The Wisconsin Open Records Law and the Federal Freedom of Information Act are powerful tools for reporters and the general public who believe the government that serves them should be more transparent.
Just this month, journalists’ open records requests have provided valuable insight into the means, methods and motivations of some prominent Wisconsin lawmakers.
1) When veteran Democratic Lawmaker Marlin Schneider (D-Wisconsin Rapids) was pushing his bill to restrict public access to public court information, he sent a memo to his Capitol colleagues Dec. 23 seeking co-sponsors wherein he claimed (as he later would at a public hearing) that he had received “hundreds” of letters from innocent people who said their lives had been hurt by information appearing on the state’s Web site for court records. The Associated Press filed an open records request seeking copies of all the contacts Schneider had received and records showed that only 59 people had sent e-mails or letters to Schneider on the issue in the last three years. Worse yet for Representative Schneider, only 22 of those people complained that records on CCAP had hurt them even though their charges had been dismissed. Not hundreds.
2) After Assembly Speaker Mike Sheridan (D-Janesville) was caught up in a publicly embarassing intra-party squabble over his personal relationship with a female lobbyist, an open records request revealed information that showed how his consitutents and others communicated their opinion on the matter.
On the opoosite end of the spectrum are taxpayer-financed, time-wasting requests that serve as nothing more than free political opposition research fishing expeditions conducted at taxpayers’ expense. With these requests, one can draw more insight about the means, methods and motivations of the person making the request. Consider this recent request filed with the office of State Representative Leah Vukmir (R-Wauwatosa) by former One Wisconsin Now minion and current blogger Cory Liebmann:
Please be advised that I am requesting the following public records of Rep. Leah Vukmir’s office under the state’s open records law:
1. All email from 7/1/08 through 1/20/10 for Rep. Vukmir, Dean Cady and Matthew Adamczyk (only in his capacity working for Rep. Vukmir) that fit the following search words and names:
“Jim Sullivan”, “Sullivan”, “WPRI”, “Wisconsin Policy Research Institute”, “MacIver”, “Americans for Prosperity”, “AFP”, “Sykes”, “Belling”, “Wisconsin Manufacturers and Commerce”, “WMC”, “Grebe”, “Kohler”, “Bradley Foundation”, “Obama”, “Palin”, “McCain”, “ALEC”, “American Legislative Exchange Council”, “Republican”, “Democrat”, “GOP”, “Barrett”, “Scott Walker”, “Lawton”, “Healy”, “Jensen”, “Zignego”, “Walton”, “Wal-Mart”, “Sprenger”, “Wisconsin Right to Life”, “WRTL” , “Pro-Life Wisconsin”, “Tenth Amendment”, “Tea Party”, “Wisconsin Family Council”, “WFC”, “Wisconsin Family Action”, “WFA”, “Appling”, “Julaine”, “Milwaukee Police”, “Grothman”, “Ed Thompson”, “WVCY”, “global warming”, “marijuana”, “PRESS”, “Parents Raising Educational Standards in Schools”, “Rose Fernandez”, “Fraley”, “Mark Block”, “Dooley”, “Real Debate”, “Owen”, “Wigderson”, “McBride”, “Bucher”, “Boots and Sabers”, “Lightbourn”, “Sheehy”, “Koschnick”, “Memphis”, “Luber”, “Stitt”, “One Wisconsin Now”, “Citizen Action”.
2. All official calendar entries (including notes) for Rep. Vukmir and Dean Cady from 7/1/08 through 1/20/10 with known representatives or employees from any of the following entities and organizations:
Wisconsin Manufacturers and Commerce, Americans for Prosperity, MacIver Institute, Wisconsin Policy Research Institute, American Legislative Exchange Council, Wisconsin Right to Life, Pro-Life Wisconsin, Wisconsin Family Council, Wisconsin Family Action, Wisconsin Business Council, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, Wisconsin State Journal, Metropolitan Milwaukee Association of Commerce, FreedomWorks, Bradley Foundation, Wisconsin Coalition of Virtual School Families, Parents Raising Educational Standards in Schools, School Choice Wisconsin, Milwaukee Police Association.
3. A listing of Rep. Vukmir’s use of sick, vacation and other paid leave while she has been in her current office.
4. A copy of any electronic files that have been compiled tracking media clips involving Rep. Vukmir during her time in her current office.
Vukmir’s office staff say they will comply with this request, even though a nonpartisan legislative attorney said the request could be denied for being too broad in scope.
Representative Vukmir is running for State Senate this fall, challenging Democrat Senator Jim Sullivan (D-Wauwatosa). It is clear from this request that the liberal special interest machine is ready to portray Vukmir as part of some grand conservative cabal. If only Mr. Liebmann had asked for the minutes of the latest Vast Right Wing Conspiracy Annual Meeting, he could have received all his research in one handy document.
As a constituent, and through my professional work, I would not be surprised if there are a few communications between me and the Representative. As I am sure there are reams of communications that mention “Democrat’ and “Republican.” I find it particularly amusing that Mr. Liebmann is so concerned about “Tenth Amendment.” Who knew that state’s rights would be so controversial?
As a rule, when I’ve filed such requests, they are much more narrow in scope and much easier with which to compy. As the liberal special interest groups begin to use the information obtained by requests like this, I hope Mr. Liebmann makes a tidy sum for the work done by state employees who complied with his fishing expedition/request.
Kudos to Representative Vukmir for fulfilling the request and for having nothing to fear from such transparency.
And finally, here’s hoping Mr. Liebmann doesn’t dent his tin foil hat when lugging all those documents out of the Capitol.
By Brian Fraley
A MacIver Perspective