Dane County judge lets Gableman subpoenas of state elections officials stand for now

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  • Michael Gableman
    American lawyer, judge, politician
  • Josh Kaul
    Attorney General of Wisconsin

MADISON – A Dane County judge on Monday let stand Assembly Republicans' subpoenas to state election officials for now, potentially clearing the way for a former state Supreme Court justice to conduct interviews in secret as part of a wide-ranging review of the 2020 presidential election.

The decision could help re-ignite the stalled review, which has been delayed by the court challenge. Assembly Republicans now hope to complete the review by the end of February, after missing earlier deadlines to complete it in October or December.

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Monday's ruling left room for Democratic Attorney General Josh Kaul to continue to fight the subpoenas and try to prevent the interviews from occurring in secret. In a statement, he said he hoped Assembly Republicans would back off of their subpoenas as they seek to wrap up their election review.

Kaul represents the bipartisan Wisconsin Elections Commission and its director, Meagan Wolfe.

Joe Biden beat Donald Trump by about 21,000 votes in Wisconsin — a result that recounts and court rulings have confirmed. Independent reviews have found no widespread voter fraud.

More: Gableman seeks to jail two mayors if they don't sit for interviews as part of his partisan election review

More: Michael Gableman said bureaucrats 'stole our votes' before he was put in charge of reviewing 2020 election

Assembly Republicans have questioned how the election was conducted and this summer gave former state Supreme Court Justice Michael Gableman a $676,000, taxpayer-funded budget to look into it.

He issued broad subpoenas to election officials and the mayors of five cities. Kaul sued, arguing Gableman could not interview Wolfe behind closed doors, as he intended. Such interviews should occur in public before an Assembly committee, Kaul argued.

Dane County Circuit Judge Rhonda Lanford in Monday's decision wrote that Kaul so far has not met the standard for blocking the subpoenas, in part because he did not show that Wolfe would suffer irreparable harm if she were forced to testify.

While Lanford ruled against Kaul, she did not throw the case out, as Gableman requested. She will issue a final decision on whether Gableman's subpoenas are valid later.

In the meantime, Gableman could try to force Wolfe to testify. If Wolfe were to defy such a demand, the judge wrote that she would consider anew whether Gableman's subpoenas can be enforced.

In a hearing last month, attorneys for Gableman and Republican lawmakers argued Kaul and the commission didn't have the authority to bring the lawsuit. Lanford disagreed, citing one of Gableman's decisions when he was on the Supreme Court to find that officials like Wolfe could bring such a lawsuit.

Because the lawsuit remains alive, Kaul could try to continue to fight the subpoenas.

In a written statement, Kaul noted that part of Lanford's ruling and emphasized that Assembly Speaker Robin Vos of Rochester has said he wants the election review to wrap up by the end of February.

"Given Speaker Vos’s recent comments indicating that the Gableman investigation will soon be coming to a close, it is my hope that former Justice Gableman will withdraw these unnecessary subpoenas rather than continuing to litigate over them," Kaul said in his statement.

In her own statement, Wolfe noted the Elections Commission has already provided documents to Gableman and hoped any testimony was provided in public.

"We continue to have a strong preference for providing testimony in public rather than behind closed doors," she said in her statement.

Last week Gableman issued a new round of subpoenas, including one that was directed to Ann Jacobs, the Democratic chairwoman of the Elections Commission. Gableman wants to interview her on Feb. 18 — just 10 days before Vos wants the election review completed.

Gableman has brought his own lawsuit in conjunction with his election review because he contends the mayors of Madison and Green Bay have not cooperated with him. He has asked Waukesha County Circuit Judge Ralph Ramirez to jail the mayors if they don't agree to interviews with him.

The mayors have said they have complied with Gableman's demands for information and contended Gableman has mischaracterized their responses to him. Green Bay Mayor Eric Genrich recently asked the judge to sanction Gableman by fining him and requiring him to run newspaper ads correcting the record.

Other recent subpoenas from Gableman sought voting machine serial numbers and communications with Dominion Voting Systems by Madison and Green Bay officials. Those cities do not use that company's voting machines and it was not clear why Gableman thought they might be communicating with the firm.

The recent subpoenas also sought information about grants from the Center for Tech and Civic Life. The firm provided more than $10 million to about 200 Wisconsin communities, the vast majority of which went to the state's five largest cities.

Republicans have called the grants unfair, particularly because so much of the money went to communities with large concentrations of Democratic voters.

State and federal courts have ruled the grants were lawful in three separate challenges. Last month the Elections Commission reached the same conclusion.

Those who challenged the grants last week appealed the commission's rulings to circuit courts — taking the issue to court for the fourth time. Those courts are expected to rule in the coming months.

All the court challenges to the grants have been led by the Thomas More Society's Amistad Project, the Wisconsin Voters Alliance and the Minneapolis-headquartered law firm Mohrman, Kaardal & Erickson.

Gableman has worked closely with all three. He shares office space in Brookfield with the Thomas More Society and the law firm and has hired the voters alliance's president as an investigator.

Costs climb to $292,000

Gableman has spent more than $292,000 on his election review so far, according to invoices and payment records released under the state's open records law.

In December, about $63,500 of that amount went toward monthly pay for Gableman and 10 others. That's his highest billing for salaries so far and about twice as much as he spent on pay in October, records show.

On Monday, Democratic state Sen. Tim Carpenter of Milwaukee called for an audit of Gableman's office, saying taxpayers deserved to know more about who is working there and how it is spending money.

Gableman's office "is an unaccountable, rogue group of partisan actors operating without any known charter or formal objective," Carpenter said in a written statement. "Exactly what value taxpayers are getting for their money is highly questionable."

Republicans control the Legislature and are unlikely to initiate an audit of Gableman's team.

Contact Patrick Marley at patrick.marley@jrn.com. Follow him on Twitter at @patrickdmarley.

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This article originally appeared on Milwaukee Journal Sentinel: Judge lets Gableman subpoenas of election officials stand for now

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