Victories in open government, spearheaded by investigative journalism and citizen activism in a year of unprecedented attacks on government transparency, were celebrated by journalists, members of the public and champions of public records laws at the sixth annual Wisconsin Watchdog Awards Wednesday evening in Madison.
Attorney Robert J. Dreps, recipient of the 2016 Distinguished Wisconsin Watchdog Award, delivered the keynote address at the sold-out event, which was hosted jointly by the nonpartisan and nonprofit Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism, the Wisconsin Freedom of Information Council and the Madison Pro Chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists.
“The public has demonstrated its strong support for open government, and it is now our job to engage them in our effort to maintain and strengthen that Wisconsin tradition,” said Dreps, who received two standing ovations.
Dreps said his work backing “the interests of journalists and the public in court” is the best job in the state “because arguing in favor of free speech and open government has meant that my cause was always just.”
Dreps noted that since he began working in private practice in 1985, Wisconsin media have rarely lost a defamation case.
“Our media clients have never even had to face a jury,” Dreps said. “And today, because there is no history of success in this state, few defamation plaintiffs even try anymore … Our success also, and perhaps mostly, reflects Wisconsin’s long tradition of journalistic quality and integrity.”
Dreps, who is retiring from full-time practice at Godfrey & Kahn, was inducted into the Wisconsin Newspaper Hall of Fame in February. As a private attorney, he represented the Wisconsin Newspaper Association, the Wisconsin Broadcasters Association, the Freedom of Information Council and dozens of newspapers and other news media organizations in state and federal cases.
“Bob has been an advocate for Wisconsin’s newspapers and their mission of publishing the truth and holding public officials and records custodians accountable,” said Beth Bennett, executive director of the WNA. “For the WNA, Bob is a treasure whose contributions and values will be measured for decades to come.”
Dreps was nominated for the award by Bennett and Godfrey & Kahn colleagues Brady Williamson and James Friedman.
Also at the event, the Freedom of Information Council, a nonpartisan group that seeks to protect public access to meetings and records, honored winners of its annual Openness Awards, or “Opees.” The awards are given for extraordinary achievement, both positive and negative, in the cause of open government.
“It’s hard to know what to say about this last year,” said Bill Lueders, president of the Council. The period included a secretive attempt over the Independence Day weekend by Republican lawmakers to impose sweeping limits on public records access, and a widely hailed executive order issued by Walker in March directing state agencies to track and improve response times to public records requests.
“It was, in some respects, a terrible year, one that reminded us our open government laws are under attack,” Lueders said. “But it was also filled with reminders that the public is on our side, allowing us to fight back and maybe even achieve some gains.”
This year, the Opee winners included:
- Political Openness Award (“Popee”): Attorney General Brad Schimel for opposition to the Legislature’s 2015 attack on the open records law and for establishing the Office of Open Government in the Department of Justice;
- Media Openness Award (“Mopee”): Milwaukee Journal Sentinel Editor George Stanley and his staff for rapid and relentless coverage and editorials probing the July “sneak attack” against the state public records law;
- Citizen Openness Award (“Copee”): McFarland resident Sheila Plotkin for a public records project examining the widespread public opposition to the Legislature’s eventual dismantling of the Government Accountability Board, results of which were posted online at We, the Irrelevant;
- Open Records Scoop of the Year (“Scoopee”): Greg Neumann of WKOW-TV in Madison for exposing how the administration of Gov. Scott Walker and others used personal email accounts to conduct official business contrary to public assurances;
- Whistleblower of the Year (“Whoopee”): Molly Regan, who quit her state job and helped bring public attention to questionable practices at the Wisconsin Economic Development Corp,. spurring new safeguards on how agency dollars are spent; and
- No Friend of Openness (“Nopee”): Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, R-Rochester, for his role in trying to largely exempt the Legislature from the public records law. Vos’ proposal had assistance from Walker’s office and all 12 Republicans on the Joint Finance Committee who voted for the measure over the strenuous objections of committee Democrats, openness advocates and members of the public both Republican and Democratic. Vos, the main architect of the misguided effort, declined an invitation to the awards ceremony.
Mark Pitsch, president of the Madison Pro Chapter of the SPJ, recapped Wisconsin’s year in journalism at the event, saying, “After the Legislature and the governor sought to gut the Wisconsin open records law last year, the media, open government advocates, interest groups on the left and interest groups on the right rose up to battle these changes. … We all recognized what was at stake.”
In addition, the Watchdog Awards honored beloved University of Wisconsin-Madison journalism professor James Baughman, who died in March after a brief battle with lung cancer.
“Jim’s legacy includes many hundreds of students and colleagues whom he inspired and supported … We will work hard to live up to the high expectations he had of all of us,” said Andy Hall, the Center’s executive director.
Baughman’s legacy included welcoming the Center into the School of Journalism and Mass Communication’s offices at Vilas Hall in 2009 while serving as the school’s director.
The event included dinner and a free workshop in investigative reporting techniques, attended by 45 student and young professional journalists.
The Wisconsin Newspaper Association was the lead sponsor of the event. Supporting sponsors included the MacIver Institute for Public Policy and Schott Bublitz & Engel law firm. Other event sponsors included the Wisconsin Broadcasters Association, USA TODAY NETWORK-Wisconsin, The Cap Times, the Wisconsin State Journal and WORT 89.9 FM. Bender Westerberg LLC was a friend sponsor, with additional support from Simpson Street Free Press.
Past winners of the Distinguished Wisconsin Watchdog Award are Dave Zweifel, editor emeritus of Cap Times and a founder of the Freedom of Information Council; the late Dick Wheeler, founder of the Wheeler Report newsletter; U.S. District Court Judge Lynn Adelman, chief author of the state’s open records law; Dave Umhoefer, Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative reporter at the Journal Sentinel; and Meg Kissinger, investigative health reporter at the Journal Sentinel, who has tirelessly exposed flaws in Wisconsin’s mental health system.