The former state Supreme Court justice leading a taxpayer-funded review of Wisconsin’s 2020 presidential election spent his first two months on the job working from a public library computer, using a now-defunct Yahoo email account and regularly deleting records he deemed irrelevant to his final report.
Michael Gableman testified Thursday in Dane County Circuit Court. He fielded questions for more than an hour about his work and his approach to record retention in one of several lawsuits regarding records related to his review.
“Did I delete documents? Yes, I did,” Gableman said, referring to records he deleted in July and August 2021. “If there was no (existing) open records request, and if it wasn't going to be useful to my report, then I would probably delete it.”
Gableman took the stand in a hearing to determine whether Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, R-Rochester — who hired the conservative attorney to lead the review — should be penalized. Vos was found in contempt in March after failing to release records from Gableman’s investigation.
Dane County Circuit Judge Valerie Bailey-Rihn determined Thursday that Vos will not face penalties for the previous contempt order. American Oversight, a liberal watchdog group based in Washington, brought three open records lawsuits against Vos and Gableman. Bailey-Rihn is overseeing two of them.
Gableman himself was found in contempt of court by Dane County Circuit Judge Frank Remington two weeks ago following a contentious hearing; he appealed that ruling on Wednesday. Remington ordered the former justice to pay $2,000 per day until he complies with a previous order and turns over records. Gableman could also face discipline from the state Office of Lawyer Regulation.
Last month, Bailey-Rihn said Gableman appeared to have “run amok” by “flatly refusing” to abide by her orders about records related to his review.
‘Minimal’ work for $11,000 a month
Gableman signed his contract with the Assembly on June 26, 2021, which guaranteed him a taxpayer-funded salary of $11,000 per month. Two months later, on Aug. 27, 2021, Vos sought approval for “an Office of Special Counsel” to “direct an elections integrity investigation.”
The attorney testified Thursday that he spent much of July and August 2021 familiarizing himself with election administration, searching for office space and traveling to learn about election issues in other states. He also said he was bedridden with COVID-19 for two weeks in August.
During that time, he conducted his work on his phone or on a public computer at the New Berlin Public Library, he said, because he does not own a computer. Once the Office of Special Counsel received state funding, he said, he conducted his work on a government computer.
In the early stages of his work, Gableman used a Yahoo email address. He said he eventually switched to ProtonMail, a more secure service, after facing public criticism. He doesn’t know when he made the switch, he said. Eventually, once the Office of Special Counsel was established, he and his staff used state government email accounts.
Gableman said he no longer had access to the Yahoo account after he stopped using it, because he had asked someone in his office to delete it for him. He said he didn’t remember when it was deleted, or who had done it.
Bailey-Rihn asked whether Gableman had searched the account for responsive records before it was deleted. He said he believed he had.
“Do I specifically recall going back? I don't, but I would have looked at every email account available to me, every device that was available to me,” Gableman said.
Gableman also faced questions about why he did not have records from his taxpayer-funded trips to South Dakota and Arizona. He attended a symposium hosted by MyPillow CEO and election conspiracy theorist MIke Lindell in South Dakota, and observed a controversial “audit” of the 2020 election in Arizona.
“I went out there (to South Dakota) because I thought there was going to be some solid evidence of Chinese interference with the (voting) machines and I was very disappointed by the lack of substance to back up those claims, and I was annoyed that I had gone out especially as it turned out, I had COVID. So anyway, I didn't find anything that I could use during that seminar,” he said, explaining why he didn’t keep any notes.
Following Gableman’s testimony, Bailey-Rihn commented that "whatever work that was done (in July and August 2021) was minimal, but the taxpayers were paying $11,000 a month."
Review approaches $1M in taxpayer funds
The Cap Times reported earlier this month on records that showed two retired police officers, hired to review the election before Gableman stepped in, earned a total of $11,251 for their work from June 1, 2021, until mid-to-late July 2021, even though they testified that they produced “almost no substantive work.”
A new contract signed in May shifted Gableman’s role from election reviewer to litigator, keeping him on the state’s payroll until lawsuits related to subpoenas he issued as part of the review are resolved. That contract reduced Gableman’s salary from $11,000 per month to $5,500.
The investigation — given an initial budget of $676,000, has cost taxpayers about $900,000.
Several recounts, lawsuits and a nonpartisan audit have confirmed that Biden won Wisconsin in 2020 by about 20,000 votes.
While Bailey-Rihn did not penalize Vos for contempt on Thursday, she said she will determine later whether to penalize him for the way his office has handled records requests related to the review. She scheduled a hearing for July 28.