Wisconsin Freedom of Information Council

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November: Bill would make it harder to follow the money

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Follow the money. That’s one of the key lessons in politics, right?

Follow the money and you’ll find answers. Follow the money and you’ll see who’s influencing whom.

Follow the money and you’ll be able to connect special interest donors to the legislators whose votes can benefit them.

But it might be about to get tougher—a lot tougher—to follow the money in Wisconsin politics.

On Oct. 15, a state Assembly committee passed an amendment to a campaign finance bill to end the requirement that donors to candidates for state office list their primary employer, as is now required for those who give more than $100 in any given year. (Under the bill, donors of more than $200 per year would still have to list their occupation.)

The amendment, authored by Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, R-Rochester, was introduced and passed on the same day, without a public hearing.

The bill itself was introduced just the week before; it passed the Assembly on Oct. 21. It would double the amounts that donors can give to candidates, and adjust these for inflation every five years. It would let donors give unlimited amounts to political parties and legislative campaign committees, while letting candidates coordinate with special-interest groups that don’t expressly advocate for or against a candidate.

Good-government groups and their supporters have blasted those changes. But eliminating the employer-disclosure rule is also a blow against state laws that presume openness in government.

The nonpartisan Wisconsin Democracy Campaign compiles a database of campaign donations, including donors’ employers. It’s an effective way to track trends in donations from employees of a particular business or industry to a candidate or party—that is, to follow the money.

Eliminating the requirement that donors say where they work will make it harder for “every good-government group and the media, as well as the public at large, to figure out who is really going to benefit from pieces of legislation,” said Matthew Rothschild, the WDC’s executive director. He notes that, while donors would still have to list their occupation, descriptions of “attorney” or “executive” are so broad they hardly provide true disclosure.

Vos and other supporters of the provision have said it’s needed to protect donors’ privacy and shield their businesses from boycotts if it’s discovered that employees have made contributions to a candidate. Rothschild rejects this reasoning: “If they’re going to be giving scads of money to politicians, they should face the music for doing that.”

The disclosure requirement also helped in the investigation and prosecution of Wisconsin & Southern Railroad Co. chief executive William Gardner, who in 2011 pleaded guilty to two felony charges in connection with donations made by his employees. Prosecutors said Gardner used the employees to make contributions above the legal limits.

Without employer information, in the future those dots might remain unconnected.

Though the bill was on a fast track through the Assembly and has passed a Senate committee, there are signs that it may not pass the Senate without changes.

That means there’s time for members of the public to let legislators know they won’t stand for government moving further into the darkness.

To protect the public interest, we need enough light to follow the money.

Your Right to Know is a monthly column distributed by the Wisconsin Freedom of Information Council (www.wisfoic.org), a nonprofit group dedicated to open government. Council member Larry Gallup is Gannett Wisconsin Media’s audience analyst and the former opinion editor at the Post-Crescent in Appleton.

Last Updated on Monday, 26 October 2015 07:18

Action Alert on Bill to Shield Information on Campaign Donors

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The Wisconsin Freedom of Information Council is issuing an Action Alert on proposed legislation to end the requirement that donors to political candidates or committees identify their principal employer. The proposal was introduced Oct. 15 by Assembly Speaker Robin Vos as an amendment to AB387, a bill to rewrite state campaign finance laws, and promptly approved by a state legislative committee, according to a Milwaukee Journal Sentinel report.

We believe this legislation is unneeded, and that it would represent a retreat from the state's traditions of openness, contrary to the express recent declaration of lawmakers. It would complicate the task of tracking down donations by particular interest groups, and increase the possibility that donors will be misidentified.

Previous legislative attempts to eliminate this reporting requirement, including SB292 in the 2011-2012 session, were unsuccessful after drawing opposition from advocates of open and accountable government.

Proponents have argued that it is necessary to shield the names of employers to prevent them from being targeted or harassed. Besides a dearth of examples, this argument fails because this bill would do nothing to prevent this from occurring. Major donors could still, with a bit more work, be associated with particular employers, especially in cases where they are officers of these companies.

There are many legitimate uses of this information. For instance, it is used by the nonpartisan Wisconsin Democracy Campaign and others to link campaign donors into interest groups.

The provision would make it harder to track the affiliations of multiple contributors, undercutting one of the few tools available to the public to associate donations with interest groups. And the Government Accountability Board has said access to this information was helpful when it investigated allegations that Bill Gardner of Wisconsin & Southern Railroad used his employees to make contributions in excess of legal limits. Mr. Gardner was convicted of two felonies in connection with these donations.

Finally, having access to employer information makes it less likely that a given donor will be mistaken for someone else. While it appears that
donors who give more than $200 must report their occupation, there are multiple instances in which different donors have the same name and occupation, such as "attorney."

On July 9, the state Assembly overwhelmingly passed a resolution stating that it "remains committed to our state's open record and open government laws and policies, and will take all necessary steps to ensure that these laws and policies are preserved without modification or degradation."

AB387, as amended, clearly violates this stated intent and should be widely opposed, in the brief period of time before it is likely to be voted on. The Council encourages its members to report and editorialize on this topic, providing additional examples about how having access to this information has served the public interest.

Last Updated on Friday, 16 October 2015 11:25

September: Court loss could prove costly

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Newspapers are usually reluctant to go to court. But sometimes we must, to protect our ability to report the facts readers need to assess the performance of their elected officials.

That was the case in February 2012, when Racine’s Police and Fire Commission was picking a new city police chief. The search had narrowed to three—two internal candidates who were minorities and one external candidate who was white—when the outside candidate removed his name from consideration.

Instead of continuing the selection process with the internal candidates, the PFC, in a closed session, decided to reopen its search.

That caused an uproar, particularly in the city’s minority community. And so my paper, the Racine Journal Times, asked the PFC who had made the motion to reopen the search, who seconded it, and how the five-member board voted.

Under state Open Meetings law, the board was required to record its votes, even those made in closed session. Under state Open Records law, it must divulge any record of those votes.

But the PFC denied our request for this record, twice, saying it had conducted a “balancing test” under the open records law and concluded that the potential harm from disclosure outweighed the good. Specifically, it said commission members feared for their safety if the vote was released, although it cited no threats or other indication of any imminent harm.

By that standard, any vote could be kept secret because an elected official feared the reaction.

The PFC offered a “compromise,” saying it would give us the record—but only after it had picked a new chief. We thought the community deserved to know the vote before the new chief was selected, so, reluctantly, we went to court to get that information. And that opened a labyrinth of legal complexities, as court cases sometimes do.

In the end, the PFC admitted it had not recorded its vote, though it was required to do so. Had the newspaper known there was no record of the vote, it could have urged prosecution of the PFC for violating the open meetings law.

A local court held that the PFC couldn’t be compelled to release a record that didn’t exist. The ruling was overturned on appeal but then accepted for review by the state Supreme Court. The paper’s position was backed by the state attorney general, who urged the high court to hold that a government body must reveal when a record does not exist.

But in June, the state Supreme Court rejected the paper’s position, with Justice Annette Ziegler writing that the commission responded with “reasonable diligence.” Justice Shirley Abrahamson, while agreeing that the paper was not entitled to recover its legal fees, argued that custodians should promptly notify requesters when a record does not exist.

Sadly, the court ruling will allow other custodians to get around the requirements of the law by failing to reveal when a record does not exist. (There is evidence that this is already happening.) And it will encourage other government bodies to delay the release of information or put the timing of that release beyond when the information is relevant to the community.

We lost in court. Unfortunately, the citizens of Wisconsin are now saddled with a court ruling that allows government to hide its actions.

Your Right to Know is a monthly column distributed by the Wisconsin Freedom of Information Council (www.wisfoic.org), a nonprofit group dedicated to open government. Council member Steve Lovejoy, editor emeritus of The Journal Times, Racine, was a party to the lawsuit.

Last Updated on Tuesday, 01 September 2015 14:03

October: Back open government? Prove it!

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On July 9, the members of the Wisconsin state Assembly collectively affirmed their support for open government.

They passed a resolution stating that the Assembly “remains committed to our state’s open record and open government laws and policies, and will take all necessary steps to ensure that these laws and policies are preserved without modification or degradation.” They vowed to “continue to work to uphold these principles and protections.”

The vote was 96 to one. The lone holdout, Rep. Scott Allen, R-Waukesha, wasn’t taking a stand against open government but, in his mind, for it. He said he was “gravely disappointed” in his Republican colleagues’ attempt, the week before, to gut the open records law, but also in Democrats for “highjacking” the process with a hastily added agenda item. Fair enough.

Less comprehensible are the pro-resolution votes cast by some of Allen’s colleagues, including Assembly Speaker Robin Vos. It was Vos who asked for the changes that would have shut down public access to critical records produced by the Legislature and other units of government.

And, after the public backlash forced lawmakers to back down, Vos ordered the drafting of a bill to let the Legislature set its own rules regarding records access. (By the way, Vos’ role in these efforts came to light through the release of records that his original plan would have declared off-limits.)

The resolution was also backed by the five Assembly Republicans—Dale Kooyenga, Amy Loudenbeck, Dean Knudson, Michael Schraa and Mary Czaja—who as members of the Joint Finance Committee voted to add the provisions gutting the records law to the state budget after listening to their Democratic colleagues argue passionately against this.

Some Democratic lawmakers have proposed a constitutional amendment to protect the open records and meetings laws from further attacks. But how about actually making government in Wisconsin more transparent?

The Wisconsin Freedom of Information Council recently updated its “Legislative Wish List” of ideas for building on, as opposed to tearing down, the state’s tradition of open government.

For instance, Wisconsin could follow the lead of other states and require that when public bodies go into closed session, they make a recording, subject to judicial review if the decision to meet in secret is challenged.

The council also calls for an increase in the amount after which requesters can be charged for the cost of locating records. It was set at $50 in 1981, which if adjusted for inflation would top $125 today. Raising this threshold would likely lead to records being stored in more sensible ways, instead of charging requesters for inefficiencies.

And lawmakers could and should follow the same records retention rules as other state and local officials and stop meeting in secret with other members of their party to make key decisions.

Finally, why not bar any legislative proposal from being introduced without a clearly identified sponsor? That way, the next time some lawmaker tries to gut the open records law, it won’t be necessary to make a records request to learn who it is.

Declaring support for open government is nice, but it’s not enough. If state lawmakers want to prove they are not simply covering their butts and trying to score political points, they need to take steps in the direction of greater transparency.

Your Right to Know is a monthly column distributed by the Wisconsin Freedom of Information Council (www.wisfoic.org), dedicated to open government. Bill Lueders is the council’s president.

Last Updated on Thursday, 01 October 2015 11:49

August: Democracy demands open government

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On July 2, the Legislature’s Joint Finance Committee unleashed a shocking assault on the state’s long and proud tradition of open government.

It happened at night, on the eve of a holiday weekend, just a few hours after the proposal was first unveiled. No one has taken credit for it. Committee co-chair Sen. Alberta Darling, R-River Hills, literally walked away from a reporter asking whose idea it was.

The committee’s cowardly action, which passed on a 12-4 party line vote with Republicans in the majority, was part of an omnibus motion stuck into the state budget. It will effectively end the Legislature’s need to comply with the state’s Open Records Law.

The changes exempt legislative communications from the law; shield from release all “deliberative materials” created for the purpose of making law or public policy (including opinions, analyses and briefings prepared at public expense); shut down public access to all records created in the process of drafting legislation; and specify that the Legislature can freely exempt any record from disclosure simply by passing a rule or policy.

These radical and sweeping changes represent a full-frontal attack on Wisconsin’s history of open government. They are clearly intended to block the public from discovering what factors drive the official actions of government, especially the Legislature, and will inevitably lead to abuse, malfeasance and corruption.

Should they become law, these changes would free the Legislature of the obligations of transparency in place for all other state and local governmental agencies. They will spare lawmakers from the burden of accountability to the people who elect them and pay their salaries. They will shield from public view the collusions of lawmakers with special interest groups, lobbyists and campaign donors.

In one 2014 case, bill drafting records exposed the involvement of a wealthy campaign donor in drafting a bill that would have reduced his own child-support obligation. The changes inserted into the budget bill would keep these records secret.

Bill drafting records have long been understood to be public records, and are now routinely posted online. The change inserted into the budget would make release of these records illegal.

In addition, the omnibus bill cuts away at public access to information about criminal charges in the state’s online court records system. It would allow charges filed against some individuals to “disappear” from this archive. While not as sweeping as some past failed efforts to remove records from this system, it is being done with virtually no public discussion.

The records these changes would seal off have, on countless past occasions, been used to expose wrongdoing and provide essential information on the workings of government. We should be pointing this out, as well as reminding people of the very strong proclamations in favor of transparency that have been made by our elected officials, including Gov. Scott Walker, who as a candidate said that the state Legislature needs to be more transparent.

And all of these changes are strictly policy matters, which have absolutely no business being part of a budget bill.

The people of Wisconsin need to rise in opposition to this attack on our state’s tradition of open and honest government. The future integrity of our state depends on it.

Republican Attorney General Brad Schimel noted the danger of tinkering with transparency at the summit he convened July 29 on open government. “Messing with open government laws is like touching the third rail,” Schimel said. “I think that lesson has been learned recently.”

The folks now running Madison got their hands burned while taking an ax to the trunk of our open records law, because the good people of Wisconsin—Republicans, Democrats and neither—rose up. The proposed changes were quickly pulled over the Independence Day weekend, and members of the public demanded to know who was responsible.

We’ve since learned more, thanks to our open records law. On the same day Schimel held his open government summit, the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reported on a new batch of emails.

They show that it was Gov. Scott Walker and staff who added language exempting “deliberative process” documents from disclosure. This would have let elected representatives—and bureaucrats—bury records revealing lobbying, opinions, analyses, recommendations and negotiations that precede a decision.

They also show that Assembly Speaker Robin Vos (R-Rochester) and staff sought language to grant lawmakers broad new privileges to hide legislative documents, even when sued, and to ban their staffs from discussing issues even after leaving their jobs. No other state provides such an expansive legal privilege.

These restrictions would have applied not only to the governor and Legislature, but also to town, village, city and county boards and state and local agencies — to anyone in government worried that something in the records could bring a bit of embarrassment, an objection, a call for improvement.

No one had a whiff of what Walker, Vos and other party leaders were planning to do to the open records law until they stuck it into the state budget, at the last minute, just before a holiday weekend. We now know they had been working in secret on the changes for weeks, if not months.

The released records show that a Legislative Reference Bureau lawyer was researching legislative privilege language last September. Vos had the drafts written on special legislative privilege sometime before June 15. By then, Walker’s language to hide all “deliberative” records had been added.

Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald (R-Juneau) and Joint Finance Committee Co-Chairs Rep. John Nygren (R-Marinette) and Sen. Alberta Darling (R-River Hills) helped advance the changes. Ten additional Republican lawmakers voted them into the final draft of the budget bill that was meant to be quickly approved by the Senate and Assembly, then sent for the governor’s signature.

When the public roared against limiting records access, Walker said it “didn’t come from us.”

He is still refusing to release some records regarding his unpopular proposed changes to the mission statement of the University of Wisconsin, which he blamed on a drafting error. He is using the same language he tried and failed to insert into state law, saying he doesn’t have to release records made during deliberation of the proposed changes.

Two Republican lawyers agreed at Schimel’s summit that our open records law doesn't exempt those records from disclosure: Raymond Taffora, former chief counsel to Gov. Tommy Thompson and a top deputy to Republican Attorney General J.B. Van Hollen; and Rick Esenberg, president of the conservative Wisconsin Institute for Law & Liberty.

The move appears no more than an attempt to avoid “political embarrassment,” Esenberg said.

This is not a partisan issue. The people of Wisconsin want open, honest government.

It is not too much to ask.

George Stanley ( This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it ) is the editor of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. Your Right to Know is a monthly column distributed by the Wisconsin Freedom of Information Council (www.wisfoic.org), a nonprofit group dedicated to open government.

Last Updated on Tuesday, 01 September 2015 13:53
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