Wisconsin Legislators Trying To Carve Hole In Open Records Law With Amendments To State Budget Bill

from the stupid-nosy-public dept

No one ever praised politics as a germ-free environment, but Wisconsin may be taking it to new levels, aiming for Chicago-esque levels of dirty politics. The state appears to have several people in positions of power operating in purely partisan self-interest, leading to governmental abuses.

For years now, Milwaukee County District Attorney John Chisholm has ostensibly been in the process of investigating the embezzlement of $11,000 from the local Order of the Purple Heart. This investigation has taken the form of a “John Doe” investigation, which couples broad daylight raids on people’s homes and businesses with draconian gag orders and a pile of sealed documents.

John Doe investigations alter typical criminal procedure in two important ways: First, they remove grand juries from the investigative process, replacing the ordinary citizens of a grand jury with a supervising judge. Second, they can include strict secrecy requirements not just on the prosecution but also on the targets of the investigation. In practice, this means that, while the prosecution cannot make public comments about the investigation, it can take public actions indicating criminal suspicion (such as raiding businesses and homes in full view of the community) while preventing the targets of the raids from defending against or even discussing the prosecution’s claims.

These raids have been ongoing since 2010, but you won’t read much reporting on it because those being raided are forbidden to discuss anything that has occurred. It’s a wholly autonomous process that can be initiated by one party, which then controls the narrative from that point forward. It’s completely at odds with due process, and in this case, appears to be wholly politically-motivated. John Chisholm is a Democrat. His targets have all been Republicans/conservatives.

Not that the conservative side is necessarily any better. Wisconsin Republicans are also in favor of government secrecy. Some “fixes” of the state’s open records laws were added to the state’s budget bill, carving out a sizable — and easily abusable — exception for a variety of government documents. (via Metafilter)

Under the provision, all “deliberative materials” would be exempt from the open records law. That includes all materials prepared in the process of reaching a decision concerning a policy or course of action or in drafting a document or communication.

The exemptions are even more extensive for members of the Legislature and their staff. They would not have to disclose communications between one another, the public or others who work for the Legislature, such as staff in the clerk’s and sergeant at arms offices. The protection extends to a wide array of legislative business, including drafting bills, developing public policy, all aspects of legislative proceedings such as committee hearings, and investigations and oversight.

Legislative service agencies would be required to keep all communications, records and information confidential.

It’s not just the legislature in line for additional open records exemptions. The amendment could expand this “coverage” to all government agencies, all the way down to school boards. This change was backed by Governor Scott Walker and leading Republicans. Walker has had his own “problems” with open records requests, which have resulted in “recent embarrassing stories.” Now that the backlash has begun, even those who voted for it are now claiming it goes too far.

State Rep. Dale Kooyenga (R-Brookfield), who voted for the motion, said he is now concerned about its impact.

“The scope of the provision appears to go beyond what I was briefed on, and further consideration of the matter is warranted and welcome,” Kooyenga said. “I’ll be listening to feedback.”

Because no one reads the stuff they vote for, much less performs any due diligence.

“No comment,” [Sen. Tom] Tiffany said when asked if he supported the open records changes shortly before he voted for them.

Similarly, moments before he sat down for debate on the provisions, [Sen. Michael] Schraa demurred on whether he would back them.

“I have to read through it more,” he said before casting his yes vote.

Just before voting for the measure, [Sen. Howard] Marklein said he had no idea who sought the change and didn’t know if he could support it.

“I don’t know yet,” he said. “I’ll know when I vote.”

So, how does a shady remix of the state’s open records law end up on the governor’s desk if no one seems all that thrilled/knowledgeable about it? Because voting with hearts/minds is way less popular than voting along party lines. The committee voting on the budget amendments included four Democrats and 12 Republicans. All Democrats voted against it. Every Republican voted for it.

Now that the backlash has begun, Governor Walker’s office is claiming it will “work with legislators” to fix the amendment. Notably, the office has not indicated Walker will veto the amendment, which would be a much better “fix” than working secretively with amenable legislators to keep as much of the broad expansion intact.

The government — at all levels — will trend toward increased opacity if not properly held in check. Legislators, given the opportunity, will introduce legislation that best benefits legislators. On the plus side, thanks to the internet’s near-instant access and a variety of non-mainstream news sources, citizens are more informed than ever. This obviously presents a “problem” for government entities who prefer darkness. An amendment appended to a budget bill presented the Wisconsin government with an opportunity to lock the public out of its sausage-making, but the speedy spread of negative coverage has ensured it won’t pass unnoticed… or unopposed.

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Comments on “Wisconsin Legislators Trying To Carve Hole In Open Records Law With Amendments To State Budget Bill”

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14 Comments
That Anonymous Coward (profile) says:

How much time & money is wasted by these officials trying to cover up their actions?

If they are doing things that require this level of secrecy, to keep them hidden from the people they are supposed to represent, it is time to get rid of all of them.

We need less secrecy, it breeds contempt for the little people who can’t know what is being done “for them”. (also read as to them to benefit others).

Even with open records, a majority of people never looked… but there was a chance so it served as one of the checks & balances we need to keep officials in line. Trying to gut them, means they have much more to hide and its time to fire up the woodchippers and get a new batch.

GEMont (profile) says:

Re: Re:

Excerpted from Center For Media and Democracy

But that’s not the whole story. Despite the apparent about-face, the reality is that behind-the-scenes, Walker’s lawyers are still fighting to gut the open records law.”

“It appears Walker is trying to create the same open records carve-out through the courts that they failed to obtain in the legislature,” said Brendan Fischer, our in-house General Counsel.

Anonymous Coward says:

The banality of hypocrisy

Both quotes from Scott Walker in a 2012 speech to CPAC:
“I believe that smaller government is better government. But I also believe that in the areas where government does play a legitimate role, we should demand that it is done better.”

What if people don’t know what their government is doing? Citizens need open records laws so they can demand better.

“For more than two centuries, what has made America great is that in moments of crisis (be it fiscal or economic or military or even spiritual), we’ve had men and women of courage who thought more about their children and grandchildren’s future than they did about their own political futures.”

Guess we know that you’re not one of those people.

Anonymous Coward says:

“These raids have been ongoing since 2010, but you won’t read much reporting on it because those being raided are forbidden to discuss anything that has occurred.”

Not true that little has been written in it. The link http://watchdog.org/series/wisconsins-secret-war/ that you gave has (after clicking on an article and expanding the “see more” link at the bottom) over 200 articles on the subject.

What I find very strange is that the national media has not picked up on the First Amendment violations. I deeply dislike Walker conservatives, but in this case they were 100% victimized by gross due process violations and illegitimate silencing.

GEMont (profile) says:

Fascism 101 - the changing of the guard

The more I read about Walker’s Wisconsin Shenanigans, the more I suspect that Wisconsin is being used as a Template and Petri Dish – if they can pull off the coup in Wisconsin, the same process will then expand to the rest of the US.

Apparently its a Koch Brothers and A.L.E.C. run program, to see just how well money can change politics in favor of Big Business, in broad daylight.

It appears to be having far more successes than failures.

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