Wisconsin Freedom of Information Council

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November: Don’t shield donor employer info

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Cindy Kilkenny

State Sen. Glenn Grothman, R-West Bend, would like to change the way Wisconsin records campaign donations. He’s introduced a bill to raise the threshold for when donors to state and local campaigns must disclose their occupations from its current level of more than $100 to more than $500.

The bill would also eliminate the requirement that the donor’s principal place of employment be disclosed.

Grothman says the change is needed to reduce the harassment of businesses whose employees back candidates. In 2012, for instance, boycotts were launched against some companies whose executives backed Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker.

The bill, SB 282 and its companion, AB 378, has had hearings in both legislative houses and appears to be on a fast track to passage.

But the bill is a bad idea, for various reasons. That’s why it has drawn opposition from editorial boards, good government groups and even people like me: a blogger for the website Fairly Conservative.

As I told the Senate committee that held a recent hearing on this bill, I rely on databases that provide campaign finance information. I use them to identify contributors, note patterns and break stories.

A couple of weeks ago, I noted that the Potawatomi were big donors to Walker; the tribe opposes the expansion of casino gambling, which Walker has the power to do. In Brookfield, I use similar reports to determine which developers are bankrolling which local candidates.

Employer information also helps differentiate donors.

Believe it or not, there is more than one Mary Burke who lives in Madison and who has given money to state candidates. It helps that some donations are identified with her former employer, Trek Bicycle.

Grothman and committee chair Sen. Mary Lazich, R-New Berlin, noted that a donor’s occupation would still be listed for donations of under $500, just not his or her employer. But removing this information would it make impossible to get a true picture of how much money is coming in from, say, casino employees.

Currently, the maximum contribution to Assembly candidates as well as every school board, municipal and county (except Milwaukee) candidate fall under the new threshold. This information would disappear for all of their donors.

According to Mike McCabe, executive director of  the Wisconsin Democracy Campaign, 96 percent of the 862,064 donations in its “Follow the Money” database are for $500 or less.

Kevin Kennedy, director and general counsel of the state Government Accountability Board, which compiles and posts campaign finance information for state candidates, also opposes the change.

Kennedy told the Senate committee that his agency has used the employee information to identify instances in which wealthy donors were evading spending limits by illegally funneling contributions through their employees.

As for people and business getting blowback because of the candidates they support, Kennedy said, “That's part of the price of our democracy.”

The Wisconsin law that covers campaign financing begins with a declaration, which reads in part: “When the true source of support or extent of support is not fully disclosed, or when a candidate becomes overly dependent upon large private contributors, the democratic process is subjected to a potential corrupting influence.”

I agree. While businesses have legitimate concerns about operating in safety, boycotts are a respected component of our American political environment. There are laws already in place to guard against some of the intimidation and harassment Grothman cited during his defense of the bill.

Wisconsin has a proud history of transparency in government. We can continue that tradition by rejecting this attempt to restrict the public’s right to know.

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. Cindy Kilkenny, who blogs at Fairly Conservative and is the author of an ebook on Scott Walker, lives in Brookfield.

Last Updated on Thursday, 31 October 2013 08:45

October: Vukmir wrong on records law

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David D. Haynes

State Sen. Leah Vukmir, R-Wauwatosa, is making a novel legal argument to dodge a public records request. It’s one that, carried to its logical extreme, could neuter Wisconsin’s Open Records Law.

Vukmir is claiming legislative immunity from a June lawsuit filed by the liberal Center for Media and Democracy, which has alleged that she failed to turn over records related to the American Legislative Exchange Council. ALEC, a lightning rod for liberals, works with conservative state legislators around the country to write model legislation.

In a motion filed by state Attorney General J.B. Van Hollen’s office, Vukmir claims she can’t be sued while the Legislature is in session. If her argument prevails, lawmakers could no longer be compelled to comply with open records requests. Here’s why:

Legislators recently have defined their “sessions” as beginning on the day they are sworn in and lasting until the next time they are sworn in. That would make Vukmir immune from lawsuit for the entire time she remains in office, which could be for many years.

In a statement, Vukmir writes that she has complied with CMD’s open records request “and will continue to comply with all future requests for records, including two recent requests by CMD.”

But when will she comply? And why does she believe she deserves such broad immunity? The senator ought to answer those questions.

In the past, the state has argued that the constitution provides immunity from civil proceedings only during floor sessions, says Madison attorney Susan Crawford, a former assistant attorney general. That was the state’s position during the legislative caucus scandal a decade ago, she said.

Crawford notes that the attorney general is the state officer charged with enforcing the Open Records Law and now is arguing, essentially, that the law cannot be enforced against legislators. No court could hold them accountable, as long as they are in office.

In the past, lawmakers on both sides of the aisle have been sued under the Open Records Law. Those legislators either acknowledged the violation and turned over the documents or fought it out in court.

The constitutional provision, and similar ones in other state constitutions, can be traced to English common law, which aimed to prevent political foes from suing their rivals as a ploy to remove them from the floor during sessions of Parliament. Legislative immunity, then, was created to protect the democratic process – not to protect the politicians. Vukmir’s tactic turns a very reasonable idea on its head.

This should not be a partisan issue: Everyone benefits from transparency in government. Rick Esenberg, a Milwaukee lawyer and blogger often allied with Republicans, recently told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel that the Vukmir/Van Hollen motion “would seem to extend the scope of the exemption provision well beyond its original meaning.”

And this broad interpretation of immunity might also lead to claims in other kinds of civil lawsuits. Some legislators serve for decades. Would they have to respond to any civil claim while in office?

Van Hollen’s actions are a disappointment. He has been a strong supporter of open government in the past. When state Sen. Jon Erpenbach, D-Middleton, was sued by the conservative MacIver Institute over emails the senator received during the collective bargaining battle in 2011, Van Hollen declined to take the case. He should have done the same this time.

As for Vukmir, she says she has “always believed in transparency in government.”

She can demonstrate it by dropping her claim. She and Van Hollen may hope to cloak themselves in the state constitution, but in this instance it looks like a very poor fit.

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 D. Haynes is editorial page editor of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.

Last Updated on Monday, 30 September 2013 15:52

The trend of redacting names from police reports

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From WLUK Fox 11 in Green Bay, a report on the trend of redacting information on police reports.



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.


September: Pull back veil on budget tweakers

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Mark Pitsch

State Rep. John Nygren and Sen. Alberta Darling might be the masterminds behind plans to legalize bounty hunters in Wisconsin, boot an investigative journalism center from the UW-Madison campus and add a credit for private school tuition to the state’s tax code.

After all, the Republican co-chairs of the Legislature’s Joint Finance Committee are the official sponsors of Motion 999, added to the biennial state budget in the early morning hours of June 5. The motion included those measures and nearly two dozen more, all approved with minimal debate.

Or Nygren and Darling may just have been carrying water for other legislative Republicans. We may never know.

That’s because the legislative process allows these measures to be added without being tied to any particular source.

Gov. Scott Walker vetoed the budget amendments regarding bounty hunters and the investigative journalism center, but left intact the new tuition tax credit of up to $10,000 for each private school student.

Doesn’t the public have a right to know who came up with these ideas? This would let voters hold their elected officials accountable at the ballot box and look for potential conflicts, like special interest cash flowing to a given lawmaker.

“It’s a huge problem in every respect,” said Jay Heck, executive director of Common Cause in Wisconsin. “It’s a terrible way to legislate and a terrible way to make decisions about taxpayer dollars.”

But that’s how the Joint Finance Committee has worked for at least two decades, under both Democrats and Republicans. Heck and others say the practice has gotten worse in recent years, as legislative power has been concentrated and politics become more polarized.

Unlike most bills, the $70 billion state budget is typically changed only by the small group of lawmakers who serve on the Joint Finance Committee. Successful floor amendments are possible, but rare. Usually, other lawmakers must go through a committee member, and those changes often get pulled together in an amendment like Motion 999. 

“This 999 motion is something we found out about at 1:30 in the morning and we had to vote on it at 5:30 or something,” said Sen. Glenn Grothman, R-West Bend, a member of the finance committee.

Grothman groused that he wasn’t involved in the discussions that led to Motion 999. If he were, he would have fought for an even greater private school tuition tax break, which he thinks was inspired by earlier legislation he drafted.

“It’s a pretty closed process,” Todd Berry, president of the Wisconsin Taxpayers Alliance, said of the way the finance committee writes the budget. “Most other states don’t do it the way we do it.”

Neither Darling, of River Falls, nor Nygren, of Marinette, returned calls to discuss the process. But committee member Sen. Sheila Harsdorf, R-River Falls, defended it, somewhat. She said most of budget provisions can be traced to a previously introduced bill or policy statements made by a lawmaker.

Moreover, the final votes on the budget are a matter of public record.

“At the point you vote for it or against it you’re taking ownership,” Harsdorf said. “It’s not as important to me who introduced it as to whether I support it or oppose.”

But Harsdorf agrees it’s sometimes “hard to trace” where a particular budget amendment added by the Joint Finance Committee leaders comes from.

“Sometimes we don’t know, either,” she said.

And that should bother everyone — from open government advocates to the lawmakers themselves.

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. Mark Pitsch, a council member, is an assistant city editor at the Wisconsin State Journal and president of the Madison professional chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists.

Last Updated on Thursday, 29 August 2013 13:42

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