The head of the Wisconsin Government Accountability Board is facing new scrutiny, in the wake of a report claiming he may have coordinated with the IRS in targeting conservative groups.
The unsigned opinion piece in the Wall Street Journal cites unnamed sources in its claim that GAB director Kevin Kennedy was in contact multiple times with former IRS tax exempt director Lois Lerner between 2011 and 2013, a time frame in which both agencies investigated conservative tax-exempt groups. The GAB was assisting prosecutors with a John Doe investigation into possible illegal coordination between Governor Scott Walker’s recall campaign and conservative third parties.
The article sparked heated responses from several top Republican leaders. In a joint statement, Assembly Speaker Robin Vos (R-Rochester) and Rep. Dean Knudson (R-Hudson) called it “outrageous” to see a coordinated effort to stifle free speech. The pair added that it’s time to double down on finalizing the necessary reforms for the GAB so the bill can be ready for consideration this fall. Those reforms will include a means to change the way the GAB operates.”
Rep. John Nygren (R-Marinette) and Sen. Alberta Darling (R-River Hills), co-chairs of the Legislature’s Joint Finance Committee, said that the latest allegations are a clear sign that Kennedy should resign. Nygren also pointed to a state audit released last December, which showed GAB staff failed to carry out legally required duties, as another sign of problems at the agency. The Marinette Republican said “I think it’s time that Kevin Kennedy move on and that we also, at the same time, look to reform the GAB.”
AUDIO: Rep. John Nygren (:22)
Democrats rushed to Kennedy’s defense. Senate Minority Leader Jennifer Shilling (D-La Crosse) questioned what skeletons Republicans were trying to hide with calls to make changes at the GAB. In a statement, she said “With recent pay-to-play corruption, potential criminal activity at Gov. Walker’s WEDC and Republican legislators asking to be thrown in jail, I can’t imagine why the majority party would want to limit public oversight and muzzle our government watchdog groups.”
Assembly Minority Leader Peter Barca (D-Kenosha) accused the GAB of trying “to turn our nonpartisan government watchdog into a partisan lapdog.”
Kennedy released a statement late Friday afternoon, saying he would not “dignify the Wall Street Journal’s opinion column with any comment, except to state that it contains no facts showing that I or the Government Accountability Board did anything inappropriate or out of the ordinary given the agency’s statutory responsibilities.”
Kennedy added that he welcomes discussion about the GAB’s mission and structure, if it’s done through the legislative process. “I am always glad to answer questions of legislators who wish to articulate a specific concern about the agency’s actions, although I am not free to comment on matters that are presently the subject of lawsuits or are confidential by statute.”
This story was updated to reflect a statement from Kevin Kennedy.