Lawmakers Acknowledge That They Cannot Evade the Open Records Law by Shifting Official Correspondence to a Personal E-Mail Account
FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE: October 30, 2012
CONTACT: Brendan Fischer, Brendan@prwatch.org; Nick Surgey, firstname.lastname@example.org
Five Wisconsin state legislators have agreed to turn over any correspondence and documents with or related to the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) and held on their personal email accounts; the action settles a lawsuit brought by the Center for Media and Democracy and Common Cause.
The Attorney General's office will conduct the agreed-upon document search.
"As part of the settlement agreement, the five legislators admitted that ALEC-related records were held on their personal email accounts and are covered by the Open Records Law," said Center for Media and Democracy Staff Counsel Brendan Fischer, who filed the complaint. "They are finally complying with the law and agreeing to release those records to the public."
The five legislators -- Representatives Jeremy Thiesfeldt (R-Fond du Lac), Tyler August (R-Lake Geneva), Dan Knodl (R-Germantown), Tom Larson (R-Colfax), and Pat Strachota (R-West Bend) -- also acknowledged they have a duty as elected officials to fully comply with records requests from the public. They will pay $2,520 in court costs and attorney's fees involved in bringing the lawsuit.
"Elected officials have a responsibility to be transparent about their official activities," said Nick Surgey, staff counsel for Common Cause. "This settlement is a reminder that they cannot evade their responsibilities under the Open Records Law by moving their official correspondence onto a personal e-mail account."
CMD and Common Cause filed the suit Oct. 1 after the lawmakers repeatedly refused to comply with lawful requests for public records, including records held in personal email accounts. The groups received strong evidence that some legislators had intentionally shifted correspondence with ALEC to their personal Gmail or Hotmail accounts. In press statements, some legislators implied they had no responsibility under the Open Records Law to release e-mails dealing with official business kept on personal accounts. The complete correspondence with each legislator can be viewed here.
"This agreement should put to rest Rep. Pat Strachota's ridiculous assertion to the press that the suit was a 'political witch hunt,' and ALEC's absurd claim that seeking its communications with lawmakers was 'abusing' the open records law," said Lisa Graves, Executive Director of the Center for Media and Democracy, which publishes PRWatch.org and ALECexposed.org.
"It is ALEC and its legislative members that have disrespected the rule of law and tried to turn legitimate requests routinely made by Wisconsin journalists into a political football to cloak ALEC's secret influence on Wisconsin lawmaking. We know that politicians have told the public that ALEC plays no role in legislation; ALEC's secret emails to legislators reveal that the opposite is true."
Past open records requests by CMD and Common Cause helped uncover the ALEC "scholarship" scheme, through which corporations have funded legislators' flights and hotel rooms at posh resorts for attendance at ALEC-sponsored "conferences."
The scholarship program is detailed in a newly released report by CMD, Common Cause and DBA Press, Buying Influence: How the American Legislative Exchange Council Uses Corporate-Funded "Scholarships" to Send Lawmakers on Trips with Corporate Lobbyists. That report found that legislators in Wisconsin received $116,700 in corporate-funded scholarships over a three-year period, ranking fifth among the 50 states. On Sunday, the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel featured an op-ed by Graves discussing CMD's complaint with Wisconsin's Government Accountability Board alleging the scholarships violate the state's ethics and lobbying laws.