July 7, 2011

Disclosure statements part of public’s right to know

Joni Mitchell, reflecting on the loss of trees, bees and her old man, famously mused:

“Don’t it always seem to go
That you don’t know what you’ve got
’Til it’s gone.”

Or almost gone.

Recently the Legislature’s Joint Finance Committee inserted language into the state budget bill that would have restricted public access to the statements of economic interest that public officials in Wisconsin must file. But the negative reaction from open government advocates, myself included, state media, members of the public and a conservative think tank forced lawmakers to back down.

The committee co-chair, Sen. Alberta Darling, R-River Hills, said she would reconsider. “I didn’t realize that this would generate so much controversy,” she told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. “Any time there’s a decision made and others feel differently, we can definitely look at it.”

In the end, the provision to make citizens visit the Government Accountability Board in Madison to obtain these statements was axed from the budget by Gov. Scott Walker. Among the lawmakers from both parties urging him to do so: state Sen. Rob Cowles, R-Allouez, who in 2008 was found from the statements to own stock in companies that ran strip clubs and pornographic websites.

Walker, in his June 26 veto message, said the change “violates the principles of transparency and open government that are fundamental to public oversight and a key tenet of my administration.”

The veto allows the GAB to continue sending statements to requesters and offering online indexes based on the information they contain. But left intact was a tweak from Joint Finance Committee co-chair Rep. Robin Vos, R-Rochester, raising the threshold for when a business connection needs to be reported from $1,000 to $10,000 a year. Vos said competitors to his gourmet popcorn business could make use of this data.

Moreover, obtaining statements of economic interest still comes with strings attached. Citizens must identify themselves so the records subject can be notified. This is an exception to the state’s Open Records Law, which says no records request may be denied “because the person making the request is unwilling to be identified or to state the purpose of the request.”.

Because this rule chills the willingness of some citizens to obtain this information, media outlets and nonprofit organizations have periodically obtained these records and made them publicly available. That’s what the Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism did recently, inposting the statements from lawmakers and state constitutional officers.

These records are a wealth of information, some valuable, some not. Here are a few tidbits:

Gov. Walker reports almost no outside sources of income but is a board member of several organizations, including the Milwaukee County Council of Boy Scouts of America.

Lt. Gov. Rebecca Kleefisch and her husband, Rep. Joel Kleefisch, R-Oconomowoc, both list as “business partners” three principals in “Conspiracy LLC”; each name, including lobbyists James Bender and former lawmaker Steve Foti, has been crossed out.

Turns out the Kleefisches no longer have an interest in the company, formed to sell chicken wing sauce, including “left wing” and “right wing” varieties. Sources say the right-wing sauce was hotter.

Sen. Tim Cullen, D-Janesville, whom Walker once noted “went into the private sector, made real money and, uh, became a little more more open-minded,” lists more than 50 interests in which he has more than $50,000 invested. And Darling lists more than 200 investments of between $5,000 to $50,000, and six more over $50,000.

Rep. Mark Pocan, D-Madison, reported getting more than $1,000 a year from dozens of sources, including some other lawmakers, from his business, Budget Signs and Specialties.

Rep. Dan Knodl, R-Germantown, disclosed a $2,000 honorarium from ALEC, the American Legislative Exchange Council, national policy group some say is driving the state GOP’s political agenda.

Rep. Frank Lasee, R-Bellevue, lists a realty business but reports no investments — no stocks, bonds, securities or state pension fund holdings. He declined to elaborate.

Cowles appears to have divested himself of X-rated companies, according to his latest statement. But he does have more than $50,000 invested in Perfumania, a fragrance retailer. Perhaps a hedge against the lingering stench from his former holdings?