Wisconsin Freedom of Information Council

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Wisconsin Freedom of Information Council

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.


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.


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.


Action Alert on Legislature's Attack on Open Records Law

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The Wisconsin Freedom of Information Council is issuing an emergency action alert in response to the Joint Finance Committee’s shocking assault on the state’s long and proud tradition of open government.

This cowardly action, passed by the Committee on July 2 just hours after its introduction, is part of an omnibus motion stuck into the state budget. The committee chairs have refused to say which lawmakers asked for these changes, which will effectively free the state Legislature from the state’s Open Records Law.

The changes would 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 Council opposes these changes in the strongest possible terms. We call on our members and supporters, and the public at large, to rise in opposition to this attack on our state’s tradition of open and honest government.

Note: Members of the Legislature opposed to these changes will be holding a press conference on Monday, July 6, in the Assembly Parlor, state Capitol, 1 p.m.

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