Ethics Commission voices support for agency administrator GOP legislators seek to oust

Photo by Michelle Stocker, The Capital Times

The state Ethics Commission Thursday unanimously signaled its confidence in agency Administrator Brian Bell as Republican lawmakers continue to push for his ouster.

Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald, R-Juneau, has refused calls for a public hearing on Bell and Elections Commission Administrator Mike Haas ahead of planned confirmation votes Jan. 23.

The Ethics Commission, split evenly between Dem and GOP appointees, discussed having a public hearing of its own so the public could weigh in on Bell’s work. But Dem appointee Jeralyn Wendelberger’s motion did not receive a second.

Former GOP Rep. Pat Strachota, a Republican appointee to the commission, said public hearings were the purview of the state Senate. She argued the commission has already made its position clear.

“We have confidence. We have indicated that. So what do you hope to accomplish?” Strachota asked. “It’s not really up to us. It’s up to the Senate. That’s how the law was set up.”

Bell and Haas have been under fire since GOP AG Brad Schimel released a report detailing the old GAB’s handling of records from a John Doe investigation into coordination between Gov. Scott Walker’s campaign and outside groups during the recalls. Several Republican lawmakers, including Fitzgerald, have called for their resignations. Fitzgerald has said he would put their nominations to votes on the Senate floor unless they stepped down, saying the two would “never” get enough support for confirmation.

While commissioners did not embrace a public hearing on Bell, they agreed to send to lawmakers correspondence the agency has received on his performance.

Bell also sought to explain how the Elections and Ethics commissions approached the John Doe records that were at the heart of the DOJ report.

Schimel has accused employees of the commissions of not being cooperative in his investigation into a leak of Doe records to The Guardian.

Bell said Ethics Commission employees “got our hands dirty right away” in trying to inventory records after the old GAB was replaced by the Elections and Ethics commissions.

He said staffers at the Elections Commission may have been aware of what records existed, but the Ethics Commission did not. Ethics Commission staff then began going through records, which he said were stored in two rooms. He described one as a safety hazard, because the records were stored in such poor condition that there was a risk of collapse. Staff were not allowed to go into that room without notifying someone else as a precaution.

The larger room where records were stored was in slightly better shape, Bell said. Ethics staff spent several days manually going through the records and found additional documents that DOJ wanted.

“I don’t know what the other agency can say that they put forth the same effort that we did,” Bell said, referencing the Elections Commission.

He also told the commission some Elections Commission employees were covered by the secrecy order governing the John Doe probe and had more knowledge of what was there.

At the request of commissioners, Bell also recounted his work for the GAB from March 2012 to September 2014. He worked for both the election and ethics divisions with the old agency, but said he had nothing to do with the John Doe probe.

He left for several reasons, including an opportunity at the Department of Safety and Professional Services and questions about the GAB’s future. Bell also said he “didn’t necessarily always agree with the way things operated.”

Chair David Halbrooks, a Dem appointee, suggested Bell left because he didn’t support the way the GAB was proceeding under the law and has “been on mission to clean up things that were wrong in the past.”

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