Walker’s Secretive Governing Style
Since he was County Executive, Walker has devised ever more ways to operate in secret.
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.
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.