible allegation of any misdeeds that would necessitate a deviation from professional practices. And yet the LAB refused in this instance to review a draft with the elections commission staff or administrator.
“They made a lot of errors, which we spent a lot of time correcting,” Jacobs said, adding the LAB “turned [WEC’s] bipartisanship upside-down. They implied a lot of things as nefarious when they were not.”
Knudson also noted how one portion of the report related to election data compilation smacked of “sloppy work, inaccuracy, and unprofessionalism.”
But the LAB can repair this smudge on its reputation by reviewing the shadowy, secretive conduct of former state Supreme Court Justice Mike Gableman and a rogues’ gallery of Trump advocates who are getting paid handsomely with our tax dollars to “investigate” the already thoroughly investigated 2020 election.
Sen. Tim Carpenter (D-Milwaukee), a member of the Legislative Audit Committee, has requested an audit of the Office of Special Counsel, a title and a position made up by legislative Republicans so that Gableman could receive a budget of $676,000 to do whatever it is he’s doing.
“There was no legislative resolution or bill to establish this office, and the language of that motion was not provided to the public transparently,” Carpenter said. “[Gableman’s office] is an unaccountable, rogue group of partisan actors operating without any known charter or formal objective.”
Carpenter is also asking the LAB to provide information about the people Gableman has hired or associated with as part of his probe. They include Ron Heuer, president of the Wisconsin Voters Alliance, a group that unsuccessfully sued to block the elections commission so the Republican-controlled Legislature could choose the state’s ten electors. The claim was riddled with errors to the point that a federal judge referred one the group’s attorneys for discipline.
Gableman has missed two deadlines for ending his investigation. Perhaps he could have made better use of his time than appearing at several local Republican Party events to talk up Republicans who agree with his stated but unproven suspicions and talk down Republicans who call on him to end the charade.
Since Assembly Speaker Robin Vos (R-Rochester) is the person who created the Gableman mess—even introducing Gableman at last summer’s state Republican Party convention—we don’t envision him doing anything but extending this farce well into the 2022 campaign season with an untold further waste of tax dollars.
An LAB audit—independent, professional, and expedited—is Wisconsin taxpayers’ last hope for signs that politicians can’t have blank checks to engage in partisan activity under the guise of official business.