MADISON, Wis. – The new state Elections Commission recently appointed Michael Haas as its first administrator.
But this “nonpartisan” Government Accountability Board retread has a very partisan past, as underscored by court documents obtained by Wisconsin Watchdog.
While GOP lawmakers vacillate on whether to confirm Haas’ nomination, his involvement in the politically driven John Doe investigation into Wisconsin conservatives ought to be a wake-up call.
The Elections Commission’s decision may yet be challenged by the Senate. That’s what Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald, R-Juneau, told Wisconsin Watchdog. He also said that Haas plans to step down shortly after the November elections.
Haas has other plans, according to the liberal Wisconsin State Journal.
“I’ve never made any statement or intended to leave after the November elections,” he told the newspaper.
As Wisconsin Watchdog has reported in its investigative series into the unconstitutional probe, Haas has an extremely partisan past.
Haas, the Elections Division administrator for the soon-to-be-extinct GAB, played a key role in the John Doe, according to some 50 emails to and from Haas’ Gmail address in the GAB database.
The emails were obtained in a lawsuit accusing the GAB of overstepping its authority at taxpayers’ expense. The emails further support the claim by conservative targets that the GAB didn’t simply conduct a “parallel” criminal investigation into right-of-center groups and Gov. Scott Walker’s campaign, but often led it.
Haas was repeatedly copied on early emails at the opening of the investigation and traveled to meet Milwaukee County District Attorney John Chisholm, the partisan Democrat who launched the secret probe in 2012.
On May 30, 2013, as the dubious campaign finance investigation was heating up, Haas, GAB director Kevin Kennedy, and former staff counsel Shane Falk traveled to Milwaukee to meet with Chisholm and his assistant, David Robles, “to discuss the Board’s concerns about the status of the Badger Doe investigation.”
On June 12, 2013, Kennedy, Falk, Haas, and Jonathan Becker, GAB’s Ethics Division administrator, met with Chisholm to discuss the next steps in the investigation.
On September 19, 2013, Haas emailed Falk with a subject line, “Doe records.”
“Are the original Doe records still being sealed ffor [sic] use in the Badger Doe?” Falk responded that they were “transferred to the new Doe, technically.” Haas wrote back, with a curious comment on an apparent open records request. “That’s what I thought. Will be interesting to see how the (Milwaukee) journal sentinel records request plays out.”
Falk, who left the agency in 2014, was found to be especially partisan. In one email he scolded John Doe special prosecutor Francis Schmitz, raising concerns about how Schmitz’s public comments might affect then-Democratic gubernatorial candidate Mary Burke’s campaign ad.
Haas played a particularly vital role, it seems, in the GAB’s defense of its sham investigation after targets challenged the probe and its accompanying predawn, armed raids on conservatives’ homes.
On Nov. 15, 2013, the Elections Division administrator reviewed and edited a court brief with GAB staff attorney Nathan Judnic, Kennedy, and Falk, emailing minor edits to the team. He wrote, “I think this is very strong,” and recommended several minor changes to words and phrases.
“It seems like there’s a lot of legal analysis in the introduction and then it ends abruptly after the facts. I wonder if there should be some application of the law to the facts after they are summarized,” Haas wrote. “Maybe that’s part of moving stuff around. But these are minor things and all the crucial stuff seems to be in there. They should just fold now. Good work.”
The targets, referred to as “unnamed movants” in Wisconsin’s appeals court system did not “fold.” In January 2014, the John Doe judge quashed the subpoenas in the investigation, ruling that the prosecutors did not show probable cause that a crime had been committed.
In July 2105, the Wisconsin Supreme Court declared the probe unconstitutional and ordered it shut down.
“It is utterly clear that the special prosecutor has employed theories of law that do not exist in order to investigate citizens who were wholly innocent of any wrongdoing,” Justice Michael Gableman wrote in the majority opinion. “In other words, the special prosecutor was the instigator of a ‘perfect storm’ of wrongs.”
The John Doe began as a probe into conservative groups and donors who backed Walker’s campaign during the recall election of 2012. Investigators were seeking to prove those groups, most notably the Wisconsin Club for Growth, had coordinated with Walker’s campaign.
Targets and witnesses were bound to secrecy, under penalty of jail time and fines.
Gableman in the ruling praised them for fighting back through the legal system.
“It is fortunate, indeed, for every other citizen of this great State who is interested in the protection of fundamental liberties that the special prosecutor chose as his targets innocent citizens who had both the will and the means to fight the unlimited resources of an unjust prosecution,” he wrote. “Further, these brave individuals played a crucial role in presenting this court with an opportunity to re-endorse its commitment to upholding the fundamental right of each and every citizen to engage in lawful political activity and to do so free from the fear of the tyrannical retribution of arbitrary or capricious governmental prosecution.”
Haas’ emails show how overly confident the GAB was in its widely rejected theory of illegal campaign coordination, and how tightly they clung to it as its legal foundations collapsed around them.
In an email to Falk under the subject line “Argument,” Haas had an epiphany.
“I remembered what I was thinking about in the shower this morning that might resonate as a point to make so thought I better write it down before I forget again,” he wrote in the Nov. 23, 2103, email. “Seems to me that we could say if this is not coordination then what case is — does the candidate have to be guiding the contributor’s hand who is writing out the check? Or asking the independent group to run ads in specific markets, which by the way, is what the gov thought he was doing with the fake David Koch call.”
Haas was referring to the prank call a left-wing “journalist” placed to Walker in 2011 during the height of the union-led protests against Walker’s collective bargaining reform bill, Act 10. Walker was led to believe he was talking to industrialist David Koch, half of the left’s hated “Koch Brothers.”
“That might be interesting evidence to get in. Anyway, it resonates with my little brain along with the main point that they were doing something they could not have legally accomplished by having the money go thru the campaign committee,” Haas concluded in the email.
On Jan. 31, 2014, Haas emailed Falk, with subject line “Article.”
“Well our involvement is out there now.” He enclosed a link to an article titled “Appeals court rejects most of Doe targets’ motions,’” published by the liberal Wisconsin State Journal.
Haas was partial to the State Journal’s point of view on the investigation, which has generally been the prosecutor’s point of view on the investigation.
On March 14, 2014, he forwarded a Madison.com article headlined, “John Doe prosecution focuses on coordination” to Falk, Judnic, Kennedy and Becker. Haas declared, “Wow, excellent article. Especially this quote. Should send it to Milwaukee.”
This was the quote Haas was gushing about:
“’I think the prosecution is correct that advertising spending coordinated with a campaign and which advances the objectives of a campaign is a contribution to the campaign, whether or not it is express advocacy,’” said Trevor Potter, a former chairman of the Federal Election Commission and former counsel to the John McCain and George H.W. Bush presidential campaigns.”
Again, the John Doe judge found no evidence of illegal coordination. The state Supreme Court agreed, and a federal appeals court weighed in on the GAB’s unconstitutional interpretation of issue advocacy.
For now, Haas will serve as the most powerful administrator of Wisconsin’s elections during a presidential election year.
Two of his colleagues, Kennedy and Becker, have stated they intend to step down.
While the Republican-led Legislature and Walker moved to dismantle the GAB last year and replace it with separate ethics and elections commissions, some seem more than glad to have members of the old gang hang around.
Elections Commission members “felt Mike Haas was the best-qualified candidate to ensure we have a smooth, orderly transition,” said Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, R-Burlington. “I’m not going to second-guess their decision.”
Interesting, multiple sources told Watchdog that Vos repeatedly second-guessed his colleagues who crafted the GAB reform legislation, at points stalling the process.
While the new commission may be made up of politically appointed members from both sides of the aisles, the intent is not to install partisan staff members.
Fitzgerald told the State Journal he’s not sure he could vote to confirm Haas next year. He said he would have to sit down and talk to him.
Perhaps he, his legislative colleagues, and members of the new commission will take a closer look at Haas’ partisan record on the John Doe probe before rubber-stamping his leadership position.