Ex-justice’s Wisconsin election probe drags as critics scoff

Feb 7, 2022, 9:18 AM | Updated: 10:02 am

MADISON, Wis. (AP) — The leader of a sprawling, taxpayer-funded probe of Joe Biden’s victory in battleground Wisconsin ignited his political career in 2008 by unseating the first Black justice on the state Supreme Court, capitalizing on an ad that sparked ethics complaints and allegations of racism.

Michael Gableman’s commercial against then-Justice Louis Butler drew comparisons with the infamous Willie Horton ad from the 1988 presidential race and an official complaint from the state judicial commission. But the ad paid off as Gableman, then a little-known circuit judge in rural Wisconsin, became the first challenger to defeat a sitting justice in 40 years, tilting the court’s balance in favor of conservatives.

Gableman, 55, who left the high court after one 10-year term, is now bringing the same bruising — and, to his critics, fact-challenged — approach to the election probe. Biden’s narrow 2020 victory in Wisconsin has withstood recounts, lawsuits and multiple reviews. There is no evidence of widespread fraud.

In his seven-month inquiry, Gableman has been sued over his response to open records requests and subpoenas and countersued. He’s been criticized for scant expense records, ridiculed for sending confusing emails and making rudimentary errors in his filings and called out for meeting with conspiracy theorists.

Election experts and members of both parties have dismissed Gableman as a partisan hack for claiming, even before he was appointed to lead the probe, that the election had been stolen from Donald Trump. He faced even more criticism for filling his investigative team with former Trump staffers or supporters.

A bipartisan group of Wisconsin business leaders wrote letters of support Monday for the state’s embattled elections officials. Tom Florsheim, who signed the letter, said in an interview that Gableman was harassing and threatening elections officials, which is bad for the state and the business climate.

Republican state Sen. Kathy Bernier, a former elections clerk who is retiring next year, has called Gableman’s review a “charade” and said “no one should falsely accuse election officials of cheating.” Former New Jersey Gov. Christine Todd Whitman, also a Republican, has called the Wisconsin investigation part of a national disinformation campaign designed to “keep the lies of the 2020 election alive.”

“I don’t think he has an ounce of credibility because he is someone who has always had a cloud over him in public life,” said Sachin Chheda, a Democratic strategist who ran Butler’s unsuccessful reelection campaign against Gableman 14 years ago.

Gableman has said he’s simply seeking the truth. And his defenders say he has been unjustly criticized for years by political opponents seeking to discredit his work. Republican Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, who hired Gableman and handed him a $676,000 budget, has stuck by him and defended his investigation.

Gableman did not respond to messages seeking comment. His attorney, James Bopp, called him “very conscientious” and “very committed to following the law as a justice, as a person, as a special counsel.”

“He considers it a very important responsibility. He would like to restore confidence in the Wisconsin election process,” Bopp said.

Vos, the state’s most powerful Republican, hired Gableman last summer after Trump accused Vos of trying to prevent an investigation of the election. Gableman’s probe has since bogged down in a series of lawsuits challenging his subpoenas. A Nebraska-based voting machine company, ES&S, refused to comply, calling his subpoenas a “quintessential fishing expedition.”

The subpoenas have also been ridiculed for spelling errors and incorrect names and for asking for data that cities don’t have.

The mayor of Green Bay has filed a complaint against Gableman, saying he should be forced to pay a fine and take out a full-page newspaper ad to correct misstatements about how the mayor, a Democrat who was elected on a nonpartisan ballot, responded to his subpoena.

Gableman is no stranger to controversy.

His 2008 campaign ad made it sound like Butler had let a convicted child molester, Reuben Lee Mitchell, out of jail early in a case he handled when he was a public defender. The ad showed a close-up of Butler and Mitchell, both of whom are Black, on the screen at the same time.

It drew an immediate comparison to a political action committee’s TV commercial attacking Michael Dukakis in his 1988 campaign against George H.W. Bush. That ad featured a closeup of Horton, a Black convicted killer who committed a rape after being granted a weekend furlough in Massachusetts when Dukakis was governor.

“Butler found a loophole. Mitchell went on to molest another child,” the narrator said in the Gableman ad. But the ad was misleading: Butler had won an appeal for Mitchell, but the state Supreme Court did not overturn his conviction. He did commit another sex offense — but only after he had been released on parole.

Gableman won the race, but the Wisconsin Judicial Commission, a nonpartisan and independent agency, filed a complaint against Gableman saying he had lied in the ad. The Supreme Court (with Gableman not participating) deadlocked 3-3 on whether Gableman had violated the judicial ethics code, effectively clearing him, but even the conservative justices who sided with Gableman called the ad distasteful.

“He ran a dishonest, racist campaign,” said Jim Doyle, the former governor who appointed Butler to the court. “It was just, ‘Let’s go find a Black person who did a horrible crime and somehow tie him to Louis Butler.’ … That’s how he did it. Never was apologetic.”

With the political landscape favoring Democrats in the 2018 midterm election, Gableman chose not to seek reelection. His seat was taken by a liberal candidate that spring in a year where Democrats swept every statewide office in the fall.

Gableman kept a low profile after leaving the court but reemerged in November 2020 to speak at a rally of Trump supporters in Milwaukee, where he said the election had been stolen.

Gableman further fueled his critics in October, telling the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel that he didn’t have a “comprehensive understanding of how elections work.”

And he only increased suspicion about his work by traveling to Arizona to observe the widely ridiculed recount there; attending a symposium in South Dakota headed by MyPillow chief executive Mike Lindell that included presentations from conspiracy theorists.

Doyle, the Democratic former governor and former attorney general, said he’s been stunned by how Gableman has run the investigation.

“It’s obviously totally amateurish,” said Doyle, an attorney who spent 12 years as Wisconsin’s top law enforcement officer. “I don’t know how the Republicans are looking at this now but after the way he’s conducted it I bet they are wishing he would just go away and this would all disappear.”

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Ex-justice’s Wisconsin election probe drags as critics scoff