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Wisconsin GOP leader fires 2020 election investigator

Tension between Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, investigation head Michael Gableman has grown during primary election season.

Michael Gableman
Former state Supreme Court Justice Michael Gableman speaks Tuesday, March 1, 2022, at the Wisconsin State Capitol in Madison, Wis.
Angela Major / WPR
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MADISON — Assembly Speaker Robin Vos has fired former Supreme Court Justice Michael Gableman and closed the election investigation he was hired to run, just days after Gableman endorsed Vos' opponent in the Aug. 9 Republican primary.

Vos, who narrowly prevailed in his Assembly primary against challenger Adam Steen, announced in a written statement Friday, Aug. 12, that he was closing the former justice's Office of Special Counsel immediately.

"After having many members of our caucus reach out to me over the past several days, it is beyond clear to me that we only have one choice in this matter, and that's to close the Office of Special Counsel," Vos said.

The speaker's office later shared a copy of Gableman's termination letter where Vos instructed him that his contract was ended immediately and he was required to remit "any and all records" to the Assembly chief clerk's office.

"This ends your employment by and association with the Wisconsin State Assembly," Vos said in the letter . "You are to refrain from representing in public, or private, that you are employed by or working at the direction of the Wisconsin State Assembly, the Office of Special Counsel, or any of its members."

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Vos announced that he was hiring Gableman to lead an investigation of the 2020 election in June 2021 at the annual state Republican Party Convention, telling Republican activists at the time that he wanted them to hear the news first. The announcement followed intense pressure from former Republican President Donald Trump, who threatened Vos and other GOP leaders that they could "be primaried and quickly run out of office."

Gableman completed what he called his "interim" report in March, alleging that the Wisconsin Elections Commission had issued unlawful guidance in 2020 and suggesting that the Legislature consider decertifying President Joe Biden's victory, a move election law experts say is impossible.

But that was hardly the end of it. Gableman's office was involved in an array of lawsuits , many of which were open records cases brought by the liberal watchdog group American Oversight. Gableman was repeatedly admonished in the cases by Dane County Circuit Court Judges Valerie Bailey-Rihn and Frank Remington, and at various points during the proceedings, both Gableman and Vos were held in contempt.

Bailey-Rihn and Remington recently awarded a combined $261,000 to American Oversight that will be paid for by taxpayers. The original investigation was budgeted for $676,000, but crossed $1 million barrier earlier this summer, not including the attorneys' fees.

Gableman also filed a sweeping lawsuit threatening to jail the mayors of Madison, Green Bay and Racine among others if they didn't comply with subpoenas to sit for private interviews as part of his investigation. Arguments in that case, which were repeatedly delayed, now appear unlikely to happen.

Throughout it all, Vos publicly stood by Gableman even as the outspoken former justice's allies claimed Vos was trying to impede their efforts. Vos renewed Gableman's contract in March , again in April and most recently in May . The most recent contract included no expiration date but stated that either Vos or Gableman could terminate the agreement by providing written notice to the other.

The original contract paid Gableman $11,000 per month, a sum that was reduced to $5,500 per month in the latest agreement. Vos said Gableman would remain employed, and the Office of Special Counsel would remain open, while the lawsuits are resolved.

That changed abruptly when what once seemed like a far-fetched primary challenge against Vos suddenly seemed plausible. A week before the primary, Trump endorsed Steen , holding a rally in Waukesha where he campaigned against Vos , going so far as to suggest that the powerful GOP lawmaker was a Democrat.

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Gableman attended the event, where he delivered the prayer and posed for pictures with Steen. As Gableman watched Trump speak that night, the former president repeatedly praised him.

"I want to thank you, Michael, for being here, but I want to thank you much more importantly for the job that you've done," Trump said a week ago. "Everybody here appreciates Michael Gableman."

Days later, news broke that Gableman had not only endorsed Steen but had recorded a robocall promoting his candidacy and attacking Vos.

"You know, Robin Vos never wanted a real investigation into the 2020 election in Wisconsin, and everything that my office and I have been able to do to expose all the corruption that took place has been in spite of Robin and not because of him," Gableman said in the recording.

It proved to be the final straw. Vos won his primary over Steen by a margin of about 2.6 percentage points, or 260 votes, according to unofficial totals from the Associated Press. Gableman was with Steen at the challenger's election night party as votes were counted.

After the votes were tallied, Vos let loose on Gableman.

"Mike Gableman is an embarrassment to the state," Vos told the CBS 58 in Milwaukee . "But I am not going to let my joy for tonight be focused on a person like Mike Gableman who isn't worth the time to talk about."

Vos indicated on election night that he would talk to Assembly Republicans when they meet as a group next week before deciding how to proceed with Gableman. His statement Friday was an indication that he decided not to wait after all.

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A spokesperson for the Office of Special Counsel did not immediately respond to an email Friday afternoon seeking a comment.

Democrats were far more willing to talk. Assembly Minority Leader Greta Neubauer, D-Racine, said in a written statement that for 14 months, Republicans had empowered Gableman to spread disinformation about Wisconsin's elections.

"Republican leadership needs to take responsibility for the damage they’ve done to our democracy and make clear that the 2020 election was fair and secure," Neubauer said. "The investigation was a farce from the beginning and did nothing but waste taxpayer dollars, demonize our local clerks and election officials, and further sow misinformation and doubt in our democratic systems."

"Based on the paper trail American Oversight uncovered, it is clear that despite great cost to Wisconsin taxpayers and false statements from Gableman himself, this election review uncovered no evidence to support its claims of widespread fraud," read a statement from Heather Sawyer, executive director at American Oversight. "Firing Michael Gableman does not free Speaker Vos, the Assembly, or the Office of Special Counsel from their obligations to comply with Wisconsin law and to release the full record of this inquiry to the public."

The office of Democratic Gov. Tony Evers, who called on Vos to fire Gableman earlier this week, issued a much shorter statement when asked about the move.

"Finally," said Evers spokesperson Britt Cudaback.

Gableman's investigation took issue with how the election was run, particularly with the decision to suspend the normal rules for voting in nursing homes as a COVID-19 precaution. But his review did not produce evidence of widespread fraud.

A review by the nonpartisan Legislative Audit Bureau was critical of several instances where the Wisconsin Elections Commission had issued advice to clerks as guidance rather than as an administrative rule, which would allow for legislative input. But the Audit Bureau did not reveal widespread fraud .

President Joe Biden defeated former President Trump by 20,682 votes in Wisconsin, a margin affirmed by a statewide canvas , a partial recount and multiple state and federal court decisions.

Wisconsin Public Radio can be heard locally on 91.3 KUWS-FM and at wpr.org.

Wisconsin Public Radio, © Copyright 2022, Board of Regents of the University of Wisconsin System and Wisconsin Educational Communications Board.

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