Wisconsin better off than many, in new report on ethics enforcers

Many states’ ethics agencies aren’t provided with the resources and independence needed to carry out their responsibilities, according to a new report that casts Wisconsin’s efforts in a favorable light.

The Washington, D.C.- based Center for Public Integrity released a report this week on state ethics commissions as part of the State Integrity Investigation, a major project launched in March that ranked state government accountability. The project was a collaboration of the Center for Public Integrity, Global Integrity and Public Radio International.

The Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism assessed Wisconsin for the project, which gave the state a C-, ranking 22nd among the states.

In this latest report, the State Integrity Investigation delves into the finding that of the 41 states with ethics panels, 28 received grades of either D or F. CPI cites concerns that these bodies provide a false sense of security and many lack the necessary resources and power to investigate complaints and enforce punishments.

According to the Center for Public Integrity, an inherent conflict often stands at the core of an ethics agency’s mission: It’s tasked with policing the same government officials who control its funding, resources and regulatory power.

In contrast, Wisconsin’s ethics enforcers got a B-, based on reporting by the Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism’s Kate Golden. She found that the nonpartisan Government Accountability Board, made up of six former judges, is considered to be much more independent. Here’s a recap from Golden’s story:

The GAB has an independent enforcement budget, and the members are appointed by the governor and confirmed by the Senate. A nomination panel comprised of retired judges develops the list of candidates from which the governor can choose.

The board is seen as a massive improvement over the Ethics and Elections board, forced out after the 2001 caucus scandal, the biggest political scandal in state history.

“I’m not saying the pussycat has been replaced by a lion,” said Mike McCabe, executive director of the Wisconsin Democracy Campaign, a nonpartisan clean-government watchdog, “but it’s definitely taken a more aggressive approach to enforcement.”

But GAB spokesman Reid Magney acknowledged that the agency isn’t always able to keep up with its required duties.

The board did not act on complaints filed by the Wisconsin Democracy Campaign in July 2011 about excessive campaign contributions. And Mike Buelow, the Wisconsin Democracy Campaign’s research director, said open records request are not always dealt with in a timely manner.

The board is also secretive, keeping its investigations under wraps unless action is taken. In 2009, the board asked the Legislature to pass a new law increasing its transparency, but the Legislature did not take up the proposal.

“I don’t know any other situation where a state agency has tried to be less secret — where it has identified secrecy as a problem in the performance of its mission,” said Bill Lueders, reporter at the Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism and president of the Wisconsin Freedom of Information Council, a nonprofit group that advocates for open government.

The Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism (www.WisconsinWatch.org) collaborates with Wisconsin Public Radio, Wisconsin Public Television, other news media and the UW-Madison School of Journalism and Mass Communication. All works created, published, posted or disseminated by the Center do not necessarily reflect the views or opinions of UW-Madison or any of its affiliates.

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