In the summer of 2021 — bowing to pressure from former President Donald Trump and election-denying activists who falsely claimed that massive voter fraud had stolen the 2020 election — Wisconsin State Assembly Speaker Robin Vos announced a new, partisan-initiated investigation of the election. The announcement of the taxpayer-funded inquiry came despite multiple official and independent reviews of Wisconsin’s 2020 election that had already verified the results and found no evidence of voter fraud that could have changed the outcome.
Vos initially tasked retired police officers Michael Sandvick and Steve Page with conducting a three-month-long investigation beginning in June 2021, but they soon resigned from the probe. In early July, hours after Trump had issued a statement claiming Vos was covering up voter fraud, Vos announced that he was hiring former Wisconsin Supreme Court Justice Michael Gableman to oversee the investigation. Gableman, a conservative attorney who had what the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel termed “a history of trouble with facts,” had just months earlier told Trump supporters at a rally that the election had been stolen.
American Oversight began investigating Wisconsin’s election review almost immediately, ultimately filing four separate lawsuits to ensure that key records were preserved and released.
After more than a year, Gableman’s review had found — as a judge in one of American Oversight’s public records lawsuits put it — “absolutely no evidence” of voter fraud. During that time, as the review considerably outspent its original $676,000 budget, the Assembly and the newly created Office of Special Counsel (OSC), headed by Gableman, faced several lawsuits for failing to properly comply with the state’s open records law — with the Assembly, Vos, and OSC each at one point being held in contempt of court. American Oversight’s investigation also revealed the office’s frequent destruction of public documents and its dismal record-keeping practices, as well as the influence and involvement of partisan and anti-democratic individuals and groups, several of which had actively promoted conspiracy theories about election fraud or sought to overturn the state’s 2020 results.
Gableman’s first contract with the Assembly took effect on July 1, 2021, with an expiration date of Oct. 31. An amended contract dated Aug. 20, first obtained by American Oversight, established that Gableman would lead OSC, a new office that the Assembly created to house the investigation. The amended contract began one day before Vos traveled by private plane with Trump to a rally, providing the former president with details about the “robust efforts in Wisconsin to restore full integrity and trust in elections.”
Gableman performed little substantive work during the first few months of the review, later testifying in one of American Oversight’s lawsuits that at the time he “did not have a very sophisticated or intricate understanding” of election processes. According to his testimony, Gableman worked from a computer in the New Berlin public library during this period and spent much of his time researching how elections work.
In August 2021, expense records show that Gableman and four other individuals traveled to Arizona, where they visited the site of the Arizona Senate’s discredited “audit” of Maricopa County’s election results. That same month, Gableman also attended a “symposium” in South Dakota hosted by MyPillow CEO and prominent election denier Mike Lindell. As American Oversight uncovered in November, taxpayers had footed the bill for portions of both trips.
On Oct. 1, Gableman issued subpoenas to Wisconsin’s five largest cities and to the head of the bipartisan Wisconsin Elections Commission, seeking records and closed-door interviews with officials about private grants provided to help cities run elections in 2020. Later that month, Wisconsin Attorney General Josh Kaul sued to block Gableman’s subpoenas to state officials.
American Oversight first sued for records related to the review in October 2021, several months after initially submitting requests to the offices of Vos and Assembly Clerk Edward Blazel for records held by the Assembly’s contractors, such as Gableman, and agreements that could reveal details about who was working on the probe and how much they were being paid. Later that month, we filed another lawsuit seeking records from Vos regarding communications about the inquiry. In court, lawyers for Vos and the Assembly argued that OSC, not the Assembly, was responsible for any public records held by Gableman after the office’s Aug. 30 creation, so in December, American Oversight filed a third lawsuit also seeking records and communications directly from OSC.
Also in December, Gableman issued more subpoenas for election information from the state and filed petitions in Waukesha County asking the county sheriff to force city officials to answer questions under the October subpoenas. Kaul filed another lawsuit challenging the enforceability of the subpoenas to the state.
As Gableman’s review stretched past its initial deadline and was repeatedly extended, the public was consistently kept in the dark about the status of his contract, how much he was being paid, and, critically, how long Vos intended the inquiry to continue. In early March 2022, a judge in one of American Oversight’s lawsuits ruled that OSC had not provided evidence that Gableman was working with an enforceable contract after Oct. 31. An undated “second amended contract” between Gableman and the Assembly was filed with the court on March 8.
Also in March, Gableman released a “second interim investigative report,” which he presented in a hearing before the Assembly’s elections committee. The report included the legally impossible recommendation for the legislature to consider retroactively “decertifying” the state’s 2020 electoral votes, and called for the elimination of the Wisconsin Elections Commission. Despite these boldly anti-democratic suggestions, Gableman himself didn’t believe they were practical, as revealed in records American Oversight obtained. Two weeks after having presented the report, Gableman sent an internal memo to Vos in which he advised against pursuing decertification, admitting it was “a practical impossibility.”
In April, after Trump threatened to support a primary challenge to Vos, Vos again extended Gableman’s contract and the investigation. The updated agreement allowed Gableman and OSC to work for the Assembly with no fixed deadline, a move that Vos claimed was necessary to litigate “outside lawsuits” related to the review. (A “to do” list we obtained from that same month suggested that OSC still hadn’t answered some fundamental questions about elections; it included notes such as “research best election practises [sic]” and “research machines.”)
In August, just days after narrowly winning his primary election — defeating a challenger whom both Trump and Gableman had endorsed — Vos fired Gableman, effectively ending the investigation but leaving several unanswered questions about OSC’s leadership and ongoing litigation. Soon after, Gableman publicly listed his job as senior counsel at the conservative Thomas More Society, a group that had been involved in election-undermining legal efforts and had, as revealed by American Oversight’s investigation, exerted potentially significant influence over Gableman’s work for the Wisconsin Assembly.
Despite initial claims that the inquiry was intended to bolster public confidence in elections, it rapidly became clear that Vos and Gableman’s review would be anything but transparent. American Oversight’s litigation ultimately revealed that Gableman and members of his office had frequently destroyed or disposed of records that were deemed not “helpful” to the review, including notes he took during the trips to the Arizona “audit” site and to Lindell’s “symposium.”
Testifying in a hearing for one of American Oversight’s lawsuits in June, Gableman admitted to having destroyed records from early months of his work. “Did I delete documents? Yes, I did,” he said. Separately, in a letter sent to us on April 8, an attorney representing OSC stated that the office “routinely deletes documents and text messages that are not of use to the investigation,” defining such documents as including those “that the OSC is not intending to further investigate, and is not intending to rely upon for its recommendations or reports.” Given Gableman’s pre-established biases and the clear partisan intent of the inquiry, these policies suggest that, had investigators obtained evidence that clearly refuted claims of fraud, they may have disregarded and deleted it.
In a July 2022 hearing, Dane County Circuit Court Judge Valerie Bailey-Rihn said that “the people in charge” were either “so woefully ignorant of the requirements of the [Wisconsin] Open Records Law” or they were openly flouting the statute. “I have a suspicion that it might be a combination of both,” she said.
In June, American Oversight filed a fourth lawsuit seeking to block OSC from deleting more records related to its review. One week later, a Wisconsin court granted a temporary restraining order preventing OSC from deleting records, and the lawsuit is still ongoing.
Gableman initially refused to say who was working for him, leaving the public in the dark about the people involved, what biases they brought to their work, and their connections to other efforts to overturn the election. Through litigation, American Oversight began to uncover names and salary expenses for several of Gableman’s self-styled “investigators” in November, and by December, Gableman finally disclosed the names of nine OSC employees.
The composition of Gableman’s team provides clear indication that the review was staffed by those who already believed despite lack of evidence that the 2020 election had been illegitimate. Moreover, records obtained by American Oversight revealed that outside individuals and legal groups active in similar anti-democratic measures were also involved in the review.
Several of OSC’s payment records from the early months of the review referred to OSC’s employees as numbered “investigators” whose corresponding identities appeared to shift from month to month. Analysis by American Oversight has illuminated most of the identities of the “investigators.”
Other records revealed that the cost of OSC’s office space was being partly supplemented by sublease agreements with the conservative Thomas More Society and the Minneapolis law firm Mohrman, Kaardal & Erickson. Attorney Erick Kaardal, a partner at that firm, also serves as “special counsel” for the Thomas More Society and its Amistad Project, which bills itself as an election integrity group. He represented both groups in lawsuits challenging the results and administration of the 2020 election.
Rent for OSC’s office cost $4,903.25 per month beginning in September 2021. Sublease agreements show that the Thomas More Society was charged $1,218.25 per month for its portion, and Mohrman, Kaardal, & Erickson was charged $1,749 per month. The lease agreements were set to expire on Sept. 30, 2022. In an email sent on April 7, OSC indicated that it planned to “turn over the office lease to the Thomas Moore Society [sic].”
In September 2020, Kaardal had represented WVA in a lawsuit challenging the election administration grants given to five Wisconsin cities, and in December he filed a lawsuit against Vice President Mike Pence on behalf of WVA and other plaintiffs in an effort to prevent Pence from allowing Congress to certify the correct election results on Jan. 6, 2021. The federal judge in that case later referred Kaardal for an ethics inquiry for filing a “sweeping Complaint filled with baseless fraud allegations.”
Kaardal also represented WVA, HOT Government, and state Rep. Janel Brandtjen in a lawsuit against WEC in August 2021, which alleged that it had not answered public records requests related to its administration of the state’s 2020 election. American Oversight obtained several documents that revealed Brandtjen, the chair of the Assembly’s elections committee, was in frequent touch with Kaardal and other election deniers from that month on.
Records obtained by American Oversight show that Kaardal played a significant role in OSC’s investigation, despite never being formally hired. Emails suggest that he participated in OSC calls as early as October 2021, and indicate that he suggested that Gableman hire the president of the same public relations firm handling the Thomas More Society’s media requests. Kaardal’s firm also helped draft subpoenas seeking information on the October election administration grants.
The investigation was originally granted a $676,000 budget, but the review ended up costing well over $1 million in salaries, technology, office supplies, legal fees, and other expenses.
American Oversight requested and sued for documents that could shed light on the identities and salaries of all OSC employees, though it is not clear if all of those records have been or will be released. Below is a summary of salary expense records American Oversight has obtained, organized by month.
June–August 2021: Former police officers Sandvick and Page were each originally set to receive $3,200 per month. Records later obtained by American Oversight show that Page continued to be paid for work on the review through the end of August, while Sandvick was paid a prorated amount in July and did not appear on pay records the following month. Gableman’s first contract with the Assembly took effect on July 1, with an expiration date of Oct. 31, and granted Gableman a salary of $11,000 per month.
September–December: OSC’s payment records show a sharp increase in salary spending over the final months of 2021, as well as an increase in the office’s number of employees. These are the months during which a Wisconsin judge noted that OSC “accomplished nothing” and “kept none of the weekly progress reports the Wisconsin State Assembly required it to keep. It recorded no interviews with witnesses. It gathered no measurable data. It organized no existing data into any analytical format. It generated no reports based on any special expertise.”
January 2022: In January 2022, OSC paid $51,180 to seven employees, several of whom had been hired the year before and began to receive higher salaries this month. Also in January, OSC received an invoice for $4,245 from Eric Kasemodel, who according to the records conducted research on “elder care facilities.”
February: OSC spent $52,280 on the salaries of six employees and paid Kasemodel an additional $4,380. In February, Vos’ office said that it would decrease Gableman’s salary by half — to $5,500 per month — after March. This decrease was not instituted until May.
March–April: Vos and Gableman entered into the amended agreement that allowed Gableman and OSC to work with no fixed deadline. On April 7, OSC emailed the Assembly clerk a “final reimbursement and salary request” that stated Scott, Kloster, Lancaster, and Niemierowicz were awaiting payments for March, and that Niemierowicz and Gableman needed to be paid for April. On April 26, Niemierowicz emailed, “Kevin Scott has to be paid [$10,000] for the month of April for his litigation work,” and attached a March 24 invoice for $5,000 from Scott’s firm. The clerk responded that payment for the invoice would be issued that week.
May–September: By May, Gableman and Niemierowicz appeared to be the only OSC employees on the payroll. Payment records obtained by American Oversight show that Gableman received the reduced salary of $5,500 in May, June, and July, while Niemierowicz continued to be paid $4,500 per month through July, when he left the review.
The Wisconsin Assembly also paid for OSC’s legal representation in multiple lawsuits over its controversial subpoenas and its failures to meet its obligations under the state’s public records law. According to payment records we obtained, the Assembly has reimbursed more than $547,000 in fees to outside attorneys for the investigation.
Other records show that, as early as January, OSC entered into business with “Downstreem LLC,” a digital forensics company that offers “collection, analysis, and remediation services of virtually any type of electronically stored information and data,” according to its website. OSC paid Downstreem $5,762.56 for “data sorting and storage” in January.
In May, OSC paid Downstreem $1,983.32. The invoice includes a $200 charge for the “destruction of all matter-related data” stored on the network of an eDiscovery company and for the creation of a “certificate of destruction.” Niemierowicz forwarded the invoice to the state legislature’s clerk on May 4 and noted that because “the last listed item is destruction of data on their server, we will no longer have them providing a data management tool.”
Gableman also amassed substantial legal expenses during the review, many of which he sent to the Assembly for reimbursement pursuant to his indemnification agreement. As of late August — weeks after Gableman was fired — his legal fees totaled more than $46,000, according to invoices and communications we obtained from the Assembly.
In July, Gableman sent invoices from a law firm representing his company to the Assembly’s clerk, Edward Blazel, and wrote, “These bills … have been incurred during the course of ongoing litigation brought against the Office of Special Counsel (and which implicates my personal interests) concerning compliance with the state’s open records law.” In an email to one of the firm’s lawyers, Blazel asked for “a bit more explanation as to the details of the invoices,” adding, “The bills just have the totals owed with little other explanation.”
Days later, Gableman forwarded Blazel an invoice for $1,505 — this one from Lancaster’s law firm — and wrote, “I have attached an outstanding invoice that has yet to be paid.” It is unclear if the Assembly ultimately paid the bills.
Some individuals involved with OSC’s election review also shared connections to the Arizona Senate’s partisan “audit” of Maricopa County. That “audit” was conducted by Cyber Ninjas, a firm with no election experience whose founder and CEO, Doug Logan, had touted election-denying conspiracies before being hired for the job by Arizona Senate President Karen Fann.
American Oversight obtained emails and text messages from early August 2021 between Gableman and leaders of the Arizona “audit.” In one email, Gableman asked Fann about the “process implemented in Arizona and any lessons learned” and added that he was “in the early stages of designing” the Wisconsin review.
We previously obtained records that indicate Christina Bobb — a former right-wing news host who is now on Trump’s legal team — was the person who first put Fann in touch with Gableman. On Oct. 1, 2021, the same day Gableman issued subpoenas for election materials, Cyber Ninjas’ Logan sent Bobb copies of Arizona “audit” subpoenas and wrote, “In case this helps you with anything in [Wisconsin] coming up.” His email also included messaging language and details about the Arizona “audit.” Gableman sent out another round of subpoenas a few days later.
Records we obtained in December 2021 suggest that activists sought to have Cyber Ninjas involved in Wisconsin’s election review. On July 23, Harry Wait emailed Gableman with a message from the office of Wisconsin Rep. Timothy Ramthun that said, “We’ve got the cyber ninja team on hold, and we can move to get things done if we can get Tim [Ramthun] and Mike [Gableman] talking.”
Records obtained by American Oversight revealed that Gableman was in touch with Mike Lindell before and after visiting his “cyber symposium” in South Dakota, and several emails Lindell sent to Gableman discuss false allegations of voter fraud in Wisconsin. Among the documents Lindell sent Gableman were attachments titled “Election Fraud” and “Wisconsin Affidavits.”
After American Oversight obtained documents in November 2021 revealing both the Arizona and South Dakota trips’ high costs to taxpayers, Assembly Speaker Robin Vos said that he would recoup the money from Gableman. But in May, Vos told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel that “he had ultimately decided to let Gableman keep” the reimbursements for the Arizona and South Dakota trips.
Other documents we uncovered show contact between the Wisconsin Assembly and former President Trump’s legal team. We obtained an email sent to Vos from Trump-allied lawyer Victoria Toensing in June 2021, less than two weeks after Vos announced the election review. Toensing, a longtime associate of Trump attorney Rudy Giuliani, assisted in the former president’s legal efforts to overturn his 2020 election loss. “I am a Washington DC lawyer who worked with Rudy et al after November election,” Toensing wrote to Vos on June 7, 2021, asking to schedule a call with Vos regarding “an issue with … your revisions to state election law.” The records we obtained do not contain a response from Vos.
In a statement released by Vos regarding Gableman’s firing, he wrote, “It is beyond clear to me that we only have one choice in this matter, and that’s to close the Office of Special Counsel.” Three weeks later, Vos withdrew the subpoenas that Gableman had sent demanding in-person interviews with local officials and information about 2020 election grants. A lawsuit Gableman had filed against the mayor of Green Bay in December was dismissed days later, and James Bopp, a lawyer who represented Gableman and OSC during the review, told the Associated Press that the investigation was over when the subpoenas were withdrawn.
As of late August, OSC had no staff, but Bopp and the other attorneys who represented OSC have continued the legal battle against American Oversight’s lawsuits, filing new appeals in one lawsuit and moving to dismiss another. In a hearing on Sept. 27, Bopp stated that he and his colleagues had entered into an agreement with Vos to continue funding the litigation — but it remains unclear why Vos believes Wisconsin taxpayers should pay for a protracted legal fight on behalf of a vacant office and a defunct investigation.
Other questions also remain about the review, including about OSC’s potential communications with other outside entities. Moreover, OSC did not produce any known official work products after Gableman presented his “second interim investigative report” in March, though Vos did not pause the review until mid-May and records obtained by American Oversight show that some employees continued to be paid during those months. OSC also continued to pay Downstreem until May, and little is known about the “destruction” of data stored by the company that month.
American Oversight will continue to investigate the administration, spending, and influences behind the Wisconsin Assembly’s baseless review of the 2020 election, as well as similar efforts to sow doubt in democracy across the country. Stay up to date with our Wisconsin lawsuits and investigation here, and read more about our work combating nationwide election disinformation here.