Wisconsin Freedom of Information Council

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September: Disciplined workers should be named

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When state employees misbehave, does the public have a right to know who they are? Two state agencies are answering that question in different ways.

Both the state Department of Justice and Department of Natural Resources have in the recent past blacked out the names of state workers from records of disciplinary actions released to the media. The agencies claimed the public interest was “sufficiently served” by releasing these redacted records.

The jousting began in 2013 when The Associated Press requested disciplinary records for DOJ employees. The agency released the records but not the names. Earlier this year, the AP made a similar request to the DNR and got a similar result.

But the DNR has had a change of heart. In late August, after an open records request by the Lakeland Times of Minocqua, the agency released the names of management and law enforcement employees disciplined in 2013, and those engaged in “more serious misconduct.” It has since signaled plans to release the rest.

The Justice Department, though, stands by its decision to withhold the names of employees found to be breaking the rules.

“When a disciplined employee’s name is not released, the public is still informed about what the discipline was and why it was imposed,” said DOJ spokeswoman Dana Brueck. The released information, she continued, “allows the public to see that its government is holding line staff employees accountable for their actions and taking steps to correct those situations, without stigmatizing the employees for minor violations.”

In its February 2013 letter to the AP, the Justice Department said none of the disciplined workers was “highly placed,” all were cited for work rule violations, and that publicizing their names “would embarrass them” and be “counterproductive” in persuading employees to correct their behavior.

The letter also claimed that supervisors would be less likely to mete out discipline if the names of employees were routinely released.

I’m not convinced.

First of all, rank shouldn’t matter. Whether the workers are line workers or top management, the same rules should apply. And even minor work rule violations can have a serious impact on morale, especially if there is a pattern of abuse. Without the names, it is harder for the public to know about patterns of conduct — or if the state responded promptly and fairly.

I’m no advocate of public shaming, but knowing there is a possibility your name will become public might be a deterrent to bad behavior. And as for supervisors who are reluctant to discipline employees for fear of disclosure, I’d argue that management is no place for the faint-hearted.

Finally, working in the public eye has always meant giving up a small amount of privacy.

Current state law requires a “balancing test” to determine whether information can be shared with the public. The test begins with a strong presumption of openness that must be weighed against arguments favoring secrecy.

In a 2006 decision, Kroeplin vs. DNR, a state appeals court ruled against a conservation warden who tried to keep his disciplinary record secret. The court concluded “the public’s strong interest in accessing these records is not outweighed in any way by the reasons offered by the DNR for preventing disclosure.”

The DOJ, which cited the Kroeplin case in its letter to the AP, seems to have relied on a narrow reading of the case while ignoring its overriding theme: openness trumps secrecy.

This could all be simpler. State law could require that every public worker who is disciplined be named. That might deter misbehavior. It certainly would guarantee a better informed public.

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. David Haynes, a council member, is the editorial page editor of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.

Last Updated on Tuesday, 02 September 2014 14:21
 

Investigative reporter Umhoefer to receive Wisconsin Watchdog Award

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Milwaukee Journal Sentinel investigative reporter Dave Umhoefer, winner of a Pulitzer Prize for his 2008 investigation into pension padding in Milwaukee County, has been named the 2014 recipient of the Distinguished Wisconsin Watchdog Award.

The award is a highlight of the fourth annual Wisconsin Watchdog Awards reception and dinner, presented jointly by the Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism, the Wisconsin Freedom of Information Council and the Madison Pro Chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists.

The April 23 event, a celebration of open government and investigative journalism, is open to the public, with proceeds supporting the nonprofit and nonpartisan Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism.

"For more than 25 years, Dave Umhoefer has held the powerful accountable for their actions and provided insights into key issues facing Wisconsin communities," said Andy Hall, executive director of the investigative center.

"When we created this award four years ago to recognize an individual’s contributions to open government or investigative journalism, all of us knew that Dave someday would receive it."

Past winners of the award are Dave Zweifel, editor emeritus of The Capital Times and a founder of the Wisconsin Freedom of Information Council; the late Dick Wheeler, founder of the Wheeler Report newsletter; and U.S. District Court Judge Lynn Adelman, chief author of the state's open records law.

Umhoefer, a La Crosse native and University of Wisconsin-Madison graduate, received the School of Journalism and Mass Communication’s Distinguished Service Award in 2009.

Umhoefer is a member of the Journal Sentinel’s Watchdog Team, where his work includes PolitiFact Wisconsin. He also is an instructor at Marquette University, where he teaches an investigative reporting class.

“His investigation into pension padding by Milwaukee County officials was so thorough and meticulous that county officials reported themselves to the IRS before the story even ran,” Greg Borowski, the Journal Sentinel’s assistant managing editor for projects and investigations, noted in nominating Umhoefer for the Distinguished Wisconsin Watchdog Award.

“That is emblematic of the work Dave has done. It often tackles complex and arcane subjects or involves reams of paper documents or millions of electronic ones. He is able to get past the spin, sort out the truth and then write with unquestioned authority.”

The Wisconsin Watchdog Awards event also will honor winners of the Freedom of Information Council’s annual Opee Awards for their work promoting open government. The Madison SPJ chapter will review the year in journalism.

The event at The Madison Club, 5 E. Wilson St., begins with a reception at 5 p.m., followed by dinner at 6.

Tickets are available for $55. Discounts are available for purchases of tables. Register online.

Lead sponsorship of the event is provided by the Wisconsin Newspaper Association Foundation. Additional support is provided by the Wisconsin Broadcasters Association and two law firms -- McGillivray Westerberg & Bender and Schott Bublitz & Engel.

Additional sponsors are being sought. Sponsorship information is available online.

Attendance is limited to 120 people.

 

Seeking Distinguished Wisconsin Watchdog Award nominations

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Nominations are being sought for the 2014 Distinguished Wisconsin Watchdog Award, presented annually to recognize an individual's extraordinary contributions to open government or investigative journalism in Wisconsin.

Dave Zweifel, editor emeritus of The Capital Times and a founder of the Wisconsin Freedom of Information Council, was named the inaugural winner in 2011. The late Dick Wheeler, founder of the Wheeler Report and a tireless advocate for public access to the workings of state government, was honored in 2012. And in 2013, U.S. District Judge Lynn Adelman, the chief author of Wisconsin's Open Records Law and a strong advocate of the Open Meetings Law, received the award.

The award is presented jointly by the Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism, Wisconsin Freedom of Information Council and Madison Pro Chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists.

Letters of nomination are accepted from journalists, news organizations and other individuals and organizations involved in open government and investigative journalism issues.

They should be sent by Jan. 22 to Andy Hall, the Center's executive director, at This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it or WCIJ, 5006 Vilas Communication Hall, 821 University Ave., Madison, WI 53706.

The recipient will be selected by a panel of representatives from the Center, FOIC and SPJ, and will be honored at the Wisconsin Watchdog Awards reception and dinner, which is scheduled for April 23 at The Madison Club.

 

Action alert on bill to gut information on WCCA (CCAP)

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SB 526, the bill that would purge the state's online records system of information about criminal cases that do not lead to convictions, or are overturned on appeal, passed a Senate committee yesterday on a 5-0 vote. The bill is now available for a full Senate vote.

This is the most serious attempt to date to deprive the public of full and accurate information about the state's court system through WCCA, or what everyone calls CCAP. It is on the fast track to passage despite opposition from state media and the Freedom of Information Council, state Attorney General J.B. Van Hollen, Director of State Courts John Voelker, individual clerks of court, and representatives of property owners.

Now is the time to make the case that the people of Wisconsin can be trusted to make appropriate use of the information on this system; that they don't need lawmakers stepping in to prevent them from knowing what is happening in the court system they pay for.

Without a doubt, some employers and others use the information on this system to unfairly deny opportunities to applicants. But there is no evidence this practice is as widespread as the site's critics claim. Representatives of business groups and landlord associations have offered credible testimony attesting to their commitment to following the law and using this information in appropriate ways. Some employers and landlords post job openings and put up "For rent" signs because they
actually need workers and want tenants, not simply so they can turn people away due to a dismissed charge from long ago.

The Wisconsin Freedom of Information Council fundamentally opposes the idea at the heart of this bill, that the way to deal with a perceived problem regarding the use of public information is to make it harder to obtain that information. More harm than good will come from this approach.

SB 526 would greatly restrict what records are available on WCCA and thus dramatically undercut the site's usefulness. Records showing that charges against an individual were dismissed or led to a finding of not guilty would no longer appear. Information would also have to be removed for convictions overturned on appeal.

Passage of this bill would be a boon for private providers of court records data, those companies that offer to run background checks on people for, say, $10 a pop or $30 for full access each year. And those private operators do not have the same checks on accuracy as does the state's system.

In fact, under this bill, WCCA would go from being a tool for tracking what happens in our state court system into being a registry of known offenders. Only the names of those found guilty would appear.

If this bill were to pass, WCCA would henceforth give a distorted view of what happens in our courts. For instance, every prosecutor would have a 100 percent conviction rate on every charge, because charges that were dismissed would not appear.

It would mean that most of the charges brought against former members of the Legislature, like Brian Burke and Chuck Chvala, would disappear from view.

The idea driving this bill is that ordinary citizens lack the intelligence or decency to make rational judgments about cases in which charges are dismissed or a defendant has been found not guilty. The people of Wisconsin deserve more credit than that.

 

Statement on claims of legislative immunity to state Open Records Law

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A statement by the Wisconsin Freedom of Information Council regarding new claims that state lawmakers are effectively immune from the state's Open Records Law.

Statement on claims of legislative immunity to state Open Records Law

September 13, 2013

The Wisconsin Freedom of Information Council is shocked and saddened that a member of the state Legislature is, with the help of the state Attorney General’s Office, effectively claiming immunity from the state’s Open Records Law.

As reported by the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, state Sen. Leah Vukmir, R-Wauwatosa, is advancing a legal argument that “would let all lawmakers ignore the Open Records Law.” The senator claims she cannot be sued while the Legislature is in session and that the session extends for a legislator’s entire term.

Our state's openness laws are fundamental to its ability to function as a democracy. Members of the Legislature, which passed these laws, ought to respect that. We call upon Sen. Vulmir to reconsider her position in light of the damage it could cause to the state.

So far as we can recall, no lawmaker has ever before tried to defeat the state's open records law by employing this ruse. We are deeply disappointed in both Sen. Vukmir and the Attorney General's Office, for the position it has taken, in its Sept. 11, 2013 court filing.

The state Attorney General’s Office has statutory authority for interpreting and enforcing the state’s openness laws. In the past, the office has initiated legal action against members of the Legislature.

In fact, lawmakers have been sued for violating the Open Records Law on a number of occasions, listed below. They sometimes lost, sometimes settled, and sometimes won. But in no prior instance did they claim to be above the law.

Wisconsin’s traditions of open government, including the ability to litigate cases of alleged noncompliance, have served the state well. That is not a tradition with which we should dispense.

Prior cases of Open Records lawsuits against state of Wisconsin lawmakers:

WI State Journal v. WI Joint Committee on Legislative Organization, Sen. Alan Lasse, Sen. Mary Panzer, Rep. John Gard, Dane County Case Number 2003CV003343. Brought by news media to obtain an investigative report into operations of the Joint Committee on Legislative organization. The report was released. See Journal Sentinel article.

State of WI v. David A Zien and Scott Gunderson, Dane County Case Number 2005CV002896. Brought by state Attorney General Peg Lautenschlager, alleging that the lawmakers were violating the law in not providing access to draft bills being shared with others. The case was dismissed by an appellate court because Lautenschlager was no longer in office; see AP article.

Wisconsin State v. Jeffrey Stone, Milwaukee County Case Number 2006CX000003. Brought by the Attorney General’s Office under Peg Lautenschlager. The case was ultimately dismissed when Lautenschlager’s successor, J.B. Van Hollen, decided not to pursue it. See AP article.

Democratic Party of WI v. State Sen. Dan Kapanke, Dane County Case Number 2009CV003928. This case settled when Sen. Kapanke produced the disputed records; he later promised to reimburse taxpayers for attorneys fees. See Milwaukee Journal Sentinel article.

Lakeland Times v. Mark Miller, Dane County Case Number 2010CV002011. Minocqua-based newspaper sued state Sen. Mark Miller, for not providing records in response to a request. The case was settled with Miller agreeing to pay fees and costs. See Lakeland Times article.

One Wisconsin Now v. Alberta Darling, Dane County Case Number 2011CV003529. Liberal advocacy group sued state Sen. Darling over her failure to release records. Case is settled out of court, with Darling agreeing to release the records and pay the group’s legal fees. See OWN statement.

Center for Media & Democracy v. five state lawmakers, Dane County Case Number 2012CV003922. The same group now trying to sue Sen. Vukmir sued five state representatives (Jeremy Thiesfeldt, Pat Strachota, Tyler August, Dan Knodl and Tom Larsen) for not providing records on request. The lawmakers settled, agreeing to release the records and pay costs and fees. See Milwaukee Journal Sentinel article.

John K Maciver Institute v. Jon Erpenbach, Grant County Case Number 2012CV000063. A conservative public policy group sued state Sen. Erpenbach, alleging he violated the open records law in redacting identifying information from requested records. A circuit court judge ruled in Erpenbach’s favor but the case is on appeal. See Wisconsin Institute for Law and Liberty article.

 


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