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G.A.B. Complaints Process and Procedures

The G.A.B. receives numerous complaints each year from the general public, political parties, interest groups and public officials.  How and when those complaints are received, as well as what they allege, determines how the staff and the Board handle them.   See detailed G.A.B. Complaint Procedures, attached below.

In general, complaints received by the Board may fall into five categories: 

  1. Confidential complaints filed with the Ethics and Accountability Division.  These complaints alleging violations of Campaign Finance laws, the Code of Ethics for State Public Officials, and Lobbying laws are confidential under Wis. Stats. § 5.05(5s).
  2. Confidential complaints filed with the Elections Division.  These complaints alleging criminal violations of Election laws such as electioneering, election fraud or voter intimidation pursuant to Chapter 12, Wis. Stats. are confidential under Wis. Stats. §5.05(5s).
  3. Public complaints filed with the Elections Division.  These complaints alleging that an election official has violated the law or abused the official’s discretion regarding election administration or conduct of elections are open to public inspection, and are usually resolved informally by G.A.B. staff.  Occasionally the Board Chair reviews and authorizes the issuance of formal findings, and in rare instances the Board has conducted a public hearing.  See Wis. Stats. § 5.06.
  4. Public complaints regarding compliance with the federal Help America Vote Act (HAVA). Whenever any person believes that a violation of HAVA has occurred, is occurring, or is proposed to occur with respect to an election for national office in Wisconsin, that person may file a written, verified complaint with the Board.  See Wis. Stats. § 5.061.  
  5. Complaints outside the Board’s jurisdiction.  Many such complaints are filed by prisoners, but others are filed by residents about the actions of local government officials and employees, or about federal matters.

Regarding the first two categories, members and staff of the Government Accountability Board are subject to strict confidentiality provisions related to complaints and investigations or prosecution of violations under the Board’s jurisdiction.  Except as permitted by law and as necessary to communicate with law enforcement, no Board member, employee, or investigator may disclose information related to a Board investigation or prosecution.  Violations of this confidentiality requirement are subject to a fine of not more than $10,000, imprisonment for not more than 9 months, or both.   The Board and its staff may not comment on complaints or release copies of complaints.  If a complainant makes a complaint public (usually by announcing it has been filed with the Board), the staff may only acknowledge that it has received the complaint.

As a small agency, the G.A.B. does not have a complaints division.  Complaints are often addressed and resolved by the same staff members who are responsible for administering and enforcing all laws related to elections, campaign finance, ethics and lobbying.  Every complaint received through the agency’s website, general email address, fax or mail is reviewed by a G.A.B. staff member immediately to determine whether it should be assigned to the Elections Division or the Ethics and Accountability Division.  Within each division, staff evaluates each complaint based on the seriousness and immediacy of the allegation.  Depending on that analysis, complaints may also be viewed and discussed by staff counsel, a division administrator and the director.  Under its recently adopted procedures, all complaints or summaries of complaints are also provided to Board Members for their review.

If a complaint alleges a subject matter and activity that are within the Board’s jurisdiction, staff will assess whether there is a reasonable basis to investigate.  The staff may attempt to obtain further information before presenting a complaint to the Board with a recommendation.  If the Board finds that a complaint does not raise a reasonable suspicion that a violation of the law has occurred, the Board will dismiss the complaint, and that finding is a public record.  If the Board believes there is a sufficient basis to proceed, it may authorize an investigation, which may involve issuing subpoenas, taking depositions, and requesting courts to issue search warrants, although most investigations involve only a review of documents and interviews of individuals involved.   By statute, all actions by the Board regarding confidential complaints and investigations take place in closed session and, with limited exceptions, all aspects of and records related to complaints and investigations described in the first two categories above are confidential.

When the Board authorizes an investigation, it determines whether to assign it to staff or to hire a special investigator.  If the Board decides to hire a special investigator, statutes require the division administrator to provide the Board with the names of three qualified individuals who can be retained in that capacity, from which the Board chooses the individual to hire. 

At the conclusion of an investigation, the Board may dismiss a complaint, seek a voluntary forfeiture, bring a court action for a civil forfeiture, or refer a matter to the appropriate District Attorney or other prosecutor for criminal prosecution.  If the Board makes a finding, following an investigation, that no probable cause exists to believe that a violation of the law has occurred, that finding is a public record.  If the Board authorizes the filing of a civil complaint or refers a matter to a district attorney or other prosecutor for investigation or prosecution, records of those actions are public.


GAB Complaint Procedures 2015.pdf98.75 KB