MILWAUKEE - After a year-long battle over Governor Tony Evers' emails, a Dane County Circuit Court judge ruled this week in FOX6's favor.
In September 2019, FOX6 requested just over four weeks of emails to and from Governor Tony Evers and his chief of staff, Maggie Gau. FOX6 regularly conducts open records spot checks on public employees' emails. A recent spot check on two weeks of state lawmakers' emails uncovered the practice of using personal email addresses to communicate about sensitive government information.
The governor's assistant legal counsel Erin Deeley denied the request and FOX6's subsequent attempt to narrow the request to emails from one week.
Finally, FOX6 asked for just Governor Evers' emails from just one day - June 14, 2019. The request was denied. Governor Evers' attorney said all email requests will be denied if they do not contain search terms or wording she can turn into search terms. That is, requests for emails about the budget or containing the word "agriculture," for example, may be processed; requests for all emails over a specific time frame, no matter how short, will be denied. In other words, the requesters need to know what's in the public records before they can see the public records.
"What are my elected officials talking about? Who are my elected officials talking with?" Tom Kamenick, FOX6's attorney in this matter and founder of Wisconsin Transparency Project said. "You don’t have to know ahead of time the answers to those questions to make a request."
After FOX6 published a story about the governor's office's refusal to release the emails, media outlets across the state published editorials calling on Governor Evers to reverse his position.
The Republican Party of Wisconsin sent out a press release saying the governor "should be held accountable for his refusal to comply with the law," but did not address the Legislature's refusal to turn over investigative records, or FOX6's 2018 investigation into state lawmakers' ability to selectively delete public records.
The governor's legal counsel then released Evers' emails from a different day to the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, claiming the office was granting the media outlet an "exception."
FOX6 repeatedly emailed and called the governor's office, asking if Governor Evers would be willing to reconsider FOX6's request in light of the documents provided to the Journal Sentinel. For weeks, no one responded.
"It’s a problem when they’re trying to hide things that you have a right to see," Kamenick said. "These are the public's records and they’re only the custodians of them."
After silence from the governor's office, FOX6 filed a lawsuit to obtain the emails. In Wisconsin, going to court is a requester's only real option for relief if a government agency denies a request.
Ten minutes after FOX6 filed the lawsuit, the governor's office turned over Governor Evers' emails from one day. The emails include press releases, the governor's schedule, and briefings for meetings, press conferences, and events.
However, the governor's office did not release the rest of the records originally requested, including emails from the governor's chief of staff. A spokesperson stood behind the claim that it was not legally required to release email records without search terms, writing that it was granting FOX6 an "exception."
The lawsuit proceeded, and Dane County Circuit Court Judge Stephen Ehlke ruled in FOX6's favor. The ruling says the governor's office had an "incorrect interpretation" of the law and needs to give FOX6 the rest of the emails requested, along with attorney fees.
"When the government is following the law and obeying the rules, less tax money gets spent because they don’t have to face lawsuits like this if they do it right the first time," Kamenick said. "They made this way harder than it needs to be."
The governor's office has the right to appeal the decision. A spokesperson for the governor would not say whether there are plans to appeal, and did not directly comment about the ruling. Instead, she referred FOX6 to the governor's office's previous statements about issue:
"Our position has not changed. The governor is committed to complying with state law and guidance from current and past attorneys general while ensuring transparency and accountability for the people of Wisconsin. Hopefully, the legislature will demonstrate the same commitment to transparency and accountability by changing the law so they’re no longer permitted to destroy their public records."