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Wisconsin Gov. Tony Evers vetoes bill that would've kept legislators' discipline records for sexual harassment confidential

Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel logo Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel 7/8/2021 Molly Beck, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
Tony Evers standing in front of a brick building: Governor Tony Evers walks passed the Cofrin Library after a press conference at University of Wisconsin-Green Bay, Thursday, July 8, 2021, Green Bay, Wis. Samantha Madar/USA TODAY NETWORK-Wisconsin © Alex Martin, Samantha Madar/USA TODAY NETWORK-Wisconsin Governor Tony Evers walks passed the Cofrin Library after a press conference at University of Wisconsin-Green Bay, Thursday, July 8, 2021, Green Bay, Wis. Samantha Madar/USA TODAY NETWORK-Wisconsin

MADISON - Gov. Tony Evers vetoed a bill Thursday that could have made it more difficult for the public to get records about lawmakers who are disciplined or accused of sexual harassment.

The measure, which was passed unanimously by Democrats and Republicans in the state Legislature, would have formally created a human resources office for the state Legislature and specified disciplinary records and complaints against lawmakers should be treated confidentially.

The bill would have bolstered a standing legislative practice of withholding complaints against lawmakers.

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Evers said labeling such records as confidential in state law could prevent the public from knowing details about lawmakers' misconduct. 

"The public can often only learn about misconduct through public records requests, including requests for personnel records. The people of Wisconsin have a right to know about misconduct by public officials and employees, including those in the legislature," Evers wrote in his veto message.

"I cannot support a bill that would be used to hide official misconduct from public scrutiny," he wrote. 

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The proposal passed both houses of the Legislature in June, the same week a Dane County Judge ruled that Assembly leaders violated the public records law by withholding a sexual harassment complaint against a Democratic lawmaker after the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel and other news outlets sued seeking the records. 

Bill Lueders, president of the Wisconsin Freedom of Information Council, said the bill Evers vetoed was the Legislature attempting to "change the law after getting caught breaking it."

A spokesman for Senate Majority Leader Devin LeMahieu declined to comment. 

Christa Westerberg, vice president of the Wisconsin Freedom of Information Council and a lawyer who specializes in open government issues, said "at best" the bill is ambiguous as to whether it simply codifies existing statutory exemptions to disclosure.

"At worst it creates (or will be interpreted as creating) a broad new exception to disclosure for any 'records relating to human resources matters' in the Legislature," Westerberg said in a memo to council members in June. 

Rep. Mark Born, a Beaver Dam Republican and co-chairman of the finance committee that passed the bill in June, said at the time that the legislation was meant to formalize actions legislative leaders took last year when they formed their human resources department.

Democratic Rep. Evan Goyke of Milwaukee, who also voted for the legislation in committee, said he wasn’t sure that lawmakers’ disciplinary records should be kept secret but considered the legislation a “step in the right direction” because it would ensure the Legislature has a human resources department like ones in the private sector.

The Legislature may seek to override the veto, which requires a two-thirds supermajority vote. 

Contact Molly Beck at molly.beck@jrn.com. Follow her on Twitter at @MollyBeck.

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This article originally appeared on Milwaukee Journal Sentinel: Wisconsin Gov. Tony Evers vetoes bill that would've kept legislators' discipline records for sexual harassment confidential

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