Thursday, March 17, 2011

Mr. Cellophane Strikes Again: Walker Again Plays Games With Transparency

A couple of weeks ago, I noted that Scott Walker was still having a major problem with transparency.  Even though he was able to dupe some of the media into thinking he was going to be open and honest with the public. Walker had Mark Pitsch thinking that he was going to be a regular Mr. Cellophane with his transparency, but in the end ended up being sued by the AP and the Isthmus for violating the Freedom of Information Act.

They ended up filing the lawsuit because he wouldn't release all of those overwhelming emails he supposedly received regarding his Budget Disrepair Bill.

The news came out today, ironically during Sunshine Week, that Walker's administration has reached a settlement with the news agencies, but with terms that raise some red flags for me:
The settlement calls for the defendants, Gov. Scott Walker and his office, to produce a disc containing these emails next Tuesday, March 22, at or after 4 p.m. It is agreed that the governor will produce emails "in the folders in which they are stored at the time of production." 
In exchange for this access, the media requesters have agreed not to use the names of individuals who have sent emails to the governor in cases where there is reason for withholding them, as when they contain personal medical or financial information or raise a concern about retribution. The requesters also agreed not to use, publish or disclose any home addresses, email addresses, telephone numbers or Social Security numbers that may be contained in these emails. 
Attorney Christa Westerberg represented Isthmus;and the AP in this action; the governor and his office were represented by Assistant Attorney Generals Clayton Kawski and Mary Burke. The governor's chief legal counsel, Brian Hagedorn, also took part in the case. 
As part of the settlement, the governor's office agreed to pay just over $7,000 in plantiffs' attorney fees and costs. But the settlement says this payment "is not nor is it to be construed as any admission of liability or of a violation of the public records law by Defendants, their agents, their officers or their employees."
The first one involves the fact that Walker needs until the end of the day on Tuesday to comply with this request, which was filed weeks ago.

It reminds me more than just a little of when Walker ran for his first re-election bid as Milwaukee County Executive against David Riermer.  Riemer wanted to know if Walker had kept his promise of having his top people sign a waiver for the pension enhancers.  It turns out that Walker had not done so, and used a delay so that he could have enough time to scramble to get them signed.  Then he gave Riemer a list of only who had signed, but not when they had signed the waivers.

The full truth of this debacle was not found out until June of that year, a full three months after the election.

Bill Christofferson, who was involved in the matter from Riemer's side, reports that the Department of Justice looked into this.  Here is what Christofferson reported and what the DOJ had to say:
The State Dept. of Justice, in a letter to Walker and Riemer, doesn't reach a conclusion over whether Walker broke the law or not. It says that's arguable, but it says this is such a unique case there is no point in taking the matter to court to try to establish a precedent. 

DOJ has some harsh words for Walker and his minions, however:
"In sum, this episode evinces a case of how government officials ought not to do business... 
"Whether they violated the public records law is a question largely mooted by the later production of the waivers and the nearly inconceivable notion that a repeat of this inglorious set of circumstances might be forestalled by a judicial pronouncement on the matter. 
"Nobody honored to serve in public office ought to manipulate public records in this fashion -- that is the opinion of this office."
What DOJ concluded is that it was uncertain whether a court would find that Walker violated the law, even though the investigation found "a troubling course of conduct by county employees." 
It also concluded that the likelihood of a similar case ever arising again was "nearly inconceivable," so a court decision wouldn't set any valuable precedent.
Oh, how little did they know back then!

I would dare say the same thing happened again just last year when Milwaukee County Supervisor John Weishan filed an Open Records Request against the Walker administration and their use of county computers.  Weishan's request stemmed from the relevations that one of Walker's aides, Darlene Wink, had been using county resources to do some politicking, namely leaving pro-Walker comments on JSOnline during the gubernatorial campaign.

I would not be surprised to find out that at this very minute, either as I write this or that you, gentle reader, are reading this, that Walker's staff is scrambling around writing bogus emails with made up people to sing the praises of Walker. Why else would it take them a week to burn the emails to a couple of CDs?

My suspicion is only confirmed with the odd concern about Social Security numbers and email addresses.  on the surface, it is, of course, a reasonable expectation and should go without saying, but how often would someone put their Social Security number in an email?  And wouldn't the email addresses be necessary to confirm that these were indeed genuine notes of support and not just made up statements from his staffers?

I certainly hope that when the news agencies finally do get the long awaited emails, that they do a very thorough vetting of them to make sure that they are indeed genuine.

Likewise, I would certainly hope that someone would investigate the appropriateness of charging $7000 for what should cost only a few hundred dollars, if that much.  Making this information so difficult for the average citizen to get is also contrary to the meaning of transparency and an affront tot he people of Wisconsin.


  1. Redaction is an option under the law. It has been abused as an justification for delays and excessive costs.

    You are correct, it shouldn't have been the primary concern when the requester was the AP and the Isthmus. After all, the law allows routine access by the media to see daily police blotters, and the media has agreed to perform the redactions such as not printing the names of minors or victims of sexual assault.

  2. Great reporting, thank you.