The state Ethics Commission will provide “clarifications” to the DOJ report on how agency staff handled John Doe records and will seek the release of sealed court documents to back up the contention employees acted properly, the commission chair tells WisPolitics.com.
David Halbrooks, speaking after the agency called an emergency meeting today, also said the commission has no concerns about administrator Brian Bell and counsel Brian Buerger amid a call from GOP Sen. Steve Nass for them to resign.
Halbrooks said the agency just finished Bell’s job performance review earlier this week and concluded Bell was exceeding expectations.
“It’s not even a question, because when we get to tell our story, there will not be a question,” Halbrooks said of Bell and Buerger’s performance with the agency.
DOJ spokesman Johnny Koremenos said if the commission wants to access “the very secret documents that they mishandled in the first place, then DOJ would oppose that request.”
The DOJ report concluded at least one person illegally removed documents from the old GAB and leaked them to The Guardian, but the needed proof does not exist to convict anyone. It also painted the old Government Accountability Board as being sloppy in its handling of the records from an investigation into coordination between Gov. Scott Walker’s campaign and conservative groups in the recalls. It also recommended contempt proceedings against nine people who worked for the GAB, the Milwaukee County DA’s office or the Elections Commission, along with special prosecutor Francis Schmitz.
Halbrooks said one of the clarifications the commission plans to provide will refute DOJ’s assertion in its 92-page report that Bell and Buerger asserted their Fifth Amendment rights and refused to speak with counsel.
According to the DOJ report, the agency requested another interview with both men June 7, but they refused the next day and invoked their right to counsel.
Halbrooks provided WisPolitics.com a timeline that showed the pair told DOJ they would have to talk to the commission before agreeing to the interview because it “previously instructed outside counsel before taking individual interviews.”
The timeline includes requests for DOJ and then Gov. Scott Walker’s office for counsel. Eventually, the guv’s office appointed a special counsel, according to the timeline.
Halbrooks said DOJ wanted to speak with Bell and Buerger separately, which necessitated outside counsel because Buerger is the staff attorney who would otherwise represent Bell in such an interview.
“We had to have somebody there listening,” Halbrooks said, stressing, “There was no refusal to answer.”
Koremenos disputed Halbrooks’ characterization of Bell and Buerger’s actions.
“Ethics employees refused to talk to DOJ without an attorney present in the context of a criminal investigation,” he wrote in an email. “That is a Fifth Amendment right. This is not up for debate.”
Halbrooks also took issue with the suggestion in the DOJ report that there was a lack of cooperation from the Ethics Commission as investigators sought documents.
Schimel has agreed to make one correction to the report, saying he would drop a footnote that incorrectly suggested a Journal Sentinel columnist’s wife was working at the Supreme Court when DOJ investigators went to the office to review records.
The footnote was included in an attempt to explain what may have tipped off the media to the February 2017 visit. She left the court in November 2015.