Former Supreme Court Justice Michael Gableman in a video promoting the partisan review of the 2020 election. (YouTube | Office of the Special Counsel)
On Friday, Wisconsin Assembly Speaker Robin Vos fired Michael Gableman, the former Supreme Court justice Vos had appointed last year to lead the Office of Special Counsel, investigating Wisconsin’s 2020 presidential election.
After spending more than $1 million in taxpayer dollars to investigate election conspiracy theories over the last 14 months, threatening to jail the mayors of Madison and Green Bay for refusing to comply with his order that they give secret testimony, and being held in contempt by Wisconsin courts for failing to produce public records related to the investigation, Gableman had, according to one of the judges who sanctioned him, found no evidence of fraud.
One week before he was fired, Gableman appeared at a rally with former President Donald Trump to support GOP gubernatorial candidate Tim Michels. Trump, who has repeatedly attacked Vos for refusing to go along with Trump’s demand that he accomplish the legally impossible task of decertifying Wisconsin’s electoral vote for President Joe Biden, announced at the rally that Gableman was supporting Vos’ primary challenger. Gableman even recorded a robocall to voters in Vos’ district in which he declared, “everything that my office and I have been able to do, to expose all the corruption that took place, has been in spite of Robin and not because of him.”
On election night, after Vos won the primary by 260 votes, he called Gableman “an embarrassment to the state.”
Vos told reporters on Tuesday that he planned to meet with the Republican legislative caucus next week to decide the fate of Gableman’s probe. Instead, he announced the firing Friday, stating, “After having many members of our caucus reach out to me over the past several days, it is beyond clear to me that we only have one choice in this matter, and that’s to close the Office of Special Counsel.”
State Sen. Melissa Agard (D-Madison), one of a group of Democrats who had called on their Republican colleagues in the Legislature to audit the Office of Special Counsel, called the firing “long overdue.”
“While it is too late to repair the damage done by this baseless, expensive, and hyperpartisan charade, the lack of verifiable evidence presented by the Gableman investigation has proven beyond the shadow of a doubt that the 2020 election was secure and conducted fairly,” Rep Lisa Subeck (D-Madison) said in a statement. “Republican leadership should demonstrate the courage to apologize to taxpayers for this expensive farce. They should apologize to our local elections officials for the demonization and harassment they faced as a result of the baseless allegations of fraud. And they should publicly condemn the widespread misinformation that has undermined faith in our democracy.”
But Vos, in a statement, said that he and other Republicans “remain concerned about ensuring we have election integrity,” even after shutting down Gableman’s review. He called on his fellow Republicans to “focus on our efforts to elect a Republican governor in November so we can pass the bills that were vetoed by Gov. Evers.”
In April, Evers vetoed a package of bills passed by Republicans in the Legislature that would have changed Wisconsin’s election laws. Among them was a measure prohibiting municipalities from accepting private donations to assist with election administration. (Republicans have made unproven accusations that grants from a group affiliated with Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg tilted election results in the state’s largest cities.) Other measures included restricting absentee voting; requiring the Wisconsin Elections Commission to hire partisan attorneys; giving the Legislature control over guidance delivered to election clerks; and requiring the state to conduct checks to ensure that registered voters are U.S. citizens.
When he vetoed the bills, Evers said they were “passed under the guise of needing to reform our election system because elected officials in this state have enabled disinformation about our elections and elections process.”
Much of that disinformation emanated from Trump, who insisted that the 2020 election in Wisconsin had been stolen from him, and accused Vos and other state Republican leaders of “working hard to cover up election corruption in Wisconsin.”
Trump threatened primary challenges to Vos, Senate Majority Leader Devin LeMahieu and Senate President Chris Kapenga if they didn’t “step up and support the people who elected them” by investigating his false claims of election fraud.
When he set up the Office of Special Counsel Vos chose a controversial figure to lead it in former Supreme Court Justice Michael Gableman. Gableman had served only one term on the Court after defeating Wisconsin’s first African American Supreme Court Justice Louis Butler, using a false attack ad that Wisconsin Judicial Commission staff criticized for its “reckless disregard for the truth.”
On the court, Gableman’s strong opposition to ethics rules, and his refusal to recuse himself from cases involving donors to his campaign, made news.
When Gableman decided not to run again in 2018, Bruce Murphy of Urban Milwaukee wrote, “As one GOP insider told me, Gableman has probably gotten the message that the money won’t be there should he run for reelection. In short, even the conservative groups who helped elect him realize Gableman is too ethically stained to stand before the electorate.”
Gableman never landed the kind of high-profile job at an elite law firm typical for former members of the state’s highest court. He was vetted for a job in the Trump administration in 2017, and if he had left his post that year, it would have allowed then Gov. Scott Walker to appoint a replacement, giving another conservative justice a leg up in the next judicial election. But although colleagues on the Court spoke to FBI agents about Gableman’s qualifications for the post, he appears not to have gotten the job and did not leave office before his term expired. The conservative candidate for his seat was defeated by liberal Justice Rebecca Dallet.
Plucked from obscurity by Vos, Gableman stirred controversy in his role leading the Office of Special Counsel. He spent taxpayer funds to travel to Arizona to view the discredited Maricopa County election audit, and to South Dakota to an election conspiracy conference hosted by MyPillow executive Mike Lindell. After initially claiming that Gableman would be required to reimburse taxpayers for those trips, Vos changed his mind and let him keep the money.
Gableman made public statements disparaging the head of the Wisconsin Elections Commission, Meagan Wolfe, for how she dressed, telling talk radio host Joe Giganti, “Black dress, white pearls — I’ve seen the act, I’ve seen the show.” He was fined for “unprofessional behavior” by Judge Frank Remington for making comments caught on a courtroom microphone mocking the judge and making misogynist remarks about attorney Christa Westerberg, who was suing him on behalf of the watchdog group American Oversight, suggesting she could “come back into my chamber.”
“The circus Gableman created in the courtroom destroyed any sense of decorum and irreparably damaged the public’s perception of the judicial process,” Remington wrote.
In a statement following Gableman’s firing, state Sen. Tim Carpenter (D-Milwuakee), one of the legislators calling for an audit of the Office of Special Counsel, said a full accounting is still needed.
“Speaker Vos finally fired Michael Gableman and took the action my Democratic colleagues and I have been urging for months,” Carpenter said. “However, it is not appropriate to merely fire Michael Gableman and try to brush under the rug all that was wrong with the Office of Special Counsel. Taxpayers are still owed a full accounting of the $1.3 million this fake investigation has cost so far. We must direct the Legislative Audit Bureau to conduct an audit so legislators and the public can find out exactly what was done with taxpayer money at the OSC.”
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