Evers Email Issue Pales Compared to Walker
Both as county exec and governor, Scott Walker systematically evaded public scrutiny.
On Monday, the rest of the media jumped aboard the story, including Wisconsin Public Radio, whose story Urban Milwaukee republished. To those who know Evers’ history, the name of the account, firstname.lastname@example.org, might have been a tipoff, as Evers as a kid was a huge fan of Spahn, the Hall of Fame pitcher and Milwaukee Braves stalwart for many years.
The state’s top open records champion, Bill Lueders, longtime president of the Wisconsin Freedom of Information Council, was widely quoted suggesting this was a problem. But if so, it’s one that goes back years, at least to the administration of Republican Scott Walker, who used the pseudonym email@example.com in conducting government business, as Walker’s former chief legal counsel Katie Ignatowski noted.
Evers spokesman Britt Cudaback explained that this was part of a “digital security practice” used for more than a decade, to prevent phishing, spam and other email corresondence that could monitor or disrupt state information technology infrastructure. And when the Evers administration has handled public records requests, it has included any relevant emails from the Warren Spahn account, something the Journal Sentinel verified in a check of its records request.
One might think there is a better way to handle pesky and malevolent emails, though no one has so far suggested what that might be. But there is, so far, no evidence that open records rules were evaded by Evers, who apparently has retired the Spahn account, and now uses a different private-facing email to ward off the email deluge on his official account.
All of which is far cry from the record of Scott Walker, who had a private email system and staffers using private laptops to connect to it. The system was used to hide the illegal campaigning on public time his staff was doing. Two of Walker’s staffers, Kelly Rindfleisch and Darlene Wink, were convicted of campaigning on public time to help elect Walker in his successful 2010 campaign for for governor.
Four other aides were also convicted of violating campaign finance laws, along with other charges. Records of the investigation showed that Walker’s staff used a separate Wi-Fi system, private email accounts and different laptops to evade scrutiny of their activities, and operated a private router just 20 feet from his office.
In one email Rindfleisch said she used a separate laptop and email “to do things I shouldn’t be doing on my county computer.”
Walker refused to say whether he knew of or personally used the secret email system, but in some of the emails he appeared to be aware of it. The John Doe investigation of his county office eventually expanded to his administration as governor, but that probe got shut down by the Wisconsin Supreme Court.
But there was considerable evidence that Walker had a similar operation going as governor. A close observer of his administration, who attended numerous meetings with his staff, told Urban Milwaukee in a February 2014 story that there was a system that seemed designed, as the county executive’s office was, to enable staff to do campaign work on government time and evade public records requests of this by using personal laptops and Gmail accounts.
The source saw “probably half a dozen staff members” who had personal laptops at their desk, including Walker’s personal scheduler Dorothy Moore and his trusted lieutenant Keith Gilkes, both of whom had worked for him at the county. This included gubernatorial staff on the second floor of the East Wing and some in the so-called “Policy Pit” on the first floor below this, where policy analysts for the governor worked.
The source said a number of Walker’s staff had private email accounts — all using Gmail addresses — by which they communicated with each other, and were told to always use the Gmail address of staff to discuss anything political.
After the story broke, Walker denied to the media that he had such a system. But in October 2015, a story by Madison TV station WKOW reported that it was leaked some of the private email addresses that Gilkes and other staff used. In May, WKOW had asked Walker whether some of his staff used personal email while working on the public payroll. “I don’t know,” said the governor. “I mean, not that I’m aware of.”
WKOW reporters requested all of the emails sent to or from the personal email addresses of Gilkes, former Department of Administration Secretary Mike Huebsch and Walker’s second Chief of Staff Eric Schutt – that contained official state business communications.
“The Governor’s office ultimately sent 980 pages worth of the emails to 27 News on Monday, October 12, nearly four months after our initial request,” WKOW reported. “In the first year of the Walker administration, state business was conducted through more than 300 personal emails.”
In an attempt to justify the private email system, Walker’s Press Secretary Laurel Patrick told WKOW, “Our office also routinely trains staff to forward any emails related to state business to their official accounts for the purpose of retention.”
But the station noted that “dozens of the emails 27 News received were never sent to an official state account until they were forwarded to the government email address of Gov. Walker’s Chief Legal Counsel Brian Hagedorn on July 31, 2015. That date comes four years after the emails were originally written and two months after our open records request.” (Hagedorn now serves as a Wisconsin Supreme Court Justice.
More evidence of this secret system came from a December 2015 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.
A January 2016 Urban Milwaukee analysis detailed the many ways in which Walker cloaked his administrations in secrecy, evading public records requests, redefining emails as “transitory” or part of the “deliberative process” and thus unavailable to the public and even destroying records.
Compared to that dreadful record, the Evers story is a tempest in a teapot.
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