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Hearing On Fate Of GAB Draws Debate, Some Sharp Exchanges

Agency Director: Lawmaker's Questioning 'Right Out Of The McCarthy Era'

Shawn Johnson/WPR

A legislative hearing on a bill to dismantle Wisconsin’s Government Accountability Board drew conflicting opinions on the elections agency’s effectiveness, with discussion turning testy at times.

Republican lawmakers cast the GAB Tuesday as a well-intentioned experiment that has failed, while supporters called it a model agency. Nearly every member of the Legislature voted to create the GAB in 2007, including Wauwatosa Republican Sen. Leah Vukmir. At the time, she said it sounded good to have nonpartisan judges oversee the state’s ethics and elections decisions. In practice, Vukmir said, the setup doesn’t work.

“It was naive to think that you could have a nonpartisan board, and we have to sometimes admit that we made a mistake,” she said.

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Vukmir introduced the legislation that would replace the GAB with separate ethics and elections agencies run by partisan appointees. Critics of the proposed changes, like Milwaukee Democratic Rep. Jocasta Zamaripa, said partisan boards are unlikely to aggressively enforce laws.

“You want to go back to a toothless agency. You want to move away from this nationally lauded nonpartisan watchdog,” she said.

But perhaps the sharpest exchange Tuesday didn’t concern the GAB itself. It came when agency director Kevin Kennedy was testifying before the lawmakers, and a GOP lawmaker brought up the election chief’s relationship with a controversial IRS official.

The Wall Street Journal editorial board went after Kennedy in July, publishing excerpts of emails between Kennedy and Lois Lerner, the IRS official who oversaw audits of tax-exempt conservative groups. Taking questions from lawmakers, Kennedy was asked about his relationship with Lerner by Brookfield Republican Sen. Chris Kapenga.

“Seriously?” Kennedy said. “Have you no decency? That is like right out of the McCarthy era to ask a question like that. I owe you no explanation about my friendships.”

“Well you can refuse my question, director, but I will ask the question,” Kapenga replied.

After Kapenga persisted, Kennedy responded that Lerner was a professional friend.

Kennedy has faced steady criticism from Republicans for the agency’s involvement in a now-closed John Doe investigation involving conservative groups and Gov. Scott Walker’s campaign.

A legislative panel could vote on the bill as early as Thursday.

Editor’s note: This story has been updated to include remarks from Leah Vukmir and Jocasta Zamaripa.