The Latest: Secretary of State agrees to change public records policy after legal action

The policy change is part of a settlement that ends the lawsuit.

The news: The Institute for Government Reform (IRG), represented by attorneys from the Wisconsin Institute for Law & Liberty (WILL), today announced a settlement of its public records lawsuit against Wisconsin Secretary of State Sarah Godlewski.

WILL filed suit on behalf of the IRG after Secretary Godlewski unlawfully ignored a public records request for 189 days. The Secretary of State refused to send a response to the IRG’s public records request, believing that the Office has no obligation to respond to requests once the Office determines that no records are available. After
court proceedings were initiated, the Office provided documents showing that state affairs were conducted by the previous Secretary of State via a private e-mail account ((email protected)).

As part of the settlement agreement, the Secretary of State’s office agreed to respond to all public records requests as promptly and without delay as possible, even if the office conducts a search and determines that no matching records exist. Additionally, the Secretary of State’s office agreed to review state law and ensure that when private email accounts are used for state business, those accounts are searched for matching records.

Quotations: WILL, Deputy Solicitor General Lucas Vebber said, “Public records laws ensure transparency and openness in government. State agencies cannot refuse to respond to public records requests indefinitely, even if they determine that no records are responsive to the request. In addition, when state business is conducted on non-state email accounts, those accounts must be searched for public records. This agreement ensures that state law will be followed in the future.”

“IRG President and CEO CJ Szafir stated, “We requested these records as part of our mission to maintain close oversight of state agencies, and we are pleased that this litigation has resulted in a policy change that will benefit all future records requesters. On behalf of IRG, I want to commend the hard work and representation of the Wisconsin Institute for Law and Liberty.”

Additional information: In March 2023, former Secretary of State Doug La Follette resigned, and Governor Evers immediately appointed former State Treasurer Sarah Godlewski to replace him. IRG immediately filed a public records request with the Secretary of State’s office — seeking records of communications between Gov. Tony Evers, former Secretary of State Doug La Follette, and Sarah Godlewski. Despite numerous requests for updates, the request went unfulfilled for months. At one point, the Secretary of State’s office responded that it was gathering records and would follow up “soon.” However, no response was forthcoming.

Several months later, WILL filed a lawsuit on behalf of IRG. In a later media release, Secretary Godlewski claimed that no response was provided because no documents existed, something she never informed IRG of for many months.

Secretary Godlewski’s office later reiterated this position, ultimately responding to the IRG that the office had no documents to respond to; therefore, it stated that no response to the IRG’s public records request was required by law and that it was under no obligation to issue a response that no documents had been found.

Even though Secretary Godlewski claimed to have no record of this, she continued to send emails between herself and Secretary La Follette via private email accounts while La Follette was still Secretary of State and Godlewski was State Treasurer. The two discussed official state business, including public employee hiring and the state budget.

WILL moved the Court for summary judgment against Secretary Godlewski and asked the Court to declare that the Secretary of State’s “no response needed” policy regarding records requests is unlawful and that any emails in private accounts are still public records when used to conduct government business. The parties subsequently entered into the settlement agreement described above to dismiss the lawsuit. This agreement must now be approved by the Legislature before it can go into effect.

The policy change resulting from this agreement is a victory for transparent government and ensures that our institutions are held accountable when they act unjustly.

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