Nobody is above the law, not even Wisconsin’s Secretary of State
The News: Today, the Institute for Reforming Government (IRG), represented by lawyers at the Wisconsin Institute for Law & Liberty (WILL), filed a lawsuit in Waukesha County Circuit Court.
WILL and IRG demand that the Secretary of State, Sarah Godlewski, fulfill a records request that has been pending for almost six months relating to the unusual circumstances surrounding her appointment.
The Quotes: IRG Chief Legal Counsel & Director of Oversight, Anthony LoCoco, stated, “IRG’s Center for Investigative Oversight submitted a simple request for public records about the unusual circumstances behind former Secretary Doug La Follette’s retirement and the appointment of Secretary Sarah Godlewski. Five months later, we are still waiting for any records. This level of secrecy is absolutely unacceptable but is sadly representative of the Evers’ administration’s general approach to the public records law. We’re thankful that WILL is representing us in our shared fight for better, more transparent Wisconsin government.”
WILL Deputy Counsel, Lucas Vebber, added, “Transparent and accountable government is not a suggestion, but a vital principle to preserving our democracy. When state bureaucrats ignore open records requests from the public, WILL is ready to fight back and hold them accountable. We are proud to represent IRG’s investigative efforts and support their right to access documents from the government.”
Background: This past March, IRG’s Chief Legal Counsel & Director of Oversight, Anthony LoCoco, submitted a public records request to the Secretary of State—seeking information involving communications between Governor Evers, former Secretary of State Doug La Follette, and current Secretary of State Sarah Godlewski. Despite numerous requests for updates by LoCoco, the request remains unfulfilled and there has been a deafening silence from state officials.
These records are important public documents due to the confusion surrounding the circumstances of La Follete’s resignation just a few months into his term, which allowed Governor Evers to hand-pick Godlewski as his successor—without voter approval— to serve out the remainder of the term.
The Lawsuit: Under the public records law, Wisconsinites are “entitled to the greatest possible information regarding the affairs of government and the official acts of those officers and employees who represent them.”
But the Secretary of State is demonstrating a worrying inability or unwillingness to comply with this law and fulfill public records in a timely fashion–or, as the public records law states, “as soon as practicable and without delay.” This lack of transparency makes holding public officials accountable difficult or impossible—an unacceptable state of affairs in a representative democracy.
Additionally, the stonewalling by the Secretary of State’s office is just the latest example of the Evers’ administration’s poor record on transparency. In July, the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reported on the administration’s decision to take down an online tool that tracked agency records request response times created during the Walker era. The decision is not surprising. IRG itself has experienced numerous other significant delays in record request fulfillment. A request to the Governor’s office on its involvement with the U.S. Climate Alliance, for example, took five months to fulfill. A request to the Department of Natural Resources on its management of gray wolves is still pending after almost six months.
The Secretary of State is in clear violation of the open records law. WILL attorneys are working in Court to obtain access to the unlawfully withheld records.
- Petition for Writ of Mandamus, August 2023