A Dane County judge on Friday directed the Wisconsin Assembly to release records related to an investigation into the state’s 2020 election, following a lawsuit brought hours earlier by a liberal watchdog group. The court order comes as Madison city officials and the attorneys leading the probe appear to be on different pages regarding the investigation's next steps.
In May of this year, American Oversight sent a request under the state’s open records law seeking information about the taxpayer-funded probe. The group sued on Friday, claiming that the Assembly had fulfilled some elements of the request, but had not released documents from hired contractors. The group argued those documents have been “improperly withheld.”
Named in the suit are Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, R-Rochester, Assembly Chief Clerk Ted Blazel, and the Assembly in its entirety.
Friday afternoon, Dane County Circuit Judge Valerie Bailey-Rihn issued an order directing the defendants to release records responsive to the request, or show cause to the contrary, in a hearing on Nov. 5.
The court order follows the news that former state Supreme Court Justice Michael Gableman has backed away from subpoenas and interview requests issued to officials in five cities regarding their election administration. Gableman was selected by Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, R-Rochester, in June to lead the investigation and given a budget of $680,000.
A spokeswoman for Vos did not immediately respond to a request for comment on Bailey-Rihn’s order.
In the last week, Gableman issued subpoenas demanding a broad range of election-related materials — amounting to hundreds of thousands of pages of records — from city officials in Madison, Milwaukee, Green Bay, Racine and Kenosha. He also demanded interviews with mayors and city clerks from those cities, although mayors are not involved in election administration.
Madison City Attorney Michael Haas said Friday morning that he and other city attorneys were notified on Thursday that the investigative team would no longer require interviews nor seek the wide swath of materials initially requested in the subpoenas.
Instead, Haas said, cities will only be required to submit copies of records they have already made available to others in response to requests under the state’s open records law. Investigators have reserved the right to ask for additional materials and reschedule interviews with city officials, he said.
During an interview on WISN-AM with conservative host Dan O’Donnell, Gableman on Friday morning disputed reports that interviews would no longer be required. Gableman said officials would still be required to show up in person “unless we reach an agreement specifically otherwise."
In the same interview, Gableman said the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel's reporting on the investigation would "make (Nazi head of propaganda) Joseph Goebbels blush," then said he retracted the statement when O'Donnell said a more appropriate comparison would be to the Pravda (the official newspaper of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union).
Late Friday afternoon, Andrew Kloster — a lawyer working on the investigation — followed up with Haas to confirm their agreed-upon understanding of the city’s compliance.
“As discussed, our office wants to be as helpful and reasonable as possible so that there is no undue production burden on your city,” Kloster wrote in an email to Haas.
Under the agreement, Kloster wrote, the Madison city attorney’s office will compile “all responsive communications (it) may reasonably produce” by Oct. 15, “specifically including but not limited to the open records productions you have already made.” The records are to be compiled on a flash drive and delivered in person, Kloster wrote.
“If and when we have follow-up questions or specific production requests pursuant to the subpoena, we are confident in your assurances that your office will continue to be as cooperative as you have already agreed to be,” Kloster wrote.
"Given Gableman's public comments today there still seems to be a lack of clarity about this issue. A subpoena is a legal directive and Rep. Vos should formally rescind it," said Madison Mayor Satya Rhodes-Conway in a statement.
In a response to Kloster, Haas stated his "clear recollection," along with notes taken during his original conversation with the former Trump official, that the city would be in compliance by providing its responses to previous public records requests.
"You also specifically stated that the documents could be submitted on a thumb drive and sent by certified mail to the Special Counsel’s Office. To make sure I understood, I repeated that back to you and you confirmed my understanding," Haas wrote.
Haas said his office plans to provide records from the public records requests by Oct. 15.
"As we also agreed, the Special Counsel can certainly reserve the right to request additional documents and schedule interviews after reviewing the voluminous documents that will be provided," Haas wrote. "Please let me know if you have any concerns or questions regarding this approach. We certainly hope we can resolve any questions cooperatively."
This story will continue to be updated.
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