Madison – Gov. Scott Walker relied on recommendations from a former Assembly speaker who once worked for state Supreme Court Justice David Prosser in appointing members of a commission investigating Prosser, newly released records show.
Three of the five people Walker appointed to the state Judicial Commission earlier this year were presented to the governor by former Assembly Speaker John Gard, the president of Wisconsin Businesses Inc. and a former lobbyist for school voucher proponents School Choice Wisconsin.
Gard told an aide to Walker that he had found people for the commission who were “fiercely conservative” and “will never wimp out,” according to an email recently released along with other documents under the state’s open records law. Gard also wrote that he’d told one of the appointees “what we were looking for and (he) said he would do it if needed,” but Gard’s email didn’t provide more specifics than that.
Walker’s appointees won unanimous confirmation from the state Senate in March, but two Democrats who voted to confirm them said they were troubled by Gard’s exchanges with the governor’s office after being shown copies of them.
“The question that immediately popped in my mind (on seeing the email from Gard) is what did John Gard tell them they have to do?” said state Sen. Jon Erpenbach (D-Middleton). “To me, it’s aimed directly at trying to get rid of the whole Prosser issue.”
Gard disputed that, saying in an interview he did not discuss Prosser’s case with the people he was recommending and did not talk to Prosser about the appointments. Walker spokesman Cullen Werwie said no one from the governor’s office talked about Prosser’s case with the appointees.
In his email to the governor’s office, Gard said he had identified people to serve on the commission and would find more. Walker appointed them soon after receiving the recommendations from Gard, and Walker did so without interviewing them, Werwie said.
In the 1980s, Gard worked as an aide to Prosser when Prosser was the Assembly minority leader. Gard was elected to the Assembly in 1987 and served with Prosser for nearly a decade, including when Prosser was speaker.
Picks amid inquiry
Gard’s recommendations to Walker came as the commission investigated Prosser for putting his hands on the neck of Justice Ann Walsh Bradley in June 2011, when she confronted him face-to-face in an attempt to get him out of her office.
Before Walker’s appointees were seated, the commission voted to file an ethics complaint against Prosser, but the case has since stalled as the justices consider whether they are able to review an incident they witnessed.
Walker expressed grave concern about the incident between Prosser and Bradley at the time it happened. Since then, some Republicans have complained that it is unfair the commission filed a complaint against Prosser, a conservative, but not Bradley, a liberal. Prosser and some other justices contend Bradley rushed over to Prosser with her fist raised, a claim Bradley denies.
In a Feb. 16 email to Walker’s appointments director, Eric Esser, Gard recommended Beaver Dam dentist Mark Barrette and De Pere homemaker Eileen Burnett. Walker appointed the two a day after Gard sent the email.
“These are not people who require any hand holding – they are fiercely conservative and will never wimp out,” Gard wrote. “There will be no surprises.”
Of Barrette, Gard wrote: “I laid out what we were looking for and (he) said he would do it if needed.”
Erpenbach said he wanted to know more about Gard’s discussions with the appointees and the governor’s office.
“What did John lay out and what did (Barrette) agree to do?” he asked. “I’ve got to believe they were talking about something other than what the commission does.”
Erpenbach and Sen. Fred Risser (D-Madison) sit on the Senate Judiciary Committee, which reviewed the appointments before sending them to the Senate for confirmation. They said they didn’t know about Gard’s communications at the time but wish they had.
“It wouldn’t have necessarily changed things, but it would have opened up a line of questioning,” Risser said.
Gard said he recommended the people not so much because of their conservative credentials but because he thought they were well-qualified and would commit to doing all the work needed for the commission.
“I don’t believe you should be recommending people who would see it as an honorary title,” Gard said. “If you get people who don’t participate … it would be a waste of an appointment.”
He said he’d also made recommendations to the governor on boards that address issues important to small business and for judgeships in Brown and Marinette counties, areas Gard represented when he was in the Assembly.
Werwie, the spokesman for Walker, said the governor and his aides have asked hundreds of people to make recommendations on a variety of appointments. The governor was more focused on finding members of the Judicial Commission who would be fair than ones he considered conservative, Werwie said.
Barrette did not return calls. Burnett said no one discussed Prosser’s case with her when she was seeking the appointment.
“Nothing was discussed but what the duty of the commission is,” she said.
Gard also recommended that Walker appoint Green Bay anesthesiologist Saied Assef to the commission, telling Esser in a Feb. 21 text message that Assef was the “smartest man I know.” Three days later, Walker appointed Assef.
Walker’s other commission appointees are Lynn Leazer, a Spanish translator, and William Cullinan, the dean of the College of Health Sciences at Marquette University. His appointees now constitute a 5-4 majority on the commission.
The commission has been investigating the altercation between Prosser and Bradley since last year. In January, it voted 6-0 to file the complaint against Prosser. At that time, none of Walker’s appointees were on the commission.
In February, the commission deadlocked 3-3 on whether to debate reconsidering the matter. Leazer was the only Walker appointee on the commission at the time, and she was one of those who voted to discuss reconsideration.
Later in February, Walker made his other appointments to the commission. In March, before the newly constituted group met, the special prosecutor working for the commission, Franklyn Gimbel, filed the complaint against Prosser.
Gimbel said the direction from the commission has been consistent despite the changes in its makeup.
“I have received no indication they’re muzzling me and making me go in another direction,” he said.
Are you surprised? Me either.