Tuesday, September 17, 2013

There Is Open, Transparent Government And Then There Is Wisconsin

One of the little discussed political weapons is the "open records request."

Wisconsin Public Records Law states the public has the right to request from government authorities records like emails, correspondence, meeting minutes, etc. at a reasonable cost.

After all, they work for us, right?

We hear about open records requests most often from newspapers, who from time to time have to sue officials or agencies for information. Not everyone agrees what information is applicable - and a judge decides - usually to the benefit of the public interest.

The right to know what government officials are doing and saying to each other, and who else is talking to them, is pretty much universally agreed to be a good thing.

The flip side of the open records weapon is when government agencies are inundated with open record requests in order to swamp them, and suck up time and resources. Elected officials, and their staff, have regular duties to perform in an 8 hour day - pile on dozens of open records requests to dig up and print out emails and correspondence - and you've got a long day for a staff that's pretty busy.

Of course, open records requests do come with a price tag for time and materials - but the law states it cannot be unreasonable. This is why open records requests are a favorite weapon of right-wing organizations. They've got enough cash to launch and maintain fishing expeditions pretty much at will.

During the recall in Racine, the City Clerk's office was deluged with open records requests from GOP apparatchiks and right-wing organizations - Who registered to vote at the polls? Who was trained to register voters? Any and all emails between the city and X,Y or Z. Quite literally hundreds of requests - nearly all from Republican related actors.

This crap takes up a lot of resources - which is exactly why they do it. (Remember, they are all about using taxpayer dollars wisely. Snark intended.)

So last year, Senate Minority Leader, Jon (hubba, hubba) Erpenbach's office was a target of a GOP open records fishing expedition at the behest of the MacIver Institute. They wanted all the emails and correspondence of Erpenbach's constituents who contacted him over the Act 10 battle in Madison.

We're talking thousands of emails - and Erpenbach complied. He also, as has his been his practice and the federal law, redacted personal information contained in the emails - like phone numbers, home addresses, etc.

The MacIver Institute didn't like that and sued Erpenbach to provide unredacted emails.

Epenbach asked the Attorney General to defend his reasonable and legal case and the Republican Van Hollen declined.  Erpenbach hired a private attorney and won - costing taxpayers $60,000 in legal fees.

Epenbach maintained with certain credibility the only reason MacIver wanted the personal information was to enact retribution and/or intimidate members of the public from contacting their elected representatives about matters that MacIver and the GOP disagree.

So here comes State Senatrix, Leah Vukmir, who just happens to be the national treasurer for the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC). Vukmir and a host of other ALEC toadies in Wisconsin were asked to disclose correspondence from ALEC by the Center for Media and Democracy - who is largely credited with exposing ALEC's system of illegal political "scholarships" - read: all-expenses paid trips to fancy hotels, ball games and high-priced dinners - and ALEC's fill-in-the-blank legislation written by corporations and/or their lobbyists to pass in Republican controlled state houses across the country.

Since Vukmir and her ALEC member colleagues spend a bit of time attending these meetings and get rewarded very handsomely for it even if ALEC doesn't represent the people who elected them - knowing what goes on in their secretive meetings is probably in the best interest of the public.

Vukmir feels differently. At first, she said she didn't have any correspondence. Then when rat-finks Scott Suder, Robin Vos and four others turned over papers after a successful lawsuit - that just looked like a lie which the Center for Media and Democracy didn't buy for second.

CMD pressed the issue and insisted she comply with their request.

Then Vukmir did a really odd thing - she claimed constitutional privilege as an elected official to avoid turning over ALEC correspondence.

Odd for two reasons: 1. The law protects elected officials with certain amount of immunity while in session - and Vukmir is saying as a Senator, she's always in session. 2. Attorney General VanHollen has decided to defend her - the same guy who told Erpenbach to pack sand.

Should VanHollen and Vukmir prevail in court - it would set a precedent which would lay the foundation for legislators to ignore the request for open records while holding office. It's a baffling defense - according to the Journal Sentinel:
"No other legislator who has faced such a case in recent years has argued that he or she is above the law. Those legislators have fought such cases or settled them. No one has said that the law doesn't apply to legislators."
It also makes one wonder what exactly is she afraid to turn over? Vukmir is sure to lose - and should - it should also make her constituents throw her out on her ass next year.

Then we learned today the Department of Justice has been turning over arrest records from the weekday Solidarity Sing Along with such personal information as drivers license numbers, home addresses and in some cases social security numbers to just about anyone who asks for them...and they aren't supposed to do that.

So, what have learned?

~If you are a Democrat who follows the law but defies the GOP administration and their friends to protect the people - you have to get your own lawyer (not the one elected to defend you) and the taxpayers pay for it.

~If you are a citizen - the GOP administration will give your personal information out to anyone who wants it because you defied them and their friends - which is a violation of federal law.

~If you are a Republican - you are above all laws because you and the GOP administration say so and the lawyer elected to defend you will break it order to keep your secrets away from the people you work for.

Swell, ain't it?