Bruce Murphy
Back in the News

Walker Admits Role in Curbing Open Records

Fitzgerald says governor involved and Walker’s office admits his role. Legislative drafting notes hid the authors.

By - Jul 8th, 2015 10:13 am
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Gov. Scott Walker. Photo from the State of Wisconsin.

Gov. Scott Walker. Photo from the State of Wisconsin.

The cat is out of the bag. Gov. Scott Walker admitted, through his ever-busy spokesperson Laurel Patrick, that he was involved in trying to scrap the state’s open records laws. “Our intent with these changes was to encourage a deliberative process with state agencies in developing policy and legislation,” said Patrick, as the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reported today.

It was the Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism that first raised questions about Walker’s role in this proposal, which was a last minute addition to the state budget bill. The Center did a story on Friday, published in Urban Milwaukee, which noted that that language of the proposal was nearly identical to that used by Walker’s office to deny requests for public information from his office in recent months. The Center’s reporter Dee Hall asked Walker to discuss his role in drafting the item in the budget bill and he declined to do so.

The Journal Sentinel declined to cover this, and for days after that, Walker dodged reporters asking about his role in crafting the legislation. But yesterday, Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald admitted to the Capital Times that he and other top Republican leaders, along with Walker’s staff, were involved in writing the open records changes. “We tried to put something together we thought that made sense,” Fitzgerald said. “But it’s not going to be accepted publicly and that’s why we’re here pulling it back today.”

Fitzgerald’s comment seemed to leave Walker with no option but to admit involvement, but Patrick said it was top GOP lawmakers who initiated the changes. “Legislative leaders let us know that they were interested in making changes to the open records law. In response, our staff provided input regarding these proposed changes,” Patrick said in an email to the Wisconsin Center.

That input presumably included language that Walker has been using for months to refuse open records requests.

Legislators went to some lengths to hide their fingerprints, as a story today by the Wisconsin Center found. A review by three of its reporters of the 60 pages of drafting notes associated with the sweeping changes to the state’s open-records law “offered no clues about who initiated the proposals. The initials and partial names that traditionally appear on the records” did not match that of any legislators and were only those of Legislative Reference Bureau or Legislative Fiscal Bureau staff members who help lawmakers draft bills, the Center found.

“Legislative Reference Bureau records indicate the changes were drafted in the week before the Legislature’s Joint Finance Committee introduced and passed them Thursday on a party-line 12-4 vote without public debate,” the Center reported.

Republican lawmakers are leaving in place a separate proposal, adopted earlier, which Urban Milwaukee reported, that would exempt the UW System from having to disclose the names of job finalists for top positions. Bill Lueders, president of the Wisconsin Freedom of Information Council, said this should also have been removed from the budget bill. “They should be dropping this altogether,” Lueders told the Journal Sentinel. “I don’t know anyone who has demonstrated that we have a problem with too much openness in Wisconsin.”

18 thoughts on “Back in the News: Walker Admits Role in Curbing Open Records”

  1. PMD says:

    Is this the kind of issue other GOP presidential candidates will bring up? Or will it not matter much because most GOP primary voters don’t care about it?

  2. David says:

    To conservatives, Walker can do no wrong. I think once Walker is officially a candidate, MSNBC will start the attack. And why wouldn’t they…. there is soooo much.

  3. PMD says:

    I’m sure Walker is terrified of MSNBC attacking him, with their average nightly viewing audience of 37 people who would never vote for him.

  4. Allison says:

    The liberal bloggers in Milwaukee have been all over this one the last few days.

    I’m not sure it’s really important as I understand they reversed the decision and recognized their mistake, now the only point is to place blame and score some political points, which is what Bruce does here. Mission accomplished, Bruce.

    Meanwhile, out here in the real world, we have a violent crime spree the worst of what I can ever remember. An education system that is failing our kids, a heroin crisis in our county and so many other far more important issues to discuss.

    I understand Urb Mil is a business and the goal is to generate clicks to make money, but the bloggers here should focus on more important issues that affect people’s lives.

  5. Stephen says:

    Allison, it really isn’t fair of you to disregard this issue just because there are bigger, more important issues out there. Just because this isn’t the single most important problem facing our society that doesn’t mean that it should be completely trivialized and ignored to give more time to solving murder and education, topics which UrbanMilwaukee has covered in the past, despite what you say.

    You’re right, it isn’t the most important issue. But it should still be addressed and be part of the political discussion.

    Walker’s stance on open records should be a matter of concern. It is to me. A government for the people shouldn’t be trying to hide as much as possible from them.

  6. Bruce Murphy says:

    Allison, if you believe in open records, I think it’s quite important to know who was proposing this quite major change in how state government works. Similarly it’s important to know who proposed the change in county govt giving the county exec more power. Why? Because in both cases the authors wanted secrecy for fear the public would oppose what they did. And of course if they succeed in keeping their role secret they will seek future opportunities to quietly pass these bills without leaving any fingerprints.

  7. David says:

    Allison, this was a mistake just like the changing of the Wisconsin Idea was a “typo”. But who cares as long as he’s your guy right Allison? And Stephen, I do believe this is a big issue.

  8. PMD says:

    Allison would be a lot more outraged if a Democrat was in the governor’s office and this happened. And a token apology hardly means we should just look away and move on.

  9. Dave says:

    Yeah, so what if our Governor has the moral fortitude of a sleazy used car salesman. Onward to the Whitehouse!

  10. RMH says:

    Worst crime you can remember? Geez, where were you for the 90s?

  11. Urban Dweller says:

    The unvarnished fact remains that these legislators sought to shroud their activities in a veil of secrecy – with a vote taken at the start of a holiday weekend when they hoped no one would notice, because they knew they were doing a wrong thing!

    Every Joint Finance Committee member who voted for this amendment signed a confession of personal corruption, and that’s why now they’re putting out lame excuses about “open discussions,” trying to run from it, and letting Walker shoulder all the blame (and he deserves plenty of it, since they acted at his behest.). Every one of them should be recalled by their constituents.

    Folks, your government belongs to you, The People. WE are sovereign – not Scott Walker, and certainly not the craven legislators who tried to push YOUR government out of the sanitizing light to a dark hole where they can escape the scrutiny that goes with public service. What they tried to do was no less then an attempt to wrest sovereignty from The People and transfer it to those who DO know what they’re up to – the donors, lobbyists and special interests to whom their doors are always open. It was neither conservative nor liberal, but simply corrupt and dirty.

    It’s naive to imagine that these cretins have any interest in good government or even ideology. They have thrown out any notions of civic spirit or public duty, and replaced it with extreme, selfish, cynical greed and ambition. It isn’t about left or right – it’s about honest vs. “unfit to serve.” Stop making excuses for crooks.

  12. Orville Seymet says:

    Open Records and Open government are by far the most important issue that faces any of us.

    If they can hide what they are doing or operate in secret, all bets are off and you are on the “Road to Serfdom” to coin a phrase.

    Walker and the republican leadership should be ashamed of themselves for even introducing that bunch of BS.

    Yes, this is coming from a conservative.

  13. Tom D says:

    The ironic thing about Walker wanting to hide government documents is that the ONLY reason he is governor today is BECAUSE of open records.

    Scott Walker was an unknown State Assemblyman from Wauwatosa when the Milwaukee County pension scandal erupted. That scandal led to several press stories, a successful recall campaign against then-County Executive Ament, and a special election to replace him (won by Scott Walker). It is really unlikely Walker could have been elected governor had he not first served as Milwaukee County Executive; and he would never have become County Executive without the media having access to lots of internal government pension documents—the EXACT types of documents Scott Walker wants to hide from here on out.

  14. Bruce Murphy says:

    Tom, speaking as the reporter who broke the county pension scandal, I made no requests of public records to do the stories I did. It was just a lot of gumshoe reporting, a lot of interviews and a lot of math, computing the impact of the backdrop for various county officials, in particular then county executive Tom Ament. Certainly the pension scandal opened the door to Walker running for county exec, as no other opening for higher office was on the horizon, but it really had nothing to do with public records requests.

  15. Tom D says:

    Bruce, even if you didn’t make any formal FOI requests, the law’s existence probably made it more likely people would give you information.

    I seem to remember some very detailed examples of backdrop payments being published (perhaps by somebody else who started reporting the story after you); I can’t believe this type of detailed data would be available without FOI.

  16. Bruce Murphy says:

    Tom, at the time I was reporting for an online publication, Milwaukeeworld.com, so it was difficult to get much cooperation. Later the Journal Sentinel jumped on the story and demanded estimated backdrop retirement payments for top officials from the county. (No one at the newspaper knew how to compute the backdrop payments, which I had to learn to do my stories.) I do think it’s true that the tradition of open records has made governments more likely to cooperate to provide data of various kinds and obviously this budget provision would have done much to kill that tradition.

  17. David says:

    Let us not forget that Walker operated a dual email web site while County Executive to keep things private and worked on government time along with his staff campaigning for governor. Walker is all about sleaze and operating privately including corrupt practices like using WEDC as his private money stash for pay to play scam. He looted from the taxpayers.

    Privacy would further help hide his trail of corruption.

  18. Ann says:

    What happened to public outrage? People are not attending government meetings or keeping up on what’s happening with state laws and protections. More than ever before, they need to lean on hard nosed journalists or bloggers who were former journalists and got tired of the corporate games at the paper, to get their news because they don’t have the time to go digging through meeting records or attend the meetings. So what happens when Walker and friends are legally protected and do not have to share what happens with the journalists (and public) in their meetings, who was there, what was discussed or not discussed, the emails they sent during work hours with their salaries paid by the public dime…. we are like slovenly sheep being readied for slaughter.

    Wake up people. Get mad. Write a letter. Start a social media revolution. If this man gets into the White House, he will, managed by his puppeteers, take this country back 60 years. Worker rights? Fugget-about-it. Women having control over their reproductive rights and access to birth control? Could go away. Those less fortunate born into poverty with little to stand on who need our help to stand up and move forward? Don’t look for any help there – he’ll slash the programs to keep his zero tax rate increase promise to the money mongers who funded his campaigns. Student loans? Probably up the interest rate and hold them accountable with their first born until it is paid off.

    I want to throw up in my mouth a little bit every time I hear he or a GOP talk about “less government in our lives” when all he and they have done for the last few years is bring government intrusion into our personal lives with every little hidden bill they hide and pass inside a budget.

    Where’s the anger people?

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