The Secrets of Mike Huebsch
He’s been a leader in evading and undermining Wisconsin's open records laws.
Mike Huebsch is once again embroiled in a controversy involving an attempt to keep secret how state government operates. Huebsch, the former Secretary of the Wisconsin Department of Administration for Gov. Scott Walker, later served for five years, from early 2015 to February 2020, as a member of the Public Service Commission (PSC), which regulates utilities in Wisconsin.
In his last five months as a PSC Commissioner, Huebsch voted to authorize two projects in which Dairyland Power Cooperative is a major partner: the $492 million Cardinal-Hickory Creek transmission line through southwest Wisconsin and a $700 million natural gas plant.
Huebsch led the discussion regarding the transmission line, which was approved. Then he resigned from his PSC position before the term expired and applied for the job of CEO of Dairyland Power, the company whose two projects he was pushing as a PSC member.
But it gets worse. It turns out that Huebsch was having regular communications with an employee of American Transmission Co. (ATC) which was building the Cardinal-Hickory Creek line and with a former contractor with ITC Midwest, a company also involved in the project, “and other individuals” over several years while the permit application was before the PSC, as the Wisconsin State Journal reported.
But it gets still worse. Huebsch had at least 200 phone calls with Bert Garvin, We Energies’ vice president of external affairs, during the time the transmission line project was being reviewed by the PSC. And We Energies is a 60% owner of ATC, the main company involved in the project, as noted in a column for Urban Milwaukee by Dave Cieslewicz.
And here is where it gets the very worst: No one at the PSC or anywhere else could possibly have learned about his conversations because they were encrypted. Huebsch exchanged texts using the encrypted messaging service Signal.
The Signal messages came to light through legal discovery in one of four lawsuits seeking to stop the 102-mile transmission line between Dubuque and Middleton. The situation is so embarrassing for ATC that it has requested a new permit from the PSC. “We understand the speculation this presents, which is also why we have made this unique request” to the PSC, the company’s president noted.
Huebsch had a nifty explanation for the whole thing, likening his use of Signal to a “21st-century coffee shop, where friends can get together, chat, and move on” without filling up the phone’s hard drive. In short it was just a coincidence that the other people in his secret virtual coffee shop were utility insiders who wanted the PSC to approve their project.
Howard Learner, lead attorney for environmental groups challenging the transmission line, noted that there were hundreds of texts by Huebsch that were encrypted. “The broader question is should a public official in Wisconsin be using Signal as a means of hiding their text messages with interested parties?,” he told the State Journal. “This isn’t just about the transmission case … This calls into question all kinds of decisions.”
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. And an investigation by Madison TV station WKOW found Walker had seven staff members conducting state business using private emails.
And Huebsch was very involved with this. 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.
Bildsten said Huebsch, Walker’s top aide, gave this warning at a cabinet meeting: “Don’t send me an email of anything important on my state computer, and don’t call me on anything of importance on my state phone. If you have anything of consequence or importance, call me on your personal phones or walk it over.”
Jadin said he remembers Huebsch “bragged” about not using email and “making a big deal about what emails were discoverable.”
Huebsch denied making these statements but Bildsten said he stood by his recollection of Huebsch’s order. He said the secretary operated as the “junior governor” to Walker, and his admonition to conduct important state business away from state email and phones was “loud and clear.”
Which means Huebsch will be lobbying Republican legislators to oppose policies to prevent water pollution by the companies his group represents. And you can be sure any text messages to these legislators will be done using the encryption services of Signal, to keep them secret. Capitol insiders say there are legislators of both parties who subscribe to Signal and it’s a safe bet Huebsch will be recommending to any legislators he lobbies that they consider subscribing to Signal.
That may be the only good news about this whole scandal involving Huebsch and the PSC: it spotlights yet another way public officials can evade public records. The use of Signal to encrypt messages should be outlawed by state law.