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State budget committee approves DOJ settlement agreement for the first time

State budget committee approves DOJ settlement agreement for the first time

BUDGET ADDRESS (copy)

Wisconsin Attorney General Josh Kaul (right) talks with Rep. Jim Steineke last February.

Wisconsin lawmakers for the first time under the lame-duck laws have given Democratic Attorney General Josh Kaul the go-ahead to settle a lawsuit. 

The state in recent months has struggled over how to handle legal settlements stemming from the new requirements seeking to give the Legislature more oversight of the process, resulting in a stalemate between the Republican-controlled budget committee and Kaul. 

But on Thursday, the Joint Finance Committee unanimously agreed to let Kaul proceed on a pending $350,000 agreement in a case alleging a Milwaukee convenience store sold synthetic drugs. The case faces a Nov. 15 approval deadline. 

The Joint Finance Committee meeting is the latest event in an ongoing saga over the pending settlements that's largely left the process in limbo. Kaul has repeatedly asked lawmakers to sign non-disclosure agreements in order for him to share details of the cases but they have refused, stalling progress. 

The stalemate was precipitated by the passage of the December extraordinary session laws that curbed the power of Kaul's position before he took office, and require him to seek permission from the panel before settling a case, transfer settlement dollars to the state's general fund and other measures.

The case Thursday is different, though. Kaul didn't call for signed confidentiality agreements to move forward in this particular instance. That's because the parties in the case agreed to allow details of the settlement to be shared publicly, a Department of Justice spokeswoman said. 

Democrats on the committee slammed the settlement oversight requirements, with Rep. Chris Taylor saying the only reasons lawmakers were able to approve the agreement is "because the parties agreed to waive their privileges." 

"They did not have to do it," the Madison Democrat said. "That’s why we’re stuck here, that’s why we’re stuck in no man’s land."

But committee Co-chair and state Rep. John Nygren, R-Marinette, countered that this instance was the first time the panel had enough information to be able to green-light the next steps. 

"Let’s be clear: there is an opportunity for us to move these cases forward but not all sides are willing to move these cases forward at this point in time," he said. 

The DOJ spokeswoman reiterated Kaul's position that lawmakers would need to sign non-disclosure agreements to move forward on other cases, documents sometimes required for attorneys to discuss potential deals with other parties. 

Previously, Republicans on the committee in August retained legal counsel to represent the panel and sign a confidentiality agreement that leaders at the time said should allow Kaul to share details of ongoing legal cases with them. But Kaul has said the move isn't sufficient. 

The case was initially brought by Kaul's GOP predecessor, Brad Schimel -- the state argued in its 2017 complaint that Milwaukee's Food Town Mini Mart had been selling synthetic cannabinoids since January 2013, drugs that were successfully purchased by undercover enforcement officers in subsequent years. 

The products, the complaint said, were packaged as incense or potpourri and sold in foil packages bearing the words "OMG," "Scooby Snax," "Dank," and "Angry Birds Space," among others. Shortly after the state filed suit in the case, the store was shut down in June 2017

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Briana Reilly covers state government and politics for the Cap Times. She joined the staff in 2019, after working at WisPolitics.com. Follow her on Twitter at @briana_reilly.

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