Wisconsin Ethics Commission Member Resigns

December 12, 2016

One of two retired circuit court judges appointed last summer to the new partisan Wisconsin Ethics Commission has resigned, citing the secrecy under which the agency must operate and doubts that the commission is equipped to do its job.

“At a time when public confidence in elected officials has been deeply eroded, we should be doubling down on our efforts to enforce campaign finance, ethics, and lobbying laws. When charges of financial or ethical improprieties are leveled, or allegations of quid pro quo corruption are made, they must be thoroughly and timely investigated, and, if warranted, aggressively prosecuted. Sadly, it appears we have created a system which almost guarantees that this will not occur,” former Oneida County Circuit Judge Robert Kinney said in a statement.

The six-member commission is equally split between three Republicans and three Democrats, which the Wisconsin Democracy Campaign and others warned early on could result in deadlocked votes on important matters before it.

Kinney, a Democratic member of the commission, was appointed by Republican Gov. Scott Walker because the governor was required to pick a Democratic and a Republican nominee to the agency from a pool of six retired judges. The remaining four members of the commission were appointed by Senate and Assembly Democratic and Republican legislative leaders.

Kinney’s resignation statement pointed to the secrecy by which the commission operates on some of the matters before it as a problem. “The rules under which the Commission operates are less than helpful. They require too much secrecy and too little transparency. The public is almost completely shut out of the process,” Kinney said.

Kinney also commended the commission’s staff as hard-working and competent, but that they have had “to deal with many obstacles – erected by Commission members. To begin with, there exists among several of the commissioners an observable lack of commitment to the underlying purposes of the agency. On top of this, staff are confronted with overbearing nit-picking at virtually every meeting. Over time (if it hasn’t already happened) this disrespectful treatment will erode staff morale and we will lose these talented people. Perhaps that is the goal.”

Kinney also made a reference to a vote at the October 10, 2016, meeting, in which the members discussed the mission statement of the organization. “Incredibly,” he wrote, “three members – one-half of the Commission’s membership –voted to strike from the mission statement the aspirational language, ‘furthering Wisconsin’s tradition of clean and open government.’ The handwriting was on the wall.” Two Republicans, Mac Davis and Katie McCallum, voted to yank this language, as did one Democrat, David Halbrooks. One Republican, Pat Strachota, voted to keep it. Since the vote to amend was a tie, the aspirational phrase remains in the mission statement.

Kinney, of Rhinelander, retired in 2007 after 31 years on the bench. He has served as a reserve judge for the state and a referee in disciplinary cases for the state Office of Lawyer Regulation. Kinney contributed a total of $600 to nonpartisan Wisconsin Supreme Court Justices Ann Walsh Bradley and Shirley Abrahamson, but made no contributions to partisan statewide or legislative candidates.