By M.D. Kittle | Wisconsin Reporter
MADISON, Wis. — The state’s elections and campaign finance law overseer has lost a key employee, and arguably one of its busiest during the past few years of Wisconsin’s high-stakes, partisan politics.
Shane Falk, staff counsel for the Government Accountability Board, resigned his position last week to take a job in private practice with an unidentified Madison law firm, according to a letter from GAB Elections Division Administrator Michael Haas.
The letter was dated Aug. 15.
Falk’s departure would seem to come at a particularly disadvantageous time for the Government Accountability Board. One of two staff attorneys, Falk leaves as the GAB prepares for a demanding November general election and finds itself involved in several lawsuits — including as a defendant in a high profile complaint accusing the agency of abusing its power at taxpayer expense in a politically charged John Doe probe.
“(We) … have begun recruitment to fill the vacant position through the civil service process,” said GAB spokesman Reid Magney in an email to Wisconsin Reporter.
Kevin Kennedy, the GAB’s director and general counsel, wrote to the board and staff that Falk “exemplifies all that is great about the people who work at the Government Accountability Board.”
“He is a dedicated public servant who puts the public and the agency first in his professional life,” Kennedy wrote.
But conservatives have long questioned Falk’s ability to rise above partisanship at a nonpartisan agency increasingly under attack for some controversial decisions and investigations.
Falk joined the new-and-improved and merged campaign finance and elections agency in October 2008. The former Democratic appointee to the previous Elections Board raised some eyebrows when he was hired. The Legislature abolished the old Elections Board, which Falk chaired in 2003-04, after constant criticism that it was embroiled in partisan politics.
“Hiring a former board member who served as a designated partisan on the board seems to run contrary to the new makeup of the board, which is decidedly nonpartisan,” Don Millis, a former Elections Board chairman and a Republican designee, told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel at the time. “If the board is attempting to give the appearance that it’s is going to act in a non-partisan fashion, (hiring Falk) will not help.”
In the vetting process, Falk was found to have donated $3,500 to Democratic candidates in 2002, but had not made any contributions since, according to the newspaper.
Kennedy said at the time that Falk’s work on the elections board was taken under advisement.
Falk’s starting salary with the GAB was reported at $80,000. His salary in 2013, the latest data available, was $87,206.10, or $41.93 per hour.
He and Haas were hired at the same time, with Haas’ staring salary at $85,000. In 2013, Haas grossed $104,560.96, or $50.79 per hour, as Elections Division administrator.
Falk and Haas replaced Jonathan Becker, who was tapped to lead the GAB’s Ethics Division, and attorney George Dunst, who retired. Becker and crew were intricately involved in the GAB’s “issue ads” disclosure rule.
“In approving the promulgation of this rule, the Government Accountability Board is simply enforcing the clear directive of the Wisconsin Legislature,” said Becker, former chairman of the extremely liberal Dane County Board, said in a Jan. 15, 2009 release.
It turns out what the GAB did was unconstitutional. The 7th Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals in May scolded the Legislature and the GAB in striking down campaign finance law the court described as vague and “Labyrinthian.”
The court, in a 3-0 decision, found the state’s ban on political spending by corporation, unconstitutional under the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2010 Citizens United ruling that opened up previous restrictions on campaign finance. The Appeals Court remanded the case to the district court to issue a permanent injunction consistent with the opinion.
Haas had only praise for his colleague, writing that Falk brought to the agency “great expertise and experience in the areas of election and campaign finance law.”
“He has often taken on complex and sticky legal matters,” Haas added.
It has been an action-packed six years, particularly the past four years, for Falk and the GAB. The agency has presided over 18 regular elections, multiple recounts, and Wisconsin’s heated recall season of 2011 and 2012. The state made history when Gov. Scott Walker became the first sitting governor to survive a recall election.
It was Falk who blasted a conservative petition drive to recall three Democrat senators, declaring that he found systematic fraud in the campaign and a “cavalier attitude” among some of the recall organizers. The recall campaign was launched amid conservatives’ charges that 14 Democrat state senators who fled the state to avoid a vote on the collective bargaining bill were guilty of dereliction of duty. Accountability board members agreed there were problems in the petition drive but feared they might toss valid signatures if they followed through on a staff recommendation to reject the entire effort.
In his resignation letter, dated Aug. 7, Falk notes the “extraordinary events of the past five years.”
“I hope you and the Board truly know and understand that I kept the agency’s mission and best interests front and center in every action I took,” Falk wrote.
Then he went into a tirade about the rhetoric of “politicians and the general public,” hoping that they would “take actions to learn and understand the varied and great work the G.A.B. performs.”
“The criticism they suffer is both unfair and infuriating,” Falk blasts in his farewell to Kennedy.
He goes on to complain about his salary, saying he has three children for which he is responsible, two of which who are about to start college.
“My take-home pay is less now than when I started five years ago … even with the generous merit raises,” he wrote. He reminds Kennedy that he has received “several offers from the private sector over the years, but have turned every one of them down due to my dedication to the agency and its mission …”
Given the “uncertainty of the agency’s future, stagnation or regression of professional pay and benefits,” and the Republican-controlled Legislature’s threat to change the GAB, Falk said he has made the “difficult decision to accept a recent offer from the private sector.”
Falk could not be reached for comment.