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Head of GOP-backed election investigation rebuffs calls for transparency, decries ‘obstruction’

Former state Supreme Court Justice Michael Gableman offers first testimony about probe before state lawmakers

A voting booth says "VOTE" with a U.S. flag
A polling location is open for voters in the spring election Tuesday, April 6, 2021, at Tenney Park in Madison, Wis. Angela Major/WPR

The head of a Republican-backed investigation into Wisconsin’s 2020 election decried what he called “obstruction” of the effort during his first public testimony about the inquiry before state lawmakers on Wednesday evening.

Former conservative Wisconsin Supreme Court justice Michael Gableman also told lawmakers he would not honor calls for public testimony — rather than closed-door interviews — from election officials for the probe and refused to share the names of his staff on the taxpayer-funded effort.

“Information like that shouldn’t be shared in real time,” Gableman said.

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Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, R-Rochester, who called for the investigation and announced Gableman as its leader this summer, has likened transparency during the inquiry to a district attorney releasing files in the middle of a murder investigation.

Gableman has issued subpoenas to state and local election officials to provide testimony and election records for the probe. After pushback over the large scope of the subpoenas, requests for documents were scaled back and in-person interviews were postponed.

Last month, Attorney General Josh Kaul, who represents the Wisconsin Elections Commission in his official capacity, raised legal concerns with the investigation. He said the administrator of the elections commission wouldn’t provide testimony behind closed doors. Shortly after, Kaul asked a court to block Gableman’s subpoenas.

Gableman decried those actions as a major impediment to his efforts.

“I am finding I am running up against very powerful forces to obstruct,” he said Wednesday.

Gableman called the elections commission and Kaul the worst, in terms of cooperation, but said other officials he has reached out to across the state have offered “varying degrees of a lack of cooperation.”

Staff of taxpayer-funded probe remains unclear

Gableman told lawmakers he has a staff of fewer than 10 people for the investigation, which has been approved for an initial, taxpayer-funded budget of $680,000. He said the staff roster has been “fluid” since the launch of the inquiry and refused numerous requests from Democratic lawmakers during Wednesday’s hearing to name all the staff members and their qualifications for looking into election administration in the state.

Only a few of the staff members’ names have been made public so far, through other means. They include Andrew Kloster, a former Trump administration official who has falsely claimed the election was stolen from the former president. On Wednesday, Arkansas attorney Clint Lancaster was revealed as another staff member for the effort. Lancaster appeared with Gableman to offer testimony before lawmakers.

According to his website, Lancaster’s former clients include “two reality stars from MTV’s 16 and Pregnant, an NFL linebacker, a forward for a EuroLeague team, and numerous high profile/high stakes cases garnering national media attention.”

Senate subpoenas Madison clerk in separate election inquiry

Also on Wednesday, the state Senate issued a subpoena to the Madison city clerk to release some election records to state lawmakers.

The subpoena comes as part of a Senate inquiry into whether some communities complied appropriately with an already-complete, nonpartisan audit of the 2020 election. The report from the Legislative Audit Bureau found no widespread fraud or wrongdoing in the election, but said officials in a few communities, including Madison, didn’t provide full access to all documents requested by auditors.

In a prepared statement, Senate Elections Committee chair Kathy Bernier, R-Chippewa Falls, said Madison should “respect the legal authority and integrity of the (audit bureau).”

“All did, with the exception of Madison,” she said. “That decision cannot and will not stand.”

In particular, the audit said Madison officials “did not allow us to physically handle election records.” City officials have said they offered copies of the records, or for city staff to show them to auditors, but argued physical handling of the records by outside parties could violate federal chain of custody requirements for election materials.

In a prepared statement issued on Wednesday, Madison Mayor Satya Rhodes-Conway stood by that argument.

“Federal and state laws require that our clerk maintain control over these documents, and those laws carry potential criminal penalties for intentionally violating that duty,” she said.

The Republican-backed election investigations come after Wisconsin has completed a series of routine state election audits and a presidential recount in the state’s two largest counties. None of those reviews have uncovered widespread fraud or wrongdoing. There have also been numerous Republican-backed lawsuits in the state, all of which have failed to result in findings of wrongdoing by election officials or voters.

Biden won Wisconsin by about 21,000 votes — a margin similar to several other razor-thin statewide elections in recent years.