By M.D. Kittle | Wisconsin Watchdog
MADISON, Wis. – A lawmaker who played a major role in reforming Wisconsin’s archaic John Doe law says the newly named administrator of the state’s Elections Commission will be under close scrutiny.
State Sen. Tom Tiffany, R-Hazelhurst, says he’s heard concerns raised about Michael Haas, the current Elections Division administrator for the soon-to-be-extinct state Government Accountability Board.
Emails from litigation involving the GAB’s entrenched role in the abusive John Doe investigation of conservatives show Haas was one of the key players in the unconstitutional probe.
“Based on what has been reported in the media, I am sure that Mr. Haas is going to be under the microscope to fulfill his duties as expected,” Tiffany told Wisconsin Watchdog on Monday. “I expect nothing less than for him to be an honest public servant and to do his job appropriately.”
“Michael Haas is subject to confirmation by the Senate,” Tiffany added. “I believe there will be questions that will be asked during the confirmation process about those emails. I look forward to his answers to those questions.”
But it will be months before Haas’ nomination gets to the Senate.
The Legislature won’t be in session until January, barring an extraordinary session to take up the appointment. That isn’t likely to happen.
So Haas, a bureaucrat with a partisan past who was integrally involved in a highly partisan investigation, will be the chief enforcement officer of Wisconsin’s election laws leading up to and during November’s critical state and federal elections. He begins June 30.
The commission, made up of both Republicans and Democrats, unanimously selected Haas last month. It reportedly did so based on his years of experience administering Wisconsin election law.
That experience includes Haas’ involvement in the politically driven John Doe, as the dozens of emails obtained in litigation have made clear.
The emails further support the claim by conservative targets that the GAB didn’t simply conduct a “parallel” criminal investigation into right-of-center groups and Gov. Scott Walker’s campaign, but often led it.
Haas was repeatedly copied on early emails at the opening of the investigation and traveled to meet Milwaukee County District Attorney John Chisholm, the Democrat who launched the secret probe in 2012.
On May 30, 2013, as the dubious campaign finance investigation was heating up, Haas, GAB director Kevin Kennedy, and former staff counsel Shane Falk traveled to Milwaukee to meet with Chisholm and his assistant, David Robles, “to discuss the Board’s concerns about the status of the Badger Doe investigation.”
On June 12, 2013, Kennedy, Falk, Haas, and Jonathan Becker, GAB’s Ethics Division administrator, met with Chisholm to discuss the next steps in the investigation.
On Sept. 19, 2013, Haas emailed Falk with a subject line, “Doe records.”
“Are the original Doe records still being sealed ffor [sic] use in the Badger Doe?” Falk responded that they were “transferred to the new Doe, technically.” Haas wrote back, with a curious comment on an apparent open records request. “That’s what I thought. Will be interesting to see how the (Milwaukee) journal sentinel records request plays out.”
Falk, who left the agency in 2014, was found to be especially partisan. In one email he scolded John Doe special prosecutor Francis Schmitz, raising concerns about how Schmitz’s public comments might affect a campaign ad from Democratic gubernatorial candidate Mary Burke.
Haas played a particularly vital role, it seems, in the GAB’s defense of its sham investigation after targets challenged the probe and its accompanying predawn, armed raids on conservatives’ homes.
On Nov. 15, 2013, the Elections Division administrator reviewed and edited a court brief with GAB staff attorney Nathan Judnic, Kennedy, and Falk, emailing minor edits to the team. He wrote, “I think this is very strong,” and recommended several minor changes to words and phrases.
“It seems like there’s a lot of legal analysis in the introduction and then it ends abruptly after the facts. I wonder if there should be some application of the law to the facts after they are summarized,” Haas wrote. “Maybe that’s part of moving stuff around. But these are minor things and all the crucial stuff seems to be in there. They should just fold now. Good work.”
The targets, referred to as “unnamed movants” in Wisconsin’s appeals court system did not “fold.” In January 2014, the John Doe judge quashed the subpoenas in the investigation, ruling that the prosecutors did not show probable cause that a crime had been committed.
In July 2105, the Wisconsin Supreme Court declared the probe unconstitutional and ordered it shut down.
State Rep. Dave Craig, R-Town of Vernon, who co-authored the John Doe reform bill, said it is up to the commissioners of the elections and ethics commissions to update the Legislature.
“The commissioners themselves should be able to testify in person before the Legislature and not just have staff do that,” said Craig, who is running to fill the Senate seat being vacated by Sen. Mary Lazich, R-New Berlin. “While these are not full-time jobs, the commissioner positions come with a high need for credibility and are very authoritative in nature.”
Commissioners on the two panels will not earn salaries but will be compensated through per diems for each day they are “actually and necessarily engaged in performing their duties” – at $454 per day. That’s comparable to what a reserve judge earns.
Craig continues to push for the creation of a bicameral committee, with subpoena power, to investigate the Government Accountability Board’s involvement in the John Doe investigation.
Republican lawmakers voted late last year to dismantle the so-called “nonpartisan” GAB, in part because of the agency’s involvement in the campaign finance investigation. Prosecutors used the John Doe law to target dozens of conservative groups and Walker’s office on a widely rejected theory of illegal coordination. Witnesses and targets were ordered to remain silent on threat of imprisonment and hefty fines.
A federal appeals court judge called the gag order in the John Doe law “screamingly unconstitutional.”