Wisconsin’s third branch of government is critical to open government. This year, the Wisconsin Supreme Court will hear three cases involving Wisconsin’s open records law, and could make important decisions involving access to the courts. The court’s docket starts with a case about whether videos of law enforcement training sessions must be released to the public. The videos were requested from then-Waukesha District Attorney Brad Schimel by the Democratic Party of Wisconsin during the race for attorney general, which Schimel later won. Lower courts rejected Department of Justice arguments that disclosing the videos would educate criminals about law enforcement practices and harm crime victims, because the information was already in the public sphere and did not identify victims.
The appeals court ruled that the DOJ “neither made the exceptional case required to shield public records from public view … nor overcame the presumption of complete public access to public records.” But the justices have agreed to take another look.
Among the many remarkable things about the defeat of the proposed overhaul of the Wisconsin Public Records Law over the July 4 weekend last summer was the way the media, open government groups, advocacy organizations on the left and right, and the public coalesced to point out how ill-conceived the idea was.
The last six months have been a roller coaster for Wisconsin’s open records law. After the Legislature’s failed attack on the law over the Independence Day holiday, August brought a new threat. A little-known state board expanded the definition of “transitory records,” which can be immediately destroyed. Once this action was revealed, there was an impressive outcry from the public and that change was dialed back last month. But there is still cause for concern.
State Sen. Scott Fitzgerald, incoming Majority Leader, has been suggesting that the Government Accountability Board should be governed by partisan appointees, rather than the six retired judges who now do the job. “I just don’t think they’re an independent voice at all,” the Republican from Juneau told the Associated Press.
At a campaign stop near Philadelphia early in his 2010 bid for governor, Republican Tom Corbett announced, “We’ve got to raise money,” calling this his campaign’s “No. 1” priority. That same July day, a $1.5 million contribution arrived — from Wisconsin. Barry Kauffman, executive director of Common Cause Pennsylvania, calls this well-traveled donation a prime example of “an elaborate money-laundering scheme” used by the RGA with success in a number of races for governor in 2010 — one that is legal.
Wisconsin state legislators are routinely deleting emails concerning their involvement with the controversial American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), exploiting a loophole that exempts the Legislature from records retention rules that apply to all other state and local government officials.
Wisconsin’s status as an open government hot spot is reflected in the National Freedom of Information Coalition’s decision to host its annual conference here this month. The 2012 FOI Summit, also held in collaboration with the Society of Professional Journalists, will be held at the Madison Concourse Hotel and Governor’s Club in downtown Madison on May 11 and 12.
Wisconsin receives a C- in a nationwide ranking of states’ accountability and risk of corruption. The State Integrity Investigation, released today, ranks Wisconsin 22nd, with a score of 70 percent — a score boosted by the creation in 2008 of the state Government Accountability Board to help clean up government.
The backdrop for many of Wisconsin’s current ethical controversies is an unprecedented flow of money into the state’s political machinery. With last year’s Supreme Court decision in the Citizens United case, some loopholes in the state’s campaign finance laws have grown even wider.
The Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism and MAPLight.org announced a major initiative to help the public and journalists investigate the influence of money in Wisconsin state politics and policymaking.