Wisconsin lawmaker accuses AG Kaul of bullying to pass rape kit bill

MADISON — The Republican chairman of the Assembly's health committee accused Wisconsin's Democratic attorney general Thursday of trying to bully him into passing a bipartisan bill designed to prevent backlogs of untested sexual assault evidence kits.

The charge from Rep. Joe Sanfelippo came after Attorney General Josh Kaul said it was an outrage that Republicans were letting the bill languish with the end of the legislative session fast approaching. Kaul accused Sanfelippo of spreading misinformation about the proposal.

"It does show how strong a bill this is that to criticize it he had to point to things that are not true,” Kaul told reporters following a Madison luncheon.

Sanfelippo told reporters that he still plans to hold a hearing on sexual assault kit testing, whether it addresses the bill or some other piece of legislation. But he insisted there's no urgency to do anything since no backlog currently exists.

“There's no big hair-on-fire emergency that requires him to keep throwing out these press releases trying to bully me into allowing him to set the agenda for the health committee,” Sanfelippo said.

Tens of thousands of sexual assault evidence kits have gone untested in the United States for a variety of reasons. Prosecutors may have decided some cases were too weak to pursue or been forced to drop other cases because victims wouldn't cooperate.

Testing the kits has been a priority for victims-rights advocates across the country for years. Kaul made testing Wisconsin's kits a central theme in his 2018 campaign, accusing then-Attorney General Brad Schimel of not doing enough to clear the state's backlog and delaying justice for victims.

Schimel, a Republican, secured a $4 million federal grant to start testing Wisconsin kits in 2015 but testing didn't begin until 2017. Two months before the 2018 election Schimel announced that 4,100 kits had been tested.

Kaul went on to defeat Schimel and took over as attorney general in January 2019. He announced this past November that testing had been completed on the last 300 or so kits. The project had resulted in 35 cases referred for charges as of August.

Kaul has been pushing a bipartisan bill since April that that would lay out kit-testing protocols. Under the bill, if a victim wants to report an assault to police, nurses must notify officers within a day of collecting the kit. Police would have two weeks to send the kit to the state crime lab. If the victim doesn't want to report the incident, the kit would still go to the lab within 72 hours for storage.

The Senate passed the bill on a voice vote in October. Sanfelippo told The Associated Press in December that he'd hold a hearing on the measure and he expected it would pass. But time is running out — the Legislature is expected to wrap up its two-year session by March — and Sanfelippo has done nothing.

Kaul on Thursday released a Jan. 16 email in which Sanfelippo told an unknown recipient that Kaul has the authority to put kit submission protocols in place without legislation.

Sanfelippo also wrote that Schimel solved the backlog on his own without any legislative action. He said he told Kaul last year that cementing protocols in statutes could hamstring the office's ability to use new technology.

Kaul spokeswoman Gillian Drummond said the recipient forwarded the email to the attorney general's office. She declined to identify the person.

Kaul refuted Sanfelippo's assertions in the email as misinformation. The attorney general can't independently impose protocols on local police and the bill doesn't address testing technology, he said.

Sanfelippo told reporters that he still intends to address sexual assault kit tests before the session ends. The best idea will get a hearing, whether that's Kaul's bill or some other proposal, he said.

“If there's a better idea that comes along we have a responsibility to pass a better idea,” he said.