- Associated Press - Thursday, August 20, 2015

MADISON, Wis. (AP) - An audit released Thursday looking into how Wisconsin’s nonpartisan elections and ethics board handles complaints found no major problems, leading the panel’s director to say it should put to rest concerns about its operations even as Republicans and Gov. Scott Walker plan major overhauls.

The nonpartisan Legislative Audit Bureau report was limited only to previously confidential records related to nearly 1,900 complaints filed with the Government Accountability Board between 2010 and 2013.

The audit had two recommendations: that the board consistently resolve complaints in a timely manner and that staff consistently provide the board with the names of three people who can be hired to work as a special investigator.

Board director Kevin Kennedy, who has been under fire by Republican lawmakers, said the recommendations were minor and consistent with the agency’s existing practices.

The report shows that the six retired judges on the board are engaged as they review material presented by staff, Kennedy said in a written statement.

“It puts to rest any questions as to whether the six board members exercise independent judgment when they make decisions about complaints, investigations and penalties,” Kennedy said.

As much as Kennedy may wish that to be the case, Republicans who control the Legislature along with Walker, who is running for president, have said for months they plan to make significant changes to the board, including possibly doing away with it and starting over.

The Republican co-chairs of the Legislature’s Audit Bureau issued a statement saying the audit provides a better picture of how the board handles complaints, but they did not criticize any of its actions or call for changes.

Walker and other Republican lawmakers are targeting the board largely because of questions related to its involvement in a secret investigation into Walker and other conservative groups that the Wisconsin Supreme Court in July declared unconstitutional.

Thursday’s audit follows a more comprehensive one released in December that looked at its entire operation, not just investigations. In that report, the audit bureau did not recommend that it be overhauled or dismantled.

It took a law change by the Legislature this year to give auditors access to the secret investigatory records that were examined in the latest report.

It found that between July 2010 and June 2013, there were about 1,900 complaints related to campaign finance, ethics, lobbying and elections filed with the board. It launched 21 investigations. The board agreed with staff recommendations in 13 of the 21 complaints, the report said.

The audit also found the board executed 11 contracts with special investigators.

No details about any of the investigations, like who was being examined and the allegations, were released in the audit.

The board was created in 2007 to replace the previously separate Ethics and Elections boards, which were widely derided as weak and ineffective largely due to their partisan makeup. No Republican voted against its creation and only two Democrats did.

In the subsequent years concerns, mostly from Republicans, included how the board handled 2011 and 2012 recall elections sparked by the fight over collective bargaining for public unions; designs of ballots in the 2014 election; its interpretation of state law governing issue advocacy; and hiring decisions.

Walker has said the board should be eliminated and Republican Assembly Speaker Robin Vos has called for Kennedy to resign. The Legislature is expected this fall to consider changes to the board, including adding partisan appointees, although no bill has been introduced.

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Follow Scott Bauer on Twitter at https://twitter.com/sbauerAP

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