Bruce Murphy
Murphy’s Law

Walker’s Secretive Governing Style

Since he was County Executive, Walker has devised ever more ways to operate in secret.

By - Jan 12th, 2016 10:54 am
Governor Scott Walker introduces his Freedom and Prosperity budget proposal to the citizens of Wisconsin. Photo from the State of Wisconsin.

Governor Scott Walker introduces his Freedom and Prosperity budget proposal to the citizens of Wisconsin. Photo from the State of Wisconsin.

No one ever handled the office of Milwaukee County Executive quite like Scott Walker. As we learned through the first John Doe probe, which convicted three of Walker’s aides, his staff set up a private router just 20 feet from Walker’s office and routinely did government business on a private email system. Thousands of legal documents released linked Walker to the system and showed that staff handling public records requests were unaware of the private email system and therefore didn’t check it when responding to requests.

And when Walker left the county, his staff destroyed an unknown number of documents, leaving many empty file cabinets.

From the beginning of Walker’s tenure as governor, his staff operated in a similar fashion, a source close to his administration told Urban Milwaukee, with key staff using private emails and laptop computers to conduct state business.

Madison TV station WKOW was leaked some of the private email addresses used by Walker’s staff and made a public records request of all state business discussed on these emails. After a four months delay, the Walker administration last October surrendered 980 pages of emails of seven staff members conducting state business on personal emails, including then-Department of Administration Secretary Mike Huebsch.

More evidence of this secret system came from a story by the Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism: Peter Bildsten, former secretary of the Department of Financial Institutions, and Paul Jadin, former head of the Wisconsin Economic Development Corp., said they were instructed by Huebsch not to use official email or state telephones to handle important information or documents.

Meanwhile, the Walker administration has since last March insisted that email records involving the “deliberative process” are not public records and has refused to provide them in response to 12 different open records requests.

The Walker administration used the same rationale to refuse an open records request from the Center for Media and Democracy, (which requested documents related to Walker’s failed proposal to throw out the venerable “Wisconsin Idea”) and is still using that defense in response to a suit by that group.

Last July, the legislature passed a provision exempting records involving the “deliberative process” from open records laws. Only after legislative leaders revealed they had conferred with Walker did the governor finally admit his involvement. In fact, the bill’s language was originally crafted by his staff.

Then there was the open records request by One Wisconsin Now, asking for visitor logs at the governor’s mansion from November 2014 through early April 2015, during the time Walker was planning for and then campaigning for the Republican presidential nomination. Walker’s assistant legal counsel David J. Rabe claimed there were no visitor logs for this six month period, with no explanation as to why.

And in December, the GOP-controlled Legislature passed and Walker signed a law adding a veil of secrecy to campaign donations: It removes the requirement that campaign donors disclose where they work, making it harder to trace legislation written to benefit certain businesses or industries.

The latest attempt by Walker to restrict open government involved an obscure agency called the Wisconsin Public Records Board, whose job is to classify records already public under the law, to make sure there is a historical record and determine when copies of documents should be sent to the State Records Center.

But this board met last August and decided to greatly expand the definition of what is a “transitory” record which therefore need not be saved or shared with the public. Walker’s spokesperson Laurel Patrick claimed Walker had nothing to do with this decision. But, in fact, the governor has effective control of the Public Records Board, as he appoints four of its eight members, while a fifth is appointed by Republican Attorney General Brad Schimel.

Adding to this secrecy, the board’s meeting where it added restrictions to records may itself have violated the state open meetings law. The Wisconsin Freedom of Information Council has filed a legal complaint, and its president Bill Lueders argues in the complaint that the board failed to provide adequate legal notice of the meeting’s subject matter, then failed to record the actions taken in the meeting’s minutes. “You could look at that agenda from here to eternity, Lueders has complained, “and not know that they were going to dramatically change the definition of what a transitory record was, so that public officials could begin destroying any record they felt like destroying.”

Since this latest controversy erupted, the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel has been on a crusade, running numerous articles, columns and editorials hammering the issue and urging readers to send letters and emails to the Public Records Board and some 1,900 people sent letters and emails to the board.

Yesterday the Public Records Board backed off and voted 6-0 to rescind its August decision. At the meeting Lueders said: “It is my sincere belief that the board, in making this change, did not intend to give state public officials sweeping new power to destroy records of public interest. But that is how the change has been applied.”

Indeed, Walker has continued to argue that documents revealing his administration’s “brainstorming” or “deliberative” process should not be open records, and his lawyers are still arguing this in court cases involving records requests.

No governor in recent history has pledged more often that he is committed to public records than Walker. Perhaps that’s because no governor has made so many attempts to make them secret.

Categories: Murphy's Law, Politics

19 thoughts on “Murphy’s Law: Walker’s Secretive Governing Style”

  1. tom says:

    The eagle scout who wears his religion on his sleeve is a very corrupt politician who would steal the shirt off your back if it would advance his political future. There is only one significant person in Scott Walker’s world and that is Scott Walker. Please remove this despicable individual from office as soon as possible.

  2. wisconsin conservative digest says:

    Secretive??? We have no problem finding anything out, course we know how to research, history of state. Trying to teach these techniques to Journal reporters and Bruce, but it is pretty hopeless. Just like those old movies: “City” desk just cannot get them out of the taverns.

  3. M says:

    Walker is a “master” of secrecy in governing and appears to have no scruples. However, we should not be deluded that he’s a lone wolf, or that this type of secrecy is confined to one party.

    Oligarchs of all stripes (both elected officials and string pullers) have known forever that it’s easiest to get things done the fewer the people (such as citizens and watchdog grpups) to muck up gears of political machines and slow things down.

    The best that journalists and other citizens can hope for is to retain laws and processes that make it possible to track down and possibly piece together how decisions are being made and by whom. Open records are essential but it takes a lot of vigilance to comb through what is happening on even a single topic, and there are fewer people paid as investigative journalists all the time.

  4. Marie says:

    WCD: Please send links to any recent “journalism” you’ve pieced together in terms of secretive state dealings (or county or city, for that matter), or on anything else you’ve unearthed.

    And what “taverns” might those be, so we can go chat with said reporters?

  5. Jake says:

    It’s never Walkers fault when some thing goes wrong, or when there’s failure, he’ll never take responsibility for it. People like WCD cover for this failure.

    And for that, I laugh at his self styled ignorance and commitment to failure.

  6. Dave K says:

    WCD, please explain to us how more secrecy and more roadblocks to records access is good governance.

  7. John Doe says:

    WCD, what part of “his staff set up a private router just 20 feet from Walker’s office and routinely did government business on a private email system. . . .” do you not find secretive?

  8. Vincent Hanna says:

    He’ll just say “Democrats did something bad” and act as if that makes it OK. It’s what he always does. In the redistricting discussion he pointed out something from the early ’80s and acted as if that justifies what the GOP is doing now. It’s always “but at one time the Dems did something just as bad.”

  9. wisconsin conservative digest says:

    Russell set that system up, he was thief, crook and liar and Walker should not have hired him, but he was around fro long time and no one knew he was crook. Walker turned him in. Chisholm, no one, ever said that Walker knew of the that system was in county computer. And no he is not Hillary.

  10. Vincent Hanna says:

    And you truly believe he had no idea when it was 20 feet away from his desk? In that case, I’d like to tell you about a great, can’t miss investment opportunity.

  11. Keith Prochnow says:

    An occasional reminder is in order that the standard operating procedure around here is to simply ignore WCD. There’s no point wasting time or pixels hoping to wise him up. Just do what I do: skip his posts.

  12. Bill Sweeney says:

    M, master or mistress of secrecy, makes an excellent point: “The best that journalists and other citizens can hope for is to retain laws and processes that make it possible to track down and possibly piece together how decisions are being made and by whom. Open records are essential but it takes a lot of vigilance to comb through what is happening on even a single topic, and there are fewer people paid as investigative journalists all the time.” The movie ‘Spotlight’ illustrates this well. The Boston Globe had a team of investigative journalists who could devote all of their energy, time and resources toward understanding the child sexual abuse scandal in the Catholic Church. With the decline of major newspapers in this country, there is less focus and attention being paid to how the abuse of power plays out in our institutions, political, financial, religious etc. Growing inequality of wealth leads to increased inequality in political power and influence so having the media as a check on this trend becomes more important than ever.

  13. Podman says:

    So if the Governor is in violation of the state’s open records law should not the Attorney General enforce the law or at least publicly advise the Governor to comply?

  14. John Doe says:

    A good leader surrounds himself with good people . . . wait, what? #SixWalkerCroniesConvicted

  15. M says:

    Bill Sweeney, thanks for making the point about Spotlight as an example of what it takes to actually expose wrongdoing. That takedown happened 15 years ago and fortunately that team is still going strong. But other such jobs have been cut left and right (and Bruce M. predicted they’ll soon be cut at JS). Philly just set up a nonprofit to conduct investigative journalism and make it available to other entities. We have the fine, but modestly scaled, Center for Investigative Journalism affiliated with UW’s journalism school. Walker and the GOP recently did their level best to remove its support from the university (where they have offices) and thus help to promote its demise. The Center is among those fighting to preserve open-records access.

    My favorite line of Spotlight was by Michael Keaton’s character in the bar with a PR guy from the archdiocese. After the flak tries to throw Keaton off the trail (as head of the spotlight team), he replies (paraphrasing), “So this is how it happens: a guy leans on a guy in a bar and then this whole story goes away.” Like all humans, journalists and advocates want to be liked and to keep their “relationships” intact. So backroom deals are tolerated or downplayed, bad behavior is excused, unscrupulous pols and insiders run amok. How many people have protected Walker & Company over the decades? He’s been a dirty trickster since his days at Marquette. The son of a preacher, Walker has also used religion as a protective cloak for his daggers–same old story.

  16. wisconsin conservative digest says:

    Scott Walker is the most investigated person in history of state by the Chisholm/Schmitz vendetta, and nothing is there. Only people charged with anything relating to him were turned in by him. Other outside of campaign made illegal donations.
    Only the haters, Lefties wanting to feed at the govt. teat run on about this crap. Grow up that was all five years ago. Focus on the real crooks and sadists like Bill and Hillary.

  17. wisconsin conservative digest says:

    Chisholm looked everywhere could not find anything, but I am sure that the Left will go on this forever and lose elections on stupidity. Better to find some real issues. This has been hashed over for 5 years. Grow up kiddies.
    For those of you interested in the Tony Earl 1983 reapportionment program that the left passed, Bruce will be putting that up shortly, if he is not too embarrassed.

  18. Bruce Murphy says:

    WCD, I’m shocked, shocked to see you veer off topic. Those interested in the specifics of his claims, such as they are, should look at comments in this story:

  19. W says:

    It’s always intesting when so called conservatives like WCD call anyone who disagrees with them ” kiddies, whiners, haters” or tell them to ” grow up”. It it is truly indicative an individual who has lost his / her ability to retort on a level of a freshman high school debater. We always know when so called conservatives have lost the debate. Their default vocabulary emerges.

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