Senator asks attorney general to compel GAB to open up its books

Part 95 of 95 in the series Wisconsin’s Secret War

By M.D. Kittle | Wisconsin Reporter

MADISON, Wis. – Show taxpayers the money.

That’s what state Sen. Tom Tiffany, R-Hazelhurst, is effectively asking the state Government Accountability Board to do, via Wisconsin Attorney General J.B. Van Hollen.

In a letter to Van Hollen late Thursday, Tiffany requests the attorney general’s assistance in obtaining documents from the GAB through Wisconsin’s open records laws.

“I believe it is necessary to involve your office in this matter because media have reported that previous requests for basic financial information from the GAB have been repeatedly denied by the board,” Tiffany writes in his letter. Wisconsin Reporter has on several occasions been denied such information from the GAB, citing state law involving confidentiality in GAB investigations.

“According to those accounts, GAB staff have asserted that portions of the Wisconsin open records law do not apply to the GAB and that other statutes prohibit the board from releasing information related to an investigation,” Tiffany writes.

OPEN UP: State Sen. Tom Tiffany, R-Hazelhurst filed an open records request with the state attorney general Thursday asking him to demand the Government Accountability Board open up secret information.

That position was affirmed by the attorney general Thursday, when he issued his opinion that the accountability board, which oversees state campaign and election laws, “may not” turn over its confidential records to the Legislative Audit Bureau because “there is no specific authorization for it to do so” under state law.

Van Hollen’s ruling effectively keeps secret the records GAB investigators have collected in the long-standing John Doe investigation into dozens of conservative targets. That’s important, because a detailed audit might show whether GAB, which oversees state campaign and election law, overstepped its authority in a probe that has featured what sources have described as predawn, “paramilitary-style” raids.

In his letter to Van Hollen, Tiffany writes that he is not requesting any information specific to any investigation, past or present, in which the GAB may be involved.

“My request is for basic information regarding contractual relationships between the GAB and two of its independent contractors who are or may have served as special private investigators,” Tiffany said, referring to GAB contracted investigators Dean Nickel and, according to court documents, Francis Schmitz, who also serves as the John Doe’s special prosecutor.

“The GAB may assert that it is necessary to keep the identity of these contractors private for their protection or to preserve the integrity of any investigation they are associated with, and thereby deny the request on that basis,” the senator writes. “However, the identity of both individuals and their relationship with the GAB has become a matter of public record with both individuals stipulating to their relationship with the GAB in court filings under the penalty of perjury.”

While Tiffany said it is easy to understand why the accountability board would want to keep information concerning an ongoing investigation confidential, “interpreting a statute that relates to the confidentiality of an investigation as a means to avoid disclosing the basic terms of a publicly reported contractual relationship is at best a reach.”

“Therefore, pursuant to WI Statute 19.31-39, the state’s open records law, I am asking that you instruct the GAB to provide the following information regarding the GAB’s relationship with independent contractors Dean Nickel and Francis Schmitz,” the senator’s letter to the AG states.

Tiffany is seeking:

  1. Contractual language regarding the basic services to be performed.
  2. The date upon which the contract was signed by the contractor and the GAB.
  3. The length of time covered by the contract and the date upon which services were to begin.
  4. When services ended or when services are expected to end.
  5. The hourly rate of pay for each contractor.
  6. The total amount billed by each contractor in fiscal years 2013 and 2014.

“While I respect the GAB’s role as Wisconsin’s election administrator, the same transparency and accountability that is expected of lawmakers, elected officials, state agencies, and candidates for public office should also be expected of the GAB. Your urgent attention to this matter is needed,” Tiffany wrote.

Asked earlier in the day whether the AG’s ruling means that the audit bureau is not able to access financial data from the GAB, such as the costs associated with payment to Nickel and Schmitz, state Department of Justice spokeswoman Dana Brueck said, “The opinion addresses ‘investigative records that are confidential under’” state statute to the Legislative Audit Bureau for ‘purposes of an audit of GAB’s operations.’”

“The opinion does not discuss the types of records that might fall under that definition,” Brueck said in her email.

Meanwhile, the co-chairs of the Joint Legislative Audit Committee, said they will push to change the law to allow the audit bureau to conduct a full audit.

“It benefits the Legislature and the State for the nonpartisan Legislative Audit Bureau to use its broad authority to access any records it needs to conduct audits that provide oversight of state agencies and operations,” said state Sen. Robert Cowles, R-Green Bay, and state Rep. Samantha Kerkman, R-Salem, in a joint statement Thursday. “Any needed statutory clarifications will be pursued in the next legislative session.”