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News organizations sue Assembly over lawmaker's sexual harassment records

News organizations sue Assembly over lawmaker's sexual harassment records

Media outlets sue to get lawmaker's sex harassment records

In this May 17, 2017 photo, then-Brown County Supervisor Staush Gruszynski speaks at a Brown County Board of Supervisors meeting at City Hall in Green Bay. 

Several news organizations sued the state Assembly and its chief clerk in Dane County Court Wednesday for refusing to release records of an investigation of sexual harassment by a lawmaker.

The Capital Times, the Wisconsin State Journal, the Associated Press and the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, as well as open records advocate Jonathan Anderson, are seeking the records into allegations that state Rep. Staush Gruszynski sexually harassed a legislative staffer.

The staffer filed a complaint against the freshman Green Bay Democrat for an incident in October 2019 at a Madison bar. The Legislature’s human resources office substantiated the allegations, and Assembly leaders stripped Gruszynski of committee assignments and barred him from caucusing with his colleagues.

Following what critics say is a pattern of withholding documents that should be made public, Assembly Chief Clerk Patrick Fuller denied requests from Anderson and the news organizations to release the complaint and investigative documents.

In his letter of denial, Fuller said release of the documents would compromise the privacy and dignity of the employee and could have a chilling effect on future victims coming forward. Those concerns, he said, outweighed the public’s right to know.

Fuller didn't return an email seeking comment.

The decision was consistent with the Assembly’s handling of records in other cases involving misconduct by lawmakers.

“When it happened again with Gruszynski, I thought it was time to push back in the courts,” Tom Kamenick of the Wisconsin Transparency Project said in an email. Kamenick is one of two attorneys representing the plaintiffs.

“The Legislature has a terrible record when it comes to transparency,” he said.

The other attorney is Christa Westerberg, a vice president with the Wisconsin Freedom of Information Council, which this year awarded the Legislature a “Nopee” award, which brands the recipient as an impediment to public records transparency.

“It’s not the first time,” she said of the dubious honor for the Legislature.

The lawsuit claims that in denying the investigation records the Assembly ran afoul of the state’s open records law, which states that the law “shall be construed in every instance with a presumption of complete public access,” and that the “denial of public access generally is contrary to the public interest, and only in an exceptional case may access be denied.”

Withholding records, the lawsuit says, can only occur under “extremely narrow and well-defined exceptions.”

The Legislature has consistently withheld documents pertaining to lawmakers’ misconduct, citing privacy concerns.

Cases in which records were withheld include harassment allegations in 2018 against state Sen. Lena Taylor, D-Milwaukee, and accusations that former Rep. Josh Zepnick, another Milwaukee Democrat, kissed two women without their consent at political events in 2011 and 2015.

The investigation into Gruszynski's conduct found that he verbally sexually harassed the employee. Several lawmakers, including Assembly Minority Leader Gordon Hintz, called for his resignation. 

Gruszynski, who is serving his first term, acknowledged his misconduct and is running for reelection, telling the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel he vows to “rebuild what I’ve broken.”

He was required to attend the Legislature’s anti-harassment training, which he completed, according to Amanda Jorgenson of the Legislative Human Resources Office.

She said he “was very proactive and cooperative in scheduling his required training with the Legislative Human Resources Office.”

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Steven Elbow joined The Capital Times in 1999 and has covered law enforcement in addition to city, county and state government. He has also worked for the Portage Daily Register and has written for the Isthmus weekly newspaper in Madison.

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