If you’re like me, you’re having a hard time keeping up with the inanity, the hypocrisy, the wasted money, and the sheer incompetence of the Gableman “investigation” into the 2020 elections.
So, as a public service, I’ve gone back and combed through news articles to provide you the reader with a retelling of the sorry tale just as thoroughly as I can.
Before I start, a trigger warning. Some readers will find much of what is reported below disturbing. I recommend you pour yourself a nice cocktail or have some other more healthy means of aggravation reduction close at hand.
At the state Republican convention in June 2021 Assembly Speaker Robin Vos announced that he was going to hire former Wisconsin Supreme Court Justice Michael Gableman to head up an investigation into fraud in the 2020 elections. This, despite the fact that no significant fraud had been found in the normal after-election canvass, or in partial recounts that had been ordered in Milwaukee and Dane counties, or in several lawsuits filed by Donald Trump supporters, and despite the fact that a review from the nonpartisan Legislative Audit Bureau had already been ordered up by Republicans.
Gableman was poorly regarded during his single 10-year term on the court. He had been plucked from obscurity as a circuit court judge in Burnett County by a conservative establishment desperate for a candidate to take on Justice Louis Butler in 2008. Butler had been appointed by Gov. Jim Doyle to fill a vacancy on the court. The state’s first Black justice, Butler was well-regarded by his colleagues and by lawyers who practiced before the court.
Gableman’s campaign was notable for its race-baiting. One campaign ad featured a false accusation that, as a public defender, Butler had won early release for a child molester who then committed another sexual assault. The ad featured split screen photos of the criminal and Butler, both Black men. In truth, Butler had only been doing his job and he had only won a review of his client’s case by the state Supreme Court, which turned down his appeal. His client was released later and committed another offense, but that had nothing to do with anything Butler did. The ad was so egregiously misleading that it prompted an ethics complaint before the high court, which Gableman won by a split 3-3 vote. Gableman’s ad was reminiscent of the infamous Willie Horton ad from George H.W. Bush’s campaign in 1988.
Gableman was to lead two retired police detectives that Vos had previously hired. In late July of last year Vos announced that those detectives had resigned but that he was naming Gableman “special counsel” and authorizing him to hire as many new investigators or other staff as he saw fit. Gableman’s work was expected to be completed by October and he would be paid $11,000 a month or a total of $44,000. The overall budget for his office was set at $676,000 of taxpayers’ money, though this was a partisan investigation not supported by Democrats.
(The two retired police officers later reported that they had done “almost no substantive work” and had filed no reports, yet they were paid a total of $11,000.)
In August, Gableman traveled to Arizona to learn something or other about the audit ordered by Republicans there (where Donald Trump also narrowly lost). Arizona Republicans hired Cyber Ninjas, a firm with a spotty record, no experience in elections, and a name that sounded like a video game, to conduct the widely ridiculed audit. Soon after that trip Gableman went to South Dakota for a conference on election fraud run by MyPillow founder and conspiracy theorist Mike Lindell. Both trips were paid for by taxpayers, though months later Vos’ office said that they would try to recover those expenses from Gableman.
(Interesting side note: Money for the Cyber Ninjas audit was raised privately and funneled directly to the Ninjas. There was no public reporting of who was paying for what was essentially a private audit of public ballots. The irony here is that Gableman has been focusing on grants from the Mark and Chan Zuckerberg charity, the Center for Tech and Civic Life, used to help administer elections in Wisconsin, claiming that this tainted the results. But those grants were fully transparent, went to communities all over the state, including many where Trump won overwhelmingly, and legal challenges to them were dismissed.)
In late August Vos met with Trump and told him that he would keep him informed of Gableman’s progress.
In September, Gableman demanded that the Wisconsin Elections Commission preserve all voting records and inform him of any evidence that had been destroyed. This despite the fact that state law already requires voting information to be preserved for 22 months following an election and never mind that the WEC doesn’t have the data that Gableman said he wanted preserved. Counties have it, so Gableman sent an email to all 72 county clerks demanding that they preserve data they were never going to destroy in the first place.
Then things got weird. The email signed by Vos came from the Gmail account of one “John Delta,” not an official state account, raising questions among clerks about its authenticity. And in the email Gableman/John Delta told the county clerks that he was going to send the same email to municipal clerks, just as soon as he got their addresses, and asking the county officials to forward his email to them in the meantime. Dane County Clerk Scott McDonell pointed out that the information that Gableman said he wanted was held by the county and not municipalities. “I think he needs to spend a little more time understanding how elections work in Wisconsin,” McDonell told the Wisconsin State Journal. McDonell made that observation two and a half months after Gableman was hired to lead the probe.
(Interesting side note: A few weeks later — now a good three months after he was hired — Gableman seemed to agree with McDonell, telling the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, “Most people, myself included, do not have a comprehensive understanding, or even any understanding, of how elections work.” Some folks might have thought that Gableman would have taken the preceding 12 weeks to learn something about that.)
Frustrated that clerks like McDonell were refusing to respond to an email sent from the account of the shadowy John Delta (which actually went into the spam folders of some clerks because of its origin), Gableman posted a video in which he threatened to “compel” clerks to cooperate with him. Explanations of who John Delta was or why the email didn’t come from a state account were not forthcoming from the special counsel.
A week and a half later, at the end of September, Gableman made good on his threat by issuing subpoenas (that needed to be and were signed by Vos to make them valid) to clerks in Milwaukee and Green Bay, ordering them to appear for depositions at his Brookfield office and demanding that they bring along reams of data. Green Bay Clerk Celestine Jeffreys pointed out that much of the information Gableman demanded was available to anyone on the clerk’s website. Milwaukee election official Claire Woodall-Vogg noted that Gableman had demanded from her Milwaukee office records from Green Bay.
Subpoenas were also sent to officials in Madison, Racine and Kenosha, all Democratic strongholds. The apparent rationale was that all these cities had received grants from the Center for Tech and Civic Life, but as noted above, so did about 200 other communities, many of which voted for Trump. None of those communities were issued subpoenas.
Gableman quickly followed up with a new round of subpoenas aimed at the mayors of those cities, though mayors play no role in administering elections. Nonetheless, Madison Mayor Satya Rhodes-Conway said she would meet with Gableman as long as the interview was held in public.
Then, a week later and without explanation, Gableman changed his mind and withdrew the subpoenas. Now the data Gableman demanded under subpoena was limited to public information he already had. A justifiably perplexed Mike Haas, Madison city attorney, was quoted as saying, “Of course all of this could have been provided without a subpoena in the first place.” It’s not clear why Gableman didn’t just ask for information first before jumping to the unnecessary subpoenas.
Within days of Gableman’s retreat, a Dane County judge ordered Vos to release records related to the probe that the liberal watchdog group American Oversight claimed Vos was illegally withholding.
That same week, because he didn’t like the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel’s reporting on his meandering investigation, Gableman went on a conservative Milwaukee radio talk show and accused the paper of being Nazi propagandists. “What they’re doing over at the Journal would make Joseph Goebbels blush,” he told WISN radio host Dan O’Donnell. Even O’Donnell was taken aback, telling Gableman he didn’t think that comparison was appropriate. Gableman amended his attack, now comparing the paper to Pravda.
Also about this time the identity of John Delta was finally revealed. It turned out to be Andrew Kloster, an attorney not licensed to practice in Wisconsin, who had no experience in election law, and who had written that the 2020 election was “stolen fair and square.” Of course, Kloster was hired by Gableman to assist in his investigation. Actually, Kloster’s evidence-free assertion had been echoed by Gableman shortly after the election when he told a pro-Trump rally in Milwaukee, “Our elected leaders — your elected leaders — have allowed unelected bureaucrats at the Wisconsin Elections Commission to steal our vote.” That comment was on the record and thoroughly reported long before Vos named him to lead the probe.
About this time, mid-October, editorial boards, Democrats and sane people started calling for Vos to wrap up Gableman’s antics since Vos had promised that it would end that month. UW-Madison political science professor Barry Burden, an expert on elections and as even-handed a commentator as they come, called the whole thing “bizarre,” thus doing nothing to challenge his reputation for understatement.
But Vos said that Gableman would continue. Now Vos promised his work would wrap up by the end of the year. And for good measure he said that efforts by American Oversight to make public records public were only designed to “torpedo” Gableman’s investigation. We have to stop right here and ask ourselves what it is in Vos’ files that he thought was so damaging that if released it would kill Gableman’s probe. But let’s move on.
On Oct. 22 the Legislative Audit Bureau issued its painstaking report in which it found no evidence of widespread fraud, though it did make recommendations on how the WEC could improve. Some of the report’s conclusions were challenged by WEC Director Meagan Wolfe.
In early November Dane County Judge Valerie Bailey-Rihn again ordered Vos to turn over records from the investigation. But now Vos’ lawyer said he didn’t have them and that it was Gableman’s responsibility. The judge wasn’t buying it and ordered Vos to find and turn over the records within 10 days.
The day after that hearing Gableman reversed himself yet again on the subpoenas. Now he went to Waukesha circuit court asking that the court require the mayors of Madison and Green Bay to answer his questions at his Brookfield office in secret — and that they be arrested and even jailed if they refused.
That same week the conservative law firm Wisconsin Institute for Law and Liberty issued its own report on the 2020 election. It mostly echoed the LAB findings. There was no “big steal” but there were some inconsistencies in administration that needed to be cleaned up, according to WILL. About that same time the conservative Heritage Foundation issued a national ranking of election integrity and listed Wisconsin as eighth highest among the 50 states.
Following WILL’s report, the chair of the Senate Elections Committee, Kathy Bernier (R-Chippewa Falls), called on Gableman to wrap up his project just as Vos had promised he would do by the end of the year. Bernier, a former clerk herself, called Gableman’s work a “charade.”
A week later, Gableman appeared at a county Republican Party meeting in Bernier’s district and told members that “I’m here to educate you.” He also said Bernier should resign for daring to call his charade a “charade.” He received applause. Bernier has decided not to seek reelection, though she says that her decision is unrelated to any of this.
Just before the end of the year — when Vos had promised that Gableman’s job would be finished — Gableman issued a new round of subpoenas to the WEC and the city of Madison. The Madison subpoenas went to a few city officials including Finance Director David Schmiedicke, though the document referred to him as “Dan.” Gableman also demanded information about Dominion voting machines, which Madison does not use.
On Jan. 7 of this year Vos again told Gableman to wrap up his work, this time by the end of that month. At a hearing before a Dane County judge a couple weeks later over whether Gableman had to release documents, Vos’ lawyer first said that a new contract existed between his client and Gableman, extending the one that had expired on Dec. 31. Later he said that it didn’t exist. Still later in the same hearing he said that he had seen a contract which was signed by Vos but not Gableman.
In any event, under that contract, Vos’ office was supposed to be receiving weekly updates from Gableman on his progress. At yet another court hearing Vos’ staff person, an attorney who negotiated the contract and who was supposed to be overseeing Gableman and receiving the updates, admitted that he had gotten none. “He’s supposed to be doing weekly investigative reports,” Judge Bailey-Rihn said. “I’m just having difficulty believing that Mr. Gableman did nothing for three months and received payment.”
In February, Gableman issued yet another subpoena, this one to immigrant rights group Voces de la Frontera Action, which seemed to many to be far beyond the scope of his work. Within a few weeks he withdrew it without explanation.
Then later that month he reversed himself yet again, renewing a petition in Waukesha circuit court asking that the mayors of Madison, Green Bay and Racine as well as other officials be jailed if they don’t respond to his demands for documents, much of which is easily accessible public information that could simply be requested.
On Feb. 24, almost a month after Vos’ last end date, the Speaker said he hoped Gableman would issue his final report by the following week. And, in fact, on March 1 Gableman appeared before the Assembly elections committee, but only to issue an update, not to end his investigation. In a rambling presentation he suggested that the Legislature should look into withdrawing Wisconsin’s electoral votes for President Joe Biden. The Legislature’s lawyers, and even Vos and Gableman’s own attorney, have said repeatedly that that is impossible. And that wasn’t all. His statement was littered with factual errors and unsupported assertions.
Now Vos extended his contract through April. This was for the job that was supposed to be done in October, then the end of the year, then the end of January, then on March 1. The good news was that Vos said the budget of $676,000 would not be increased.
On March 11 two Dane County judges in separate open records cases ordered Vos and Gableman to release documents. Bailey-Rihn ordered Vos’ office to produce deleted emails or explain why they couldn’t be recovered and Judge Frank Remington ordered documents released that he had reviewed, calling them “much ado about nothing” and showing little evidence of an actual investigation.
In mid-March a Wisconsin State Journal investigation easily debunked a claim in Gableman’s March 1 report that 100 percent of nursing home residents in Milwaukee, Dane and Racine counties had voted in 2020. Gableman had made the assertion without evidence, but the State Journal had no trouble tracking down the numbers, which were well below 100 percent and consistent with previous elections.
In late March it was reported that a total of 24 people had been charged with voter fraud from the November 2020 election, a figure on par with previous elections. That was two dozen out of 3.3 million votes cast.
Still, Gableman’s probe went on. In fact he traveled to two events in Utah to talk about his debunked decertification theory. One of those events also featured a speaker who had just been indicted for election tampering.
Looking to find a clever way out of the mess he had created, Vos floated the idea of withdrawing the subpoenas for the mayors and other officials that he had signed on behalf of Gableman, but only for the purposes of allowing a new Republican attorney general, who he hoped will be elected in November, to prosecute those same individuals. For what exactly was not clear.
At the end of March Bailey-Rihn found Vos in contempt of court for not even trying to comply with her order to produce documents.
In early April Gableman traveled to Mar-a-Lago to be feted by Trump. “Michael,” Trump is reported to have said, “you’ve been unbelievable.” This could be the first documented accurate assertion ever made by the former president.
It might not have been a coincidence that upon his return Gableman announced that he had been told by the Speaker’s office to have his office closed down by April 26. Vos started to get pressure from outraged Republicans to keep the office open.
In mid-April Gableman appeared on yet another talk radio show and saw fit to critique the apparel of WEC Director Meagan Wolfe. “Black dress, white pearls, I’ve seen the act, I’ve seen the show,” Gableman said. But lest you think it’s just conservative business dress that Gableman finds somewhat distasteful, he also went after a city of Milwaukee GIS analyst for her funky attire. In a memo, titled “cross pollinators,” his office apparently was searching for clues about the partisan leanings of municipal employees. The memo noted that the analyst “has a weird nose ring,” has colored hair in some of her photos on social media, “loves nature and snakes,” plays video games, and lives with a boyfriend but is not married to him. The memo concludes that she is “probably a Democrat.” It’s hard to overstate the general creepiness of all of this.
According to the State Journal story, “Others listed in the memo include Milwaukee Election Commission Director Claire Woodall-Vogg, who is referred to as ‘Voggy’ in another memo; Madison and Green Bay City Clerks Maribeth Witzel-Behl and Celestine Jeffreys; and Racine Clerk and Treasurer Tara Coolidge, among others. Witzel-Behl’s name is misspelled ‘Maribeth Wetzel in the report, and Jeffreys’ is misspelled ‘Jefferies.’”
That memo came to light only because Gableman finally released some documents that he had been ordered to make public. He had also been ordered to stop destroying public documents that his office had deemed no longer useful, in clear violation of the open records law, something else Gableman apparently knows nothing about. “I’m just astounded because the Office of Special Counsel is composed of somebody who apparently should know better,” Bailey-Rihn said in issuing her order.
(Irony alert: Keep in mind that Gableman all along had been issuing subpoenas for reams of information and ordering local and state officials not to destroy information they had no intention of destroying.)
Now, on April 26, the day Vos had set for Gableman to shut down his office, the Speaker announced that it would not be closed after all and, apparently, would keep going indefinitely. However, he reiterated that the budget would not exceed the original $676,000.
A few days later it came out that Gableman had taken on another highly partisan attorney, Erick Kaardal, a member of the conservative legal group the Thomas More Society, without a contract or any official role. As far as I can tell, it has not been reported how much Kaardal is being paid.
On May 10, Vos tried a new tactic to make all this go away. He said he had put Gableman’s investigation “on pause” while the many lawsuits resulting from his flurry of subpoenas, and refusal to provide public documents, played out.
In one of those suits, on May 20 Bailey-Rihn said she would give Vos one more chance to get Gableman to produce records she had ordered made public before she started imposing fines that taxpayers would only wind up paying. Vos’ lawyer responded that the speaker had no control over Gableman…the man Vos hired…at almost $700,000 in taxpayer expense…under a contract that required him to make weekly written reports to his office…which he never received.
On June 1 the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reported that invoices showed that the cost of Gableman’s investigation had hit almost $900,000 and counting, after Vos had repeatedly said it would not exceed $676,000. Some of that added expense is due to the court challenges that Gableman and Vos have stirred up with their actions.
(Clarifying note: All the back and forth on the open records lawsuits can be confusing. American Oversight has filed three suits demanding that Gableman, Vos and the Assembly turn over records. Some action is before Dane County Judge Valerie Bailey-Rihn while some of it is in the court of Dane County Judge Frank Remington. While many records are now public, American Oversight and the two judges believe there are more documents that still have not been released and it’s not clear if Gableman or Vos are still destroying records which must be preserved. For example, there has been no contract released for attorney and election denier Andrew Koster, who has played a key role for Gableman. In addition to the open records suits, two more suits have been filed over Gableman’s subpoenas. Gableman has filed suit in Waukesha circuit court asking that the mayors of Madison and Green Bay be forced to testify or be jailed. In response to that suit, Green Bay Mayor Eric Genrich has filed suit, also in Waukesha, against Gableman, demanding that he be ordered to correct false statements he made about Genrich’s willingness to testify. Also in response, Attorney General Josh Kaul filed suit in Dane County requesting the court to block Gableman’s subpoenas on the grounds that, among other things, they are too vague. The court refused to issue an injunction blocking the subpoenas immediately but allowed the case to continue; briefs on the constitutionality of the subpoenas are due to the court Aug. 1.
The Journal Sentinel also reported on a February incident that recently came to light. It turns out that Kenosha’s city administrator did agree to meet with Gableman and answer questions at his Brookfield office. So John Morrissey shows up at the address on the subpoena. It was wrong. The right building was next door. Then Gableman wasn’t there. Instead, an Arkansas lawyer hired by Gableman said he would conduct the interview. At that point Morrissey’s lawyer said that he would not sit for a deposition conducted by a lawyer not licensed to practice in Wisconsin because if he did that would put his own license in jeopardy.
(Note: The many incidents of misspellings of names on subpoenas and in other documents, the listing of a wrong address on a subpoena, the apparent cutting and pasting between documents without reviewing them before being sent — all that might seem penny ante to some. And, in fact, an error like that here and there would not be worth noting. But there has been a consistent sloppiness to Gableman’s work from the beginning which persists to this day. That suggests the lack of a standard of diligence that is expected in any kind of professional conduct and especially in the law.)
On June 10 Gableman, who had been ordered to appear in court on one of the open records cases, refused to answer questions, berated Judge Remington, and sought to throw one of his own employees under the bus, suggesting that the employee and not Gableman was responsible for his office’s records. Remington held Gableman’s office in contempt and in a later order fined him $2,000 a day until he complies with orders to release records. Remington also referred his case to the Office of Lawyer Regulation for review. Caught on an open mic in the courtroom, Gableman disparaged American Oversight’s attorney, Christa Westerberg, for needing the judge’s help to litigate the case. “The sophomoric innuendo about Atty. Westerberg coming back to chambers is a sad reminder that in 2022, woman lawyers still have to do more than be excellent at their job,” Remington wrote.
The upshot is that an inquiry that was supposed to be done in October is still pending some seven months later and may well go into the fall. That “investigation” was supposed to cost no more than $676,000, but now has cost taxpayers almost $900,000 and it is likely to go well over a million dollars. And to what end? Recounts, court cases, deep dives by both the nonpartisan LAB and the ultra-conservative WILL, and newspaper investigations all conclude the same thing: The election was free, fair and accurate. Out of 3.3 million votes cast, just 24 cases of fraud were discovered. Biden won by 21,000 votes.
I have little doubt that Vos, a smart man, regrets his choice of Gableman. But it’s too late. He’s got to keep dancing with the gorilla and he’s responsible for everything he does.
I won’t call Gableman a clown because that’s insulting to clowns. But the man is an incompetent fool, a blithering idiot and, more, he’s aggressively stupid. Polls show that most Wisconsinites, with better things to do and more pressing matters to worry about, aren’t paying much attention to all of this. On the one hand, can you blame them? But on the other, there has to be some political price to pay for this level of incompetence, hypocrisy, senseless incineration of taxpayer money and open contempt for our institutions.
A guy can only hope that some number of voters, who might otherwise have voted for Republicans, would change their minds because of this Republican fiasco and that they might deliver Ron Johnson’s U.S. Senate seat to Democrats, and keep Gov. Tony Evers and Attorney General Josh Kaul in office, at the very least. But what’s more likely is that this just won’t outplay issues like inflation, immigration and crime. Vos will get away with it politically for now. But I like to think the man is cursed with a brain and conscience of some kind. He understands just what he’s done. May it haunt him in his dotage.
Dave Cieslewicz is a Madison- and Upper Peninsula-based writer who served as mayor of Madison from 2003 to 2011. Both his reporting and his opinion writing have been recognized by the Milwaukee Press Club. You can read more of his work at Yellow Stripes & Dead Armadillos. He’s the author of Light Blue: How center-left moderates can build an enduring Democratic majority.