State elections board director says staff has personal views but they don't make decisions



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MADISON, Wisconsin — The state elections board's employees have personal political views but they don't make any decisions, the board's director said Tuesday as he tries to stave off Republican lawmakers' plans to restructure the agency.

Conservatives' calls to overhaul the Government Accountability Board have grown louder following a newspaper story Thursday detailing a former staff attorney's emails. The messages offered encouragement to an investigator looking into whether Gov. Scott Walker's recall campaign illegally coordinated with outside conservative groups.

The GAB consists of six retired judges appointed by the governor and their employees. The agency oversees the application, implementation and enforcement of election, ethics and campaign finance laws. Board Director Kevin Kennedy told reporters during a break in a meeting that his employees are human and vote. But only he and the board's members make the final decisions and he works hard to ensure his staff's personal views don't influence the process.

"To expect they'll be devoid of any outside views is unrealistic," Kennedy said. "It's our job to make sure they don't get in the way of decision-making.'"

Republican lawmakers are gearing up to overhaul the nonpartisan board, and considering having partisan appointees to serve alongside the judges. Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, R-Rochester, has called for Kennedy to be replaced as well, but no one has proposed any legislation yet.

Republicans are furious with the board over its handling of recall elections in 2011 and 2012 that targeted both Democrats and Republicans, including Walker. They're also upset with ballot designs and the board's role in assisting Milwaukee prosecutors with a secret John Doe investigation into alleged illegal coordination between Walker's recall campaign and outside conservative groups.

The state Supreme Court's conservative majority halted the investigation for good this summer, saying campaigns can legally coordinate with outsiders on issue advocacy — ads that don't expressly tell people to vote for or defeat a candidate.

The Wall Street Journal reported last week that emails they obtained reveal GAB attorney Shane Falk told John Doe prosecutor Francis Schmitz to "stay strong" in November 2013. Falk said in the message that coordination between campaigns and outside groups amount to a "bastardization of politics."

Falk sent Schmitz another email in June 2014 accusing him of lying to the media when he said Walker wasn't a target in the probe. Falk said Walker was on the first page of target sheets.

Schmitz told The Associated Press on Tuesday that he never lied. He said those target sheets were drawn up early in the investigation but as of June 2014 the evidence didn't show Walker was a target, which he defined as someone likely to become a criminal defendant.

Falk left the elections agency last year, but the emails raise questions about whether he was biased against Walker.

Kennedy said he spoke with Falk "numerous times" about toning down his blunt style. Still, Kennedy said, the emails are part of the give-and-take between investigators and it's normal to have disagreements about where an investigation is headed.

He added that investigators sincerely believed that Wisconsin law prohibited coordination between candidates and outside groups. He noted, too, that the emails are under seal and whoever leaked them violated a court order and is trying spin perceptions of the board.

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