header photo

Aug. 11, 2019: I Sued Them, and I Won!

     In December, 2018, I sent open records requests to the entire Wisconsin legislature. I asked for electronic records of their correspondence from citizens regarding the lame duck session that ended after only one hastily-called public hearing and marathon overnight votes on controversial legislation designed to weaken the incoming Governor and Attorney General.

     14 GOP legislators refused to send me electronic records. Instead, they printed thousands of pages at taxpayer expense. Assembly Speaker Robin Vos (R-Rochester) printed 5,781 pages all by himself.  I could not get to the Assembly Chief Clerk’s Office. I could not afford to have the records mailed to me. Their choice to print denied me access to public records.

      Hoping for compliance, I revised my request. I offered to accept just their data base summaries of citizen contacts rather than the actual letters and emails. They refused.

      On Feb. 8, 2019, Steve Fawcett, Assembly Speaker Robin Vos’ staff attorney, responded to my revision:

                  “Your previous open record’s request to our office, and the offices cc’d on this email, have been fulfilled. They await your review at the Assembly Chief Clerk’s Office per our standard procedure. Given that your previous request was fulfilled and the matter closed, there is no pending open record’s request for you to ‘revise’.

                   Given that the offices involved spent considerable time--and thus considerable tax dollars--fulfilling your last request, and you refuse to accept this fulfillment, you may be asked to remit prepayment in advance (in accordance with Wisconsin law) for any future requests to these offices.”

       In other words, we don’t do electronic; we do paper. Next time you ask, you’ll pay whatever we decide to charge in advance. Smugness oozes from his words. I expected to read, “Who do you think you are?” in his closing. I was furious. I decided to sue.

       Here’s a timeline with some background information.

                   1. August, 2016: Bill Lueders, president of the Wisconsin Freedom of Information Council, filed suit in Dane County Circuit Court against Rep. Scott Krug (R-Nekoosa) to obtain electronic rather than paper records. Lueders won that suit, but Krug filed an appeal.

                   2. April 8, 2019: I filed suit against 14 legislators, asking the court to order them to produce electronic records.

                   3. June 6, 2019: The WI Court of Appeals Dist. 2 issued its unanimous decision in Lueders v Krug, voicing strong support for the Dane County Court decision, declaring that paper records are not an adequate substitute for electronic originals.

                   4. July 22, 2019: The attorney representing all 14 of these defendants offered to give me PDFs of the paper records as long as I paid whatever record search charges they asked for. I refused.

                   5. They caved.

      I now have a thumb drive with 9,806 PDF pages responsive to my initial request. If they’d simply complied as all of their colleagues had, I would have had this in January.

     The taxpayers of Wisconsin paid for that pointless pile of paper. Now, they will pay my legal expenses and those of all 14 legislators who hired outside counsel to defend them. I relinquished the financial damages to which I was entitled. I do care about taxpayers.

     Next time you hear a GOP legislator loudly proclaim his or her defense of “hard working taxpayers”, tell them about their 14 colleagues who spent thousands of taxpayer dollars in a fruitless and vindictive effort to prevent one citizen from accessing electronic public records.

     The skill and dedication of Atty. Christa Oliver Westerberg of Pines Bach, Madison brought this disgraceful episode to a satisfying, democracy-affirming conclusion.

     Citizens in the districts these 14 claim to represent deserve to know what was done in their name. They deserve to know that a great deal of money was wasted to defend the indefensible.

     Please share widely.