Breaking: Secretary of State Agrees to Change Public Records Policy After Legal Action

Policy Change Part of Settlement Agreement to End Lawsuit

The News: Today, the Institute for Reforming Government (IRG), represented by attorneys at the Wisconsin Institute for Law & Liberty (WILL), announced it has reached a settlement in a public records lawsuit against Wisconsin Secretary of State, Sarah Godlewski.

WILL filed a lawsuit on IRG’s behalf after Secretary Godlewski unlawfully disregarded a public records request for 189 days. The Secretary of State had refused to send a response to IRG’s public record request, believing the Office had no duty to respond to requests when the Office determined no records were available. After
this litigation was initiated, the Office turned over records which showed state business was being conducted by the prior Secretary of State on a private e-mail account ([email protected]).

As part of the settlement agreement, the Secretary of State’s office agreed that it will respond to all public record requests, as soon as practicable and without delay, even where the office conducts a search and determines that no responsive records exist. Further, the Secretary of State’s office agreed to review state law and ensure that where private e-mail accounts are used for state business, those accounts will be searched for responsive records.

The Quotes: WILL Deputy Counsel, Lucas Vebber, said, “The public records statutes ensure transparency and openness in government. State agencies cannot refuse to respond to public records requesters indefinitely, even if they determine no records are responsive to a request. Further, where state business is being conducted on non-state e-mail accounts, those accounts must be searched for public records. This agreement ensures state law will be followed going forward.

”IRG President and CEO, CJ Szafir, stated, “We requested these records as part of our mission to maintain vigorous oversight of state agencies, and we are pleased that this litigation has resulted in a policy change that will benefit all record requesters going forward. On behalf of IRG, I want to express my appreciation for all the hard work and representation by Wisconsin Institute for law and Liberty.”

Additional Background: In March 2023 former Secretary of State Doug La Follette stepped down and Governor Evers immediately appointed former State Treasurer Sarah Godlewski as his replacement. IRG immediately submitted a public records request to the Secretary of State’s office—seeking records of communications between Governor Tony Evers, former Secretary of State, Doug La Follette, and Sarah Godlewski. Despite numerous requests for updates, the request remained unfulfilled for months. At one point, the Secretary of State’s office responded that they were gathering records and would follow up “soon.” But no follow up came.

Months later, WILL filed a lawsuit on behalf of IRG. In subsequent media coverage, Secretary Godlewski claimed that no response was given because no records existed, a point she never communicated to IRG in the many months prior.

Later, Secretary Godlewski’s office doubled down on that position, finally responding to IRG that the office had no responsive records; therefore, she claimed that no response to IRG’s public records request was required by law, and that she had no duty to issue a response saying no records were found.

Even though Secretary Godlewski claimed to have no responsive records, she still produced emails between herself and Secretary La Follette via personal email accounts while La Follette was still Secretary of State and Godlewski was the State Treasurer. The two discussed official state business, including hiring public employees and the state budget.

WILL moved the Court for summary judgment against Secretary Godlewski, and asked the Court to declare that the Secretary of State’s “no response needed” policy to record requests was unlawful and that any emails on private accounts are still public records when used to conduct government business. The parties then reached a settlement agreement described above to dismiss the lawsuit. That agreement must now be approved by the legislature before it takes effect.

The policy change achieved as a result of this settlement agreement is a victory for transparent government and ensures accountability when our institutions act unjustly.

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Lucas Vebber

Lucas Vebber

Deputy Counsel

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