Why Governor Evers’ Email Scandal Matters

Dan O’Donnell breaks down the importance of Governor Evers using a secret email address to evade Wisconsin’s Open Records Law.

Nov. 29, 2023
Perspective by Dan O’DOnnell

Wisconsin Governor Tony Evers, aka Warren Spahn, really, really doesn’t want you to know what he’s been up to these past four years. This week, Wisconsin Right Now threw the Evers Administration a curveball when it revealed that the Governor has been using a secret email address to conduct state business using the Hall of Fame pitcher as his nom de guerre.

“Warren.Spahn@wisconsin.gov” has sent or received 17,000 emails since Evers took office—an average of more than 11 per day—in a blatant and calculated attempt at evading Wisconsin’s Open Records Law and shielding from the public correspondence that it has an absolute right to view.

Wisconsin Statute § 19.31 is unmistakably clear: “In recognition of the fact that a representative government is dependent upon an informed electorate, it is declared to be the public policy of this state that all persons are entitled to the greatest possible information regarding the affairs of government and the official acts of those officers and employees who represent them.”

If Evers and his staff are, as they certainly appear to be, using the Warren Spahn account to hide certain conversations from open records requests, then they would be in clear violation of Wisconsin Statutes § 19.31-19.37 which, taken together, “shall be construed in every instance with a presumption of complete public access, consistent with the conduct of governmental business.  The denial of public access generally is contrary to the public interest, and only in an exceptional case may access be denied.”

Access to a record, however, can’t be denied if its existence isn’t publicly known, and herein lies Evers’ major problem…and why his enablers in both his own administration and the media.  Within hours of Wisconsin Right Now’s report, Evers staffers started spinning, and in so doing inadvertently revealed how pathetically unwilling the state’s media has been to hold him accountable.

Evers spokeswoman Britt Cudaback insisted that members of said media—including the Associated Press, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, and FOX 6–were all aware of the Warren Spahn account because emails sent to and from it were included in responses to those outlets’ open records requests.  Not one of them ever thought it newsworthy that the Governor had a secret account.

A decade earlier, though, all of them went hog wild with allegations of corruption against former Governor Scott Walker, who while serving as Milwaukee County Executive had several employees doing campaign work on public time. There was never any indication that Walker knew about this, but it didn’t matter: This was a massive scandal.

It was also wholly unlike Evers’ current email imbroglio. Walker’s staffers were using private email addresses to do campaign work on public time, which is illegal, but is not an attempt to hide from the public access to public documents that are legally theirs. Evers, unlike Walker, clearly had knowledge of the secret email (since it was his own), and, unlike Walker, he has devoted public resources to a deliberate effort at violating Wisconsin law.

And it continues a disturbing trend of Evers and his staffers playing fast and loose with the law.  A day after the Wisconsin Supreme Court dealt the Evers Administration a significant blow by striking down its “Safer at Home” COVID-19 lockdown order, the Governor called a meeting with the Republican leaders of the State Senate and Assembly, ostensibly to discuss how the three of them would navigate the pandemic.

Instead, a member of Evers’ staff secretly recorded the conversation and then colluded with two Journal Sentinel reporters to hurt the Republicans by reporting that the contents of the tape revealed them using anti-Asian language (they didn’t). Somehow, those two reporters—Molly Beck and Patrick Marley (who now works for the Washington Post)—knew to file an open record request for an audio recording of that conversation.

Both Republican leaders, Assembly Speaker Robin Vos and then-Senate Majority Leader Devin LeMahieu, later confirmed that neither of them had ever before received an open records request for an audio recording.

So how did Beck and Marley know to request one? Because an Evers staffer (who. He never identified, fired, or even disciplined in any way) tipped them off to its existence. In order for them to request it, they needed to know it existed.

That’s the biggest problem with Evers’ secret email account: If no one knows it exists, no one knows to request emails from it as part of an open records request. Cudaback claims Evers’ team did include Warren Spahn emails in open records requests from the Associated Press, Journal Sentinel, and FOX 6, but none of these outlets have confirmed that this was the case. If it was, then members of the media have been once again colluding with the Evers Administration to make a mockery of Wisconsin’s Open Records Law.

Right on cue, Evers’ favorite outlet, the Journal Sentinel, started running cover for him by downplaying the severity of the scandal and regurgitating Cudaback’s insistence that the Warren Spahn address was no longer in use. That simply isn’t true; this columnist was successfully able to send several emails to it on Sunday evening.

If the Governor’s use of a secret email address really is, as Cudaback and Evers’ other spokespersons at the Journal Sentinel insist, a non-scandal and the address was not used to hide embarrassing or unlawful communications, then all 17,000 emails sent to and from the Warren Spahn account should be released immediately.

The public has a legal right to see them, even if the Governor doesn’t think so.