Letter to the Government Accountability Board

From Matthew Rothschild, Executive Director

October 20, 2015

Dear Distinguished Board Members,

I wanted to take a moment or two of your time to, first of all, express my appreciation to you and to the loyal, conscientious, and diligent public servants who make up your staff for the extraordinary work you’ve all been doing these past eight years.

We at the Wisconsin Democracy Campaign have relied on the expertise of your staff time and time again, and we’ve greatly appreciated their efficient, professional, and courteous manner. And while we have not always agreed with all of the Board’s actions, we also recognize that the Government Accountability Board has been a model for the nation in overseeing ethics, lobbying, and campaign finance, as one of the leading scholars of good government has noted.

I also want to let you know how dismayed I am at the outrageous and wild attacks on the Board and its staff that you’ve had to endure over the past many months. In my 35 years in Wisconsin, I’ve never seen anything as ugly as this. It’s been a mean-spirited campaign of smears, lies, and the old trick of character assassination by means of guilt by association.

As you know, it’s a lie that the staff was going behind your backs. The last Audit report underscores this fact.

As you know, it’s a lie that you’re unaccountable to the people, since the Governor appoints you and the Senate confirms you.

As you know, it’s a lie that you exceeded your authority in the John Doe investigation. As Wis. Stat. 5.05 (2m) states: “The board shall investigate violations of laws administered by the board.” And as the Barland decision noted, “the GAB has joint enforcement authority with elected district attorneys to investigate violations of the state election laws.”

You were simply doing your job, and for that, you’ve been vilified.

But upon these and other lies, a sinister campaign has been waged to destroy not only your good names but the entire structure of this Board.

The new legislation to break up the Board and replace it with two commissions, populated by partisans, is a recipe for more corruption. It’s a return to the very structure that allowed the Caucus Scandal to fester. And it is ironically modeled after the Federal Elections Commission, which has been immobilized because of its partisan makeup. Even the head of the FEC acknowledges that it is “worse than dysfunctional.”

And it appalls me that they are totally doing away with your role as retired judges. That is a direct insult to you, and to all the good work and long hours you’ve put in to try to keep politics clean in Wisconsin.

Now, a word or two about the recently introduced legislation that would destroy our campaign finance laws.

We at the Wisconsin Democracy Campaign are opposed to doubling the amount that donors can give directly to candidates. The bill would also allow unlimited donations to political parties and committees. Until recently, Wisconsin had a $10,000 limit. Now the sky is the limit. And only the most well-heeled can reach the sky.

Already, politics has become a plaything of the millionaires and the billionaires, and now it will become even more so.

Perhaps most troublesome of all, the new bill legalizes coordination between candidates and outside groups, following the bizarre state supreme court decision in the John Doe case. We believe the U.S. Supreme Court will overturn that decision for the same reason we believe that this aspect of the bill is so ruinous: because it renders meaningless any real limits on campaign contributions and any sufficient way to require disclosure. If campaigns can coordinate with independent groups, then those groups aren’t really independent. And if there is no limit to the amount someone can give these “independent” groups, the purpose of limiting direct contributions has been subverted. That purpose, by the way, was to guard against corruption! And if a candidate can steer his or her wealthiest donors to one of these groups and then work with that group, and if that group doesn’t have to disclose who their donors are, then we, the citizens of Wisconsin, will have no

way of knowing who is trying to gain influence. It is yet another open invitation to corruption.

One last note: An amendment to the bill would get rid of the requirement to list the employer of the donor who makes a direct contribution to a candidate. This amendment will make it extremely difficult for groups like ours, and for the media, and for the public at large to get a picture of who might be influencing our elected officials in order to get special favors.

Overall, with this bill, the citizens of Wisconsin will be reduced to mere spectators – and blindfolded ones, at that!

We at the Wisconsin Democracy Campaign are gravely worried that our state’s tradition of clean and open government is quickly going the way of the typewriter and the VCR. But that tradition is not a technological device; it is a treasure of democracy, a treasure that no one should rob us of.

In closing, I’d like to reiterate our thanks to you for all that you and your staff have done to uphold this noble Wisconsin tradition.

Sincerely,

Matt Rothschild
Executive Director
Wisconsin Democracy Campaign