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Gableman, Vos sign new contract in election investigation as judge orders release of records

Judge Frank Remington said the public should be allowed to view the documents, adding: 'This has been much to do about nothing'

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Michael Gableman stands at a podium and points around the room as he speaks. Attendees are seated behind him.
Former state Supreme Court Justice Michael Gableman speaks Tuesday, March 1, 2022, at the Wisconsin State Capitol in Madison, Wis. Angela Major/WPR

The special counsel in a Republican-ordered investigation of the 2020 election signed a new contract with the Speaker of the state Assembly Tuesday, the same day a judge ordered him to turn over roughly 700 pages of documents connected to the case.

The amended contract between former Supreme Court Justice Michael Gableman and Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, R-Rochester, runs through April 30, 2022. Dane County Circuit Court Judge Frank Remington had previously issued a written order finding that Gableman had been working without a legally enforceable contract since Oct. 31, 2021.

The new agreement was first announced by Gableman attorney James Bopp during a hearing before Judge Remington in an open records lawsuit filed against Gableman by the liberal watchdog group American Oversight.

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The status of Gableman’s contract has been an open question for months, with even Gableman himself acknowledging some ambiguity over the agreement during a recent presentation to a state Assembly panel. Despite those questions, Gableman had vowed to continue his work, telling lawmakers: “I will be back.”

An amendment to the new contract states that “because of the obstruction of the Wisconsin Elections Commission and other parties to the conduct of the investigation,” Gableman’s office has not been able to complete its work. The Elections Commission, along with other election officials, have fought Gableman’s subpoenas in court, arguing he lacks the authority to compel them to testify privately.

Vos issued a statement Tuesday afternoon confirming the new contract and praising Gableman for doing a “good job” looking into election concerns.

“We will continue to fight the obstruction and myriad of lawsuits filed by democrats and out-of-state liberal activists, questioning the legislature’s subpoena power and ultimately keeping this matter from concluding in the time frame we expected,” Vos wrote.

Former President Donald Trump, who continues to falsely assert that he won the 2020 election, issued his own statement praising Vos for “standing by” Gableman. Trump also praised Rep. Janel Brandtjen, R- Menomonee Falls, who chairs the Assembly Committee on Campaigns and Elections.

“I feel confident that Robin will exercise his moral duty to follow up on Justice Gableman’s findings,” read Trump’s statement.

Trump said lawmakers would “get rid of” the Electronic Registration Information Center, known as ERIC, which is a multi-state database states use to check voter registration data against other government databases. GOP lawmakers endorsed Wisconsin’s ERIC membership in a law that was signed by former Republican Gov. Scott Walker. Republicans have given no indication that they plan to end the agreement.

Trump also indicated lawmakers would “get rid of” the Wisconsin Elections Commission. While Republicans running for governor say they want to dismantle the agency, Vos and Senate Majority Leader Devin LeMahieu, R-Oostburg, have said they want to keep the agency.

Trump claimed that based on the Gableman report, “I would imagine that there can only be a Decertification of Electors.” Vos and other Republicans have repeatedly said they won’t pursue the decertification of Wisconsin’s election, which legal experts and the Legislature’s own attorneys have said is not possible.

Trump’s statement also said lawmakers would “stay in session,” but Vos said previously that the Assembly likely held its final session day of the year in February.

While Vos and Trump stood by Gableman, there were hints among other Republicans that their patience with the investigation may be running thin. In the state Senate, an effort by Democrats to force an audit of Gableman’s investigation received three Republican votes Tuesday: Sen. Kathy Bernier, R-Chippewa Falls; Sen. Dale Kooyenga, R-Brookfield; and Sen. Jerry Petrowski, R-Marathon.

Democrats sent a letter to Vos saying it was past time that the “sham” investigation ended.

“The longer Mr. Gableman is allowed to continue his anti-democratic rhetoric, the more dangerous it becomes,” read a written statement from Assembly Minority Leader Greta Neubauer, D-Racine.

‘There’s nothing there’

While Gableman’s new contract could be a factor in several ongoing lawsuits involving his authority, it did not sway Remington, who ordered the release of roughly 700 pages of documents sought by the liberal watchdog group American Oversight.

Bopp argued that turning over the documents could endanger Gableman’s work, giving people or groups who were the focus of the investigation the chance to impede it.

“When a quarterback passes to a wide receiver, he doesn’t telegraph the pass,” Bopp said. “That’s exactly what we’re talking about here. The disclosure of that document reveals the direction and focus of the investigation.”

But Remington told Bopp there was nothing in state law that shielded Gableman from releasing the kinds of documents American Oversight was seeking.

“Mr. Gableman and the Office of Special Counsel is bound by the public records law,” Remington said. “And it is not for this court’s role to ignore the laws written by the Legislature and has been enshrined in statutes for decades.”

In January, Remington ordered Gableman to give him the documents in question so that he could review them and determine whether there was a legitimate reason to keep them from the public. He said he found no documents that would undermine the investigation.

“I did look at these documents,” Remington said. “I read them forward and backward, up, down, and back and forth. And based on my knowledge, training and experience, there’s nothing here.”

When Remington asked Bopp for an example of a document that could endanger the investigation, Bopp mentioned a report authored by Phill Kline, the director of The Amistad Project at the conservative Thomas More Society.

That report, which was shown briefly on camera, appeared to have been made public for at least several months. It alleged that a group funded by Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg had engaged in “election bribery” when it spent millions on private grants to help Wisconsin’s five largest cities run elections during the pandemic. A lawyer for the Thomas More Society has made the same argument in lawsuits that have been rejected in state and federal court.

“I believe that it’s for every man now to determine whether I erred to examine these documents,” Remington said. “This has been much to do about nothing … These documents do not support the argument that there has been an investigation, much less the conclusions that have been made by the Office of Special Counsel.”

American Oversight senior advisor Melanie Sloan praised Remington’s decision in a statement.

“The people of Wisconsin deserve the truth about the Gableman investigation, including who is driving it and why,” Sloan said. “The fact that the OSC fought so hard to keep secret even these minimal records released today — which the court called ‘underwhelming’ — confirms the fiction of the so-called report Gableman released last week.”

Remington rejected a request from Bopp to stay, or temporarily pause his ruling pending an appeal of the open records case.

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