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Is the WI Legislature Above the Open Records Law?

Bill Lueders, President of the Wisconsin Freedom of Information Council, says a new approach to the state's Open Records Law is troubling.
Bill Lueders, President of the Wisconsin Freedom of Information Council, says a new approach to the state's Open Records Law is troubling.
September 30, 2013

MADISON, Wis. - The Center for Media and Democracy has sued Republican State Sen. Leah Vukmir under the state's Open Records Law to obtain correspondence she had with The American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC). ALEC is a shadowy organization that works with corporations and conservatives to write model legislation.

Vukmir and Republican State Attorney General J.B. VanHollen said she does not have to comply when the legislature is in session, which now is almost constantly.

President of the Wisconsin Freedom of Information Council Bill Lueders has a different view.

"We respectfully disagree with the position taken by the Attorney General. It's highly unlikely that the legislative intent was to immunize lawmakers from civil action," Lueders said.

When the law was written, the legislature was in session only a few months of the year, but now legislators allege they are continually in session. Lueders said Vukmir is not really saying legislators are above the law.

"What she's asserting in terms of a legal privilege here, though, is that if someone believes that she's not telling the truth about that, they should have no recourse," he explained, "that she should be able to assert immunity, and say 'I've given you everything, but don't make me prove it, I don't have to prove it, you can't take me to court, I'm immune from civil litigation.'"

In recent years, other legislators who have been sued under the Open Records law have either turned over the records requested or gone to court to fight the case.

Lueders said even if this new approach stands, not much will change.

"I don't think that many lawmakers are going to avail themselves of this loophole," Lueders said, "but, to the extent that it is asserted as a privilege, it would be used, I guess, just in those rare circumstances where someone really has something that they want to hide, and that's what makes it dangerous."

Newspapers across the state have editorialized against this new approach to avoiding the Open Records Law. ALEC has claimed its communications are not subject to any open-records law, which Lueders said is absurd.

"That has absolutely no weight or force in law; that is a completely ridiculous assertion for them to make on a document," he said.

Tim Morrissey, Public News Service - WI