Lessons of the Caucus Scandal

March 19, 2015

On Tuesday evening, the Wisconsin Democracy Campaign held a public panel on the “Caucus Scandal Revisited: Why We Need to Keep the Government Accountability Board Impartial, Not Partisan.”

The panelists warned gravely of the consequences if the Republicans in the legislature go through with their plans to remake the Government Accountability Board (GAB) in a partisan fashion.

“It’s an invitation to more corruption and to mischief,” said Mike McCabe, former executive director of the Wisconsin Democracy Campaign.

Jay Heck, executive director of Common Cause/Wisconsin, gave the background on the Caucus Scandal of 2001-2002. The Democrats and the Republicans in the state senate and state assembly each had caucuses for decades, which were supposed to provide research on legislation. They gradually turned into “essentially taxpayer-paid campaign staffs, with the leaders directing staff” to work on campaigns in their state offices on public time, said Heck. “There was also pay-to-play,” Heck added. He warned that if the Government Accountability Board is “repartisanized,” we will all regret it, and added that saving the independence of the GAB is a “great battle” we need to win.

Shane Falk, now an attorney with Lawton & Cates, S.C., previously staff counsel for several years at the GAB and before that a member of the old Elections Board, noted how widespread the corruption was during the Caucus Scandal. “Everyone in the Capitol, including all the staff, were involved,” he said. Prosecutors “could have charged dozens of people.” He also said that the old Elections Board didn’t function well because the partisans colluded in blocking investigations. He said keeping the GAB nonpartisan was necessary not only to root out corruption, but also to ensure that people have the right to vote and to provide “fairness of process.”

Peg Lautenschlager, former Attorney General of the State of Wisconsin, said that the attacks on the GAB are but “one piece of a larger puzzle” of corruption and the dominance of money over our political system. Other pieces of the puzzle, she said, include the Supreme Court’s decision in Citizens United v. FEC that allows corporations to spend unlimited amounts in campaigns, as well as the efforts in many states to limit ballot access.

The panel, which was held at the Madison Central Library, was attended by more than 50 people and was co-sponsored by Common Cause/Wisconsin and Our Democracy 2020.

A lively question-and-answer session followed the presentation of the panelists. One member of the audience said that destroying the nonpartisan nature of the Government Accountability Board “is like getting rid of the security cameras in the bank.”

Moderator Matt Rothschild, executive director of the Wisconsin Democracy Campaign, noted that a poll released on Monday found that 62 percent of Wisconsinites favor keeping the Government Accountability Board “independent and impartial,” including 57 percent of Republicans

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