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Price tag on Gableman probe nearing $2M, report finds

Assembly Republicans have paid private attorneys nearly $1.5M for work on cases to the investigation

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 legal bills for a Republican-ordered investigation of the 2020 presidential election continue to pile up, with the total cost to taxpayers for the probe now topping $2 million, according to a recent report.

The review by WisPolitics found Assembly Republicans have paid private attorneys nearly $1.5 million for work on cases connected to the investigation by former Wisconsin Supreme Court Justice Michael Gableman. That’s on top of the $527,877 spent on the investigation itself, according to the report.

Assembly Republicans originally budgeted $676,000 in public funds for the investigation into the 2020 election, which ended when Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, R-Rochester, fired Gableman in August. No evidence of widespread fraud was ever uncovered by Gableman’s team.

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The investigation is subject to four lawsuits filed by the Washington D.C.-based liberal group American Oversight, related to the retention of documents. It also faced a lawsuit from Democratic Attorney General Joshua Kaul, related to attempts to interview election officials privately.

Records reported by WisPolitics show that about $1.1 million has been spent on the first four lawsuits, and about $400,000 on the AG’s suit, which was dismissed in August.

Barry Burden, an elections expert at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, said the cost of the lawsuits built up because Gableman’s investigation didn’t follow the law for keeping records and providing public access to what they were doing.

“These are mostly self-inflicted wounds,” said Burden. “It did not have a clear mission or scope on its activities, and ended up being a very expensive failure that continues to cost the state money, even though it has ceased operations.”

A spokesperson for Vos did not respond to a request for comment on the expenses, but in August, he called court judgments ordering the state to cover legal fees related to the lawsuits “bogus fees to these liberal special interest groups.”

Vos hired Gableman in June 2021, and fired him in August 2022, days after Gableman endorsed Vos’ primary challenger in the Assembly race.

In the course of his investigation, Gableman was accused of violating state record requests laws, and briefly held in contempt for failing to produce documents pertaining to the inquiry. He also called for Wisconsin to decertify its 2020 presidential election results, a suggestion Vos rejected and one that election law experts said would be legally impossible.

In August, after Vos ended the investigation, he called Gableman “an embarrassment to the state.”

While the overall cost of the investigation has far exceeded the original budget, ongoing court cases mean that number will continue to rise, Burden said.

“It’s $2 million that has essentially been thrown in a hole,” Burden said. “So it’s pretty expensive for what was delivered, which is essentially nothing.”