Michael Gableman testifies before the Assembly Committee on Campaigns and Elections on March 1, 2022. (Screenshot | WisEye)
Wisconsin Democratic lawmakers are urging Republicans to join in commissioning a nonpartisan state audit of the partisan election review office established by Assembly Speaker Robin Vos a year ago.
The Office of Special Council (OSC) that Vos established under the leadership of former state Supreme Court Justice Michael Gableman has already racked up at least $1 million in expenses and found no evidence of fraud in the 2020 presidential election.
Democrats on the Legislature’s Joint Audit Committee sent a letter Wednesday morning to Sen. Robert Cowles (R-Green Bay), the remaining co-chair of the committee. (The Assembly co-chair, Samantha Kerkman, stepped down from the Legislature after she was elected Kenosha County executive in April.)
“As members of the Joint Audit Committee, it is our duty to look at different aspects of state government to assess their efficiency and effectiveness,” the Democrats’ letter states. “The OSC appears to be one of the most blatant misappropriations of tax dollars in our state’s history.”
Democrats in the Legislature have previously called on their Republican colleagues to authorize an audit of the operation but were rejected.
The letter, signed by Sens. Melissa Agard (D-Madison) and Tim Carpenter (D-Milwaukee) as well as State Reps. Dianne Hesselbein (D-Middleton) and Francesca Hong (D-Madison), cited the recent fissure between Vos and Gableman over the former justice’s reports on the 2020 Wisconsin presidential vote that Democrat Joe Biden won, defeating Republican President Donald Trump.
Despite baseless claims from Trump and his allies about voter fraud and a stolen election, Gableman’s reports yielded no new findings and no evidence that any of the Trump-inspired allegations were valid.
Vos and Gableman split in part over Gableman’s attempts to persuade legislative leaders that they should consider overturning Wisconsin’s 10 electoral votes that went to Biden. Vos claimed that a review was warranted to address vaguely defined irregularities and crumbling public confidence in the results, which outside experts have said was largely due to the Republicans’ amplification of unfounded accusations about the outcome.
But when that led some inside and outside the Legislature to call for decertifying the state’s electoral votes, Vos rejected those demands, pointing out that such an action was unconstitutional and legally impossible.
At a rally in Waukesha last week for the gubernatorial campaign of Tim Michels featuring Trump, Gableman endorsed Adam Steen, who challenged Vos for his Assembly seat in a Republican primary. Gableman recorded a robocall urging voters to pick Steen and claiming that Vos had never really supported the review he hired Gableman to conduct.
Tuesday night, Vos narrowly survived Steen’s challenge and, in remarks at his victory party, called Gableman “an embarrassment to the state,” accusing him of telling lies.
The newly erupted warfare between Vos and Gableman figured in the Democrats’ call for an audit of Gableman’s operation. Their letter cited the Gableman robocall comment that Vos “never wanted a real investigation into the 2020 election in Wisconsin.”
“We have numerous concerns related to Gableman’s allegation,” the letter to Cowles states. “First, if the Speaker did not want an actual review of the election, then why has over $1 million dollars of taxpayer money been spent to perpetuate election conspiracies? Second, Michael Gableman using the investigation for partisan political purposes in a campaign robocall puts into question the merits of whether this investigation did any work at all, or if they were simply using taxpayer dollars to further a divisive political agenda.”
Cowles’ office did not respond to an email sent to the senator and each of his staffers seeking comment about the Democrats’ letter. The audit committee’s job is to set the agenda for audits of state government agencies and procedures, which are conducted by the nonpartisan Legislative Audit Bureau.
Agard said that with its more than $1 million tab, the entire Vos-Gableman investigation was a waste of money.
“How much more money are we going to be spending of our state’s hard-earned tax dollars for something that is not going to change the results of this election?” Agard said in an interview.
“Even as recently as last night, Speaker Vos expressed discontent” with how Gableman had conducted the review, she continued. “Let’s pull the plug. Tax dollars should not be used to score political points.”
The Gableman robocall and Vos’ election night comments were a “bombshell” that prompted the Democrats’ request, Carpenter said Wednesday.
“It’s in the taxpayers’ interest to have an audit on how the money was misspent and how the claim that the election was stolen was a fraud,” he said. “Vos will get rid of
Gableman, but he’s not going to answer about how that money is spent and how much more money is going to be spent.”
In March, three Republicans joined Democrats in a failed effort to get an audit proposal on the Senate floor calendar so it could be debated and voted upon. By then, however, Republican leaders had already declared they would not plan for any other floor sessions for the remainder of 2022, citing the election.
“Because it’s an election year, they don’t want to meet about having an audit on the Gableman petition,” Carpenter said.
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