Wisconsin Democracy Campaign Testimony
to the Government Accountability Board
November 1, 2007
Thank you for holding this public hearing to gather input on the characteristics the individual you will hire as Legal Counsel to head up the staff of the new Government Accountability Board should possess.
The state Elections Board and Ethics Board failed the people of Wisconsin, and failed them so repeatedly that the public concluded they were beyond repair and needed to be abolished. The law that created the new agency you have been chosen to lead is based on the idea that the old agencies could not be fixed. Something entirely new needed to be put in their place. We hope the decisions you make regarding the makeup of the new agency will reflect this mandate.
We believe the most important single qualification you should look for is a commitment to a new and different approach to enforcement of ethics, election, campaign finance and lobbying laws – an approach that we hope this board will also embrace.
For years, we were told by leaders of both the Elections Board and Ethics Board that they did not want to react to violations and rely on punishment of violators to promote compliance, but rather preferred to “educate” the individuals and organizations they regulated about their responsibilities under the law. In retrospect, this “education” really amounted to accommodation and appeasement, which led to more and more brazen behavior, which was further accommodated and appeased, which bred even more disrespect for the law. This created a downward spiral into a political cesspool that culminated with a parade of top political leaders into courtrooms and, in some cases, into jail cells.
It should not be forgotten that neither the Elections Board nor the Ethics Board had any hand in the investigations that eventually led to these individuals being brought to justice. If it had not been for the efforts of a couple of enterprising local district attorneys – who were burdened with large caseloads and were under no obligation to make prosecuting these cases a priority – the scandalous conduct at the Capitol would have been swept under the rug.
If you wish to educate those you are responsible for regulating, the best educational tool is swift and sure enforcement . . . and swift and certain penalties for violations. No more looking the other way. No more slaps on the wrist. An unmistakable message needs to be sent to all participants in the political process – that our laws need to be obeyed and there will be serious consequences for failure to do so.
We also believe it is important to mention that the individual you choose needs the ability to manage complex computer projects. This is something that has been noticeably lacking, particularly at the Elections Board. The state voter registration project is a mess, a bonafide boondoggle. The person you choose to head your staff will need considerable skill to extricate you.
Finally, a word about institutional memory. It undeniably has great value. But when institutional memory represents a legacy of failure, it is not sensible to cling to it. Again, the law that created this new board was based on the belief that the old agencies could not be reformed and needed to be replaced altogether. This is no time to rearrange the deck chairs. It’s time to board a new ship and chart a new course. We hope your staffing decisions will reflect that.