Wisconsin Spotlight | Nov. 19, 2020
MADISON — The attorney who led Fox6 News’ successful lawsuit against Gov. Tony Evers office and its refusal to turn over just one day of the governor’s emails says he hopes records custodians around the state take the hint.
Dane County Circuit Court Judge Stephen Ehlke recently ruled the governor’s office had an “incorrect interpretation” of Wisconsin’s open records law and ordered it turn over all of the emails the Milwaukee TV station requested. Ehlke also ordered the state to pay attorney fees.
The legal battle has spanned more than a year, after Evers’ legal counsel last September denied Fox6’s request for emails between the governor and his chief of staff, Maggie Gau.
At first, the news outlet requested a month’s worth of the emails in one of its “spot checks” of public employees emails. The governor’s attorney denied the request. So Fox6 revised and reduced its request to one week. That, too, was denied. So the news outlet asked for one day — June 14, 2019. Evers’ legal counsel denied it, insisting all open records request must include specific search terms.
Ehlke ruled that such demands didn’t meet the terms of state law.
Tom Kamenick, Fox6 attorney and founder of the Wisconsin Transparency Project, said Team Evers’ records requirement forces journalists to divine what the governor’s emails say before filing their requests.
“Every single one of those emails is a public record. It has to be issued to the public,” Kamenick said. He added that the idea public officials’ communications are not accessible without knowing the secret code is “very foreign to the whole idea of transparency in government.”
“Essentially they’re arguing that these records are exempt from records requests unless you know what you’re looking for,” he said.
The Evers administration has been widely criticized for its failure to follow open records laws and basic open government principles. Wisconsin Spotlight and Empower Wisconsin have had record requests denied based on the search term requirements ruled invalid by the judge.
Kamenick said he’s hopeful the open records lawsuit victory will inspire the Evers administration to act more transparently.
“Certainly we hope records custodians around the state will take a cue from this case,” he said. “They should pay attention to this and know they have a good chance of getting sued if they deny an open records request like this.”