MADISON — Gov. Tony Evers' office recorded a telephone meeting he had with Republican legislative leaders last month, prompting the Senate majority leader on Wednesday to compare the Democratic governor to Richard Nixon in the latest fallout between the governor and lawmakers.
Wisconsin state law permits telephone conversations to be recorded as long as one person is aware. But Republicans who didn't know about the recording of the May 14 meeting blasted it as unethical and a breach of trust.
The meeting came after the Wisconsin Supreme Court struck down Evers’ stay-at-home order in reaction to the coronavirus pandemic. Republicans fought the order and in the meeting Evers and GOP leaders discussed the path forward.
Wisconsin Supreme Court
Evers’ spokeswoman Melissa Baldauff provided The Associated Press with the recording under the state's open records law. She said staff made the recording to make sure any rule they drafted to deal with the coronavirus accurately reflected the conversation, and she said Evers didn't know about it.
“The recording was intended for internal use only to inform detailed note taking and planning next steps. This was not intended for release to the media or anyone else, however, we were obligated to comply with the open records law to release these records once they were requested," Baldauff said in a statement.
Audio Part 1:
Audio Part 2:
Audio Part 3:
Audio Part 4:
The governor “has since directed our staff that this will not happen again,” Baldauff said.
Bill Lueders, president of the Wisconsin Freedom of Information Council, said he can't recall any recordings of meetings governors have with lawmakers previously being released under a public records request or any governor making such a recording. Lueders has covered Wisconsin politics for a variety of publications since 1986.
“I do think that it maybe would be considered a violation of trust among other participants if they were recorded without their knowledge,” Lueders said. “There’s nothing illegal about it, but if you do it you’re creating a public record that anybody ought to be able to get for the asking.”
On the recording, Evers and GOP leaders skirmish over how best to move forward, disagreeing on such things as whether a statewide rule was needed to deal with the virus -- as Evers wanted -- or whether it could be left to local health officials. At one point, Evers noted the images of packed bars in the hours after the Supreme Court ruling, suggesting it would have been good if they had reopened in an orderly way with some restrictions. Fitzgerald challenged that, asking whether Evers had been to a Walmart or Home Depot on a weekend to see big crowds there.
The Republicans, who had a tenuous relationship with Evers to begin with, said the recording was an unprecedented violation of trust.
“In 26 years in the Legislature, this is one of the most brazen examples of unethical, unprofessional conduct I have ever seen," Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald said in a statement. “The governor has gone so far off the deep end, he’s making secret Nixonesque recordings from the East Wing of the Capitol. This conduct is totally unbecoming of our state’s top executive and opens up questions about what other recordings his administration may have.”
State Rep. Robin Vos
Vos called the decision to record the meeting “unprecedented and outside the norm."
“Governor Evers has dragged partisan politics to a new low in Wisconsin and damaged his reputation and the state’s, as well," Vos said.
Statement from Scott Fitzgerald:
"The governor has gone so far off the deep end, he’s making secret Nixonesque recordings from the East Wing of the Capitol. This conduct is totally unbecoming of our state’s top executive and opens up questions about what other recordings his administration may have."
Statement from Robin Vos:
“To our dismay, we have learned that the governor’s office secretly recorded a meeting with legislative leaders last month. At a time when state leaders should continue to find ways to work together, this decision by Governor Evers and his staff is unprecedented and clearly outside the norm.
“The one thing that has traditionally distinguished state governments from the federal government is that despite strong philosophical differences, state leaders often find a way to get things done in times of crisis for the betterment of the people of their state. It can only work if there is a sense of trust, civility and integrity…all in short supply in Washington. This governor has violated all three of these critical character traits by secretly taping conversations with fellow leaders.
“Governor Evers has dragged partisan politics to a new low in Wisconsin and damaged his reputation and the state's, as well.
Statement from Gov. Evers' spokeswoman:
“This conversation was supposed to be about a potential path forward on a statewide approach to the COVID-19 crisis in our state following the Republican lawsuit to overturn the Safer At Home order. The goal was for both sides to come to the table with ideas on what should be included in a rule that would be amenable to Republicans in the legislature, and our staff wanted to ensure that any rule we drafted would accurately reflect this conversation.
“The recording was intended for internal use only to inform detailed note taking and planning next steps. This was not intended for release to the media or anyone else, however, we were obligated to comply with the open records law to release these records once they were requested.
“The governor wasn’t aware that the conversation was recorded. He has since directed our staff that this will not happen again.”