Bill Lueders: Wisconsin's GAB does not deserve torrent of disrespect

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Bill Lueders
August 8, 2015

For four years, until recently, I wrote a weekly column that ran in newspapers across Wisconsin. It was called “Money & Politics,” and it dealt with campaign financing, elections, lobbying and ethics.

My beat, in other words, was essentially the same as that of the Wisconsin Government Accountability Board. And it brought me into frequent contact with that agency's leadership and staff.

The GAB is, in my opinion, among the most professional, fair-minded and hard-working agencies in state government. Created in 2007 to replace two ineffective boards, it has been hailed as a national model of efficiency and fairness.

Kevin Kennedy, the agency's embattled director and general counsel, is measured, temperate and thoughtful—qualities his most vociferous critics lack. They paint the agency as being out-of-control, in need of major renovation.

Gov. Scott Walker has said the GAB should be dismantled, replaced with “something completely new that is truly accountable to the people of the state of Wisconsin.” Rep. Dean Knudson, R-Hudson, who is leading the legislative charge to “reform” the GAB, is singing from the same hymnal.

“I think we'll have new leadership,” Knudson told the Wisconsin State Journal. “We'll have a new oversight body. It will probably have a new name, a new structure, a new role.”

Why does the agency need to be remade from scratch? Because it has angered Republicans such as Walker and Knudson, who at this moment are in charge. And to achieve this end, they are ratcheting up the rhetoric.

Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, R-Rochester, has called the GAB “dysfunctional” and Kennedy an “embarrassment”—charges that GAB member Thomas Barland, a former GOP state lawmaker, labeled “grossly exaggerated and sensationalized.”

One thing unites the GAB's harshest critics: They are active and engaged partisans. They want to advance the fortunes of one political party over that of another, something the GAB was designed to prevent.

The sharp accusations and calls for criminal investigations emanating from the GAB's foes stand in sharp contrast to the agency's own demeanor. Consider Kennedy's recent defense of his agency:

“The Legislature expected and intended the Government Accountability Board to operate in a professional, unbiased and nonpartisan manner,” Kennedy said in a statement. “In doing so, we have been accountable not to any single individual or political party, but to the will of the people of Wisconsin as expressed in its laws. The Legislature and governor are free to change those laws, of course, but I am proud of what the agency has achieved since its inception.”

Meanwhile, the GAB's critics fulminate. They overstate. They cast baseless aspersions.

Take the recent letter writer, souped up on the pronouncements of politicians, who vented that the GAB exists to “hammer the living daylights out its political opponents … much to the delight those despising Walker.”

As another letter writer noted, four of the six retired judges who make up the GAB board are Walker appointees. The other two, Barland and the GAB Chairman Gerald Nichol, have both been elected to public office as Republicans.

Anyone who has seen the GAB and its employees in action, as I have, know they deserve better than to have their reputations attacked by people who want greater freedom from accountability.

The GAB, by doing its job, has angered members of both parties. The courts have sometimes ruled against it. But there is reason to believe it has always acted honorably and in good faith. The same cannot be said for some of its critics.

Bill Lueders is associate editor of The Progressive; email [email protected].

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