The appointment of former Democratic state Attorney General Peg Lautenschlager to run the new Wisconsin Ethics Commission is hilarious – and not only for the obvious reasons.
Republicans, who run basically everything in this state and are still ballistic about the John Doe 2 investigation, deep-sixed the old Government Accountability Board so they won’t have to deal with perceived nemesis Kevin Kennedy anymore.
And they get instead ... Peg Lautenschlager?
Instead of a bunch of retired judges no one’s ever heard of, they get … Peg Lautenschlager?
It’s rather karmic. It’s called being hoisted by your own petard. It’s called being careful what you wish for. It’s called being careful what you create, the law of unexpected consequences – although these should have been expected. Republicans created the system to work this way. They wanted state ethics investigations to be run by partisans. So they shouldn’t act upset when they get one of the most partisan Democrats of all as chair. Who’s next? Jim Doyle?
The only thing more hilarious would be if the new state Ethics Commission had chosen John Chisholm as its chairman.
Republicans expressly wanted to create a partisan board. Their argument was that the old board was partisan too, but hid under the cloak of supposed neutrality. There is an argument for this. However, the problem with creating an expressly partisan board is you end up with express partisans like Peg Lautenschlager running the show. Maybe she can hire Kathleen Falk and they can go after Republicans together. Again, it’s Republicans’ own fault. I personally would prefer a truly neutral board and chairman in charge of state ethics matters. I think that would have more credibility with the public. How you get there is another question, I suppose.
And I haven’t even gotten to the state car yet.
I make light of this, but the commission does important work. The problem with having an overt partisan like Lautenschlager in charge is that anything she does will be immediately seen as a partisan attack and discredited by foes, no matter how right she is. Any wrongdoers will have an easy line of attack, and the public won’t have confidence that any actions were taken for the right reasons. In this viciously divided state, bogged down as we are in our boring ideological wars, it’s hard to see how more partisanship is the answer.
It seems like the state Ethics Commission should probably be helmed by someone with unquestionable credentials and neutrality. Why would you want an "independent prosecutor" who’s biased from the get go? But again, that’s the monster Republicans created here, and that’s what they said they wanted, so I guess Lautenschlager’s appointment is a child of their own creation. Thus, they can’t complain.
On to the state car. I have no doubts that Lautenschlager is a talented and smart woman who has things to contribute to this state. I don’t think people are defined by one mistake in a lifetime of work. However, she had to pay a fine to the previous Ethics Board after she was arrested in 2004 for drunk driving. In case you forgot the details, she drove drunk in a state car while she was Wisconsin's Attorney General. She pleaded guilty to driving drunk. The Ethics Board settlement arose from personal travel she didn’t report.
Lautenschlager told Fox 6, "It’s a fair criticism. Certainly, I paid a small fine 12 years ago for a violation of the code. It's my only violation."
During the ethics investigation, Fox 6 recalled "investigators discovered that she had been using the government vehicle for personal use, commuting from her office in Madison to her Fond du Lac home."
It would seem that a new state Ethics Commission would not want a person in charge who has paid a fine to the previous Ethics Board. This kind of thing usually only works one way. Republicans rarely get these second chances. How would Democrats feel if, say, Scott Jensen were picked to run the new state Ethics Commission next?
I’ve been around long enough now to remember, also, that the now-deposed Government Accountability Board was created in the wake of Lautenschlager’s troubles, in the midst of her re-election campaign for Attorney General. It got rid of … an ethics board.
It’s all rich. The commission also chose as administrator a guy who was an analyst at the GAB.
The Ethics Commission has the same number of Republican as Democratic appointees.
The vote to select Lautenschlager was unanimous, which means all Republicans voted for her. But apparently the goofy way the system was set up left them with no choice.
The new law Republicans created makes the chairmanship rotate between parties and, in the first year, party control was to be decided at random, Fox 6 said. The board ended up with Lautenschlager after putting pieces of paper with the letters R and D on them in a wicker basket and drawing D for Democrat. (I told you this was hilarious.)
They couldn’t pick a different Democrat as chair because one Democratic member had been appointed by Gov. Scott Walker, rendering him ineligible (not sure I get that one). The second Democrat on the commission nominated Lautenschlager as chair, and since there are three Democrats on the commission, that meant Lautenschlager was it. Senate Democratic leader Jen Shilling named Lautenschlager to the commission in the first place. One would think the Senate Democratic leader wouldn’t have chosen someone for the Ethics Commission who was fined by the Ethics Board, but, then again, that’s the kind of thing partisans do.
Pat Strachota, a Republican commissioner, said, "That’s how it was set up by the Legislature." Which is, of course, the central point.
Jessica McBride spent a decade as an investigative, crime, and general assignment reporter for the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel and is a former City Hall reporter/current columnist for the Waukesha Freeman.
She is the recipient of national and state journalism awards in topics that include short feature writing, investigative journalism, spot news reporting, magazine writing, blogging, web journalism, column writing, and background/interpretive reporting. McBride, a senior journalism lecturer at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, has taught journalism courses since 2000.
Her journalistic and opinion work has also appeared in broadcast, newspaper, magazine, and online formats, including Patch.com, Milwaukee Magazine, Wisconsin Public Radio, El Conquistador Latino newspaper, Investigation Discovery Channel, History Channel, WMCS 1290 AM, WTMJ 620 AM, and Wispolitics.com. She is the recipient of the 2008 UWM Alumni Foundation teaching excellence award for academic staff for her work in media diversity and innovative media formats and is the co-founder of Media Milwaukee.com, the UWM journalism department's award-winning online news site. McBride comes from a long-time Milwaukee journalism family. Her grandparents, Raymond and Marian McBride, were reporters for the Milwaukee Journal and Milwaukee Sentinel.
Her opinions reflect her own not the institution where she works.