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MADISON, Wis. - Government watchdog groups are calling into question the effectiveness of the newly formed Wisconsin Ethics Commission. The new entity was created a year ago to replace the Wisconsin Government Accountability Board.
In its first year of existence, the Ethics Commission investigated a single alleged violation of state campaign finance and lobbying laws. In the year prior, the Government Accountability Board handled 39 investigations. Jay Heck, executive director of Common Cause in Wisconsin, says the new commission isn't doing a good job, in part because many of the state's once-strong ethics laws were repealed. "Those were all repealed by the end of 2015," he explains. "We now have one of the least regulated, most wide open 'Wild West' campaign finance and ethics systems in the country, rating somewhere below Alabama and Mississippi, and maybe just east of Texas."
The Republican legislative leadership, which spearheaded the repeal of most of the state's strong political ethics laws, says the former Government Accountability Board was used as an instrument for partisan witch hunts. Heck and others strongly disagree, pointing out that the new Ethics Commission is the very embodiment of partisan politics. "The administrator of the Ethics Commission is answerable to the legislative leadership," he points out. "He's not answerable to the law. "The nonpartisan judges who made up the Government Accountability Board did not have to answer to the legislative leadership, and in fact had a separate stream of funding to conduct investigations." The now-defunct Government Accountability Board was composed of nine retired judges, who adhered to the law, not to the direction of legislative leadership. Heck says the new Ethics Commission was designed to be a completely partisan instrument, and, unlike the former board, it cannot initiate investigations. "In November of 2016, one of the judges that had been appointed to the new Ethics Commission quit in disgust," Heck relates. "He said it was a partisan entity that did not adhere to the law, and that only adhered and listened to the partisan masters that made the appointments to the Commission." Heck says, sarcastically, the Ethics Commission is operating "exactly as it was designed."