When Wisconsin news outlets requested records on a former legislator’s sexual harassment allegations, former Assembly Chief Clerk Pat Fuller denied them access.
Last March, those media outlets brought the Assembly to court for violating the state’s open records law and won in a ruling by a Dane County judge on June 30th.
That same day, a bill passed the state Senate. It would have established a legislative human resources office to review allegations of lawmakers’ misconduct and control whether those records are made public.
Governor Tony Evers vetoed the bill. He said in his veto message “The people of Wisconsin have a right to know about misconduct of public officials, including those in the Legislature.”
Evers also noted that he would be in support of a “clean bill” without confidentiality provisions that open government advocates say would keep instances of misconduct secret.
Now, the Assembly is moving forward with their efforts to conceal the records in court, filing an appeal to the June 30th decision last Tuesday.
Bill Lueders is the president of the Wisconsin Freedom of Information Council. When WORT interviewed him before the bill’s veto, he said that lawmakers QUOTE “changed the law after getting caught breaking the law.”
Lueders is still concerned that bipartisan agreement in the legislature on this issue could lead to overruling the Governor’s veto and turning the bill into law.
“I am concerned that Democrats will join with Republicans in overriding the Governor’s veto and creating this office, which contains protections that, in the future, could apply to them as Democratic lawmakers,” Lueders said. “They might unite in bipartisan fashion in order to insist on that freedom to suppress records that make them look bad.”
Wisconsin law allows for “balancing tests” to weigh the potential harms and benefits of releasing certain records. But Lueders believes that this practice undermines the state’s open records law by giving the government final say. He stated that the legislative human resources office proposed in the bill would make access to records even more difficult.
“My concern is that the new language [in the bill], if it was passed by the legislature and is part of the creation of this agency, would allow that agency to go around and say, ‘We don’t even need to give you a reason why we’re not releasing [records]. Don’t even ask,’” Lueders said.
Lueders added that media groups have been essential in their reporting about both the court case and the bill. He urges members of the public to speak up on this issue too.
“I think that people can support a maximum amount of openness from the legislature—they should insist on it. They should ask their legislators where they stand on issues like this, and if the Democrats decide that this is a good issue to be bipartisan about and vote to override the veto, I hope that there’s a very steep political price that they pay for that.”
The outlets that sued the Assembly and are now involved in the pending appeal case include: The Associated Press, Wisconsin State Journal, Capital Times, and Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.
Assembly Chief Clerk Ted Blazel was unavailable for comment before the airtime of this story.
Image courtesy: Connor Betts / UNSPLASH.