MADISON, Wis. — Wisconsin Ethics Commission Administrator Brian Bell returned to his old job at the state Department of Safety and Professional Services on Thursday, two days after Senate Republicans refused to confirm his appointment to the commission.
DSPS Assistant Deputy Secretary Kirsten Reader told The Associated Press that Bell has returned to his job as a policy analyst and started work on Thursday. The analyst position pays $32,800 less per year than his administrator post.
Bell’s decision temporarily defuses half of an ugly saga that began in December, when Republican legislators began demanding that he and Elections Commission Administrator Michael Haas resign. Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald said he couldn’t trust either of them because they worked for the now-defunct Government Accountability Board.
The board helped Milwaukee County District Attorney John Chisholm and other prosecutors investigate whether Gov. Scott Walker’s campaign illegally colluded with outside groups. The conservative-leaning Wisconsin Supreme Court killed the probe in 2015 before anyone was charged, but the investigation still left Republicans outraged. They dismantled the board and created the Ethics and Elections Commissions to replace it.
The Republican-controlled Senate voted Tuesday against confirming Bell and Haas. The GOP argues the vote means both Bell and Haas are out and must return to their previous state jobs.
The Elections Commission voted 4-2 on Wednesday to defy the Senate and keep Haas in his administrator post through April. Fitzgerald issued a statement Thursday evening arguing that Haas’ post is open. If the commission doesn’t fill it within 45 days the Legislature will appoint a new administrator, he said.
The vote raised questions about whether the Ethics Commission might try to retain Bell, too. The panel met late Thursday afternoon to decide what to do next.
The commission ultimately voted 5-1 to adopt Chairman David Halbrooks’ proposal to do nothing and revisit the issue at a Feb. 27 meeting.
Halbrooks, a Democrat, said the commission needs “time to breathe” and developments in the Haas fight might clear things up for Bell’s return. Republican Commissioner Pat Strachota cast the lone dissenting vote, arguing the Senate vote clearly means Bell is out and the commission should fill his position.
Just like the Elections Commission, the ethics panel has 45 days to appoint a new administrator or the Legislature can pick one.
Halbrooks said Bell has proven he’s nonpartisan. He played no role in the Walker investigation and deserves to keep his administrator job, the chairman said. He said Fitzgerald should consider resigning himself for going after him.
“Sen. Fitzgerald has gone a long way toward cementing his name alongside Joseph McCarthy in this state,” Halbrooks said, referring to the former U.S. senator from Wisconsin who alleged communists and Soviet spies had infiltrated the U.S. government, universities and Hollywood in the 1950s.
Halbrooks, a former Milwaukee municipal judge, said Walker should get at the root of the problem by removing Chisholm from office. If that doesn’t happen, Halbrooks said, someone should demand Chisholm’s impeachment. Halbrooks was granted immunity in an investigation Chisholm led of Walker associates campaigning on taxpayers’ time while the governor was the Milwaukee County executive. The coordination probe grew out of that investigation.
Fitzgerald aide Dan Romportl and Walker spokeswoman Amy Hesenberg didn’t immediately reply to emails seeking comment. An email left in the Milwaukee County District Attorney’s general inbox wasn’t immediately returned.
An earlier version of this story was corrected to show that Katie McCallum is former Gov. Scott McCallum’s daughter-in-law, not his wife.