State Rep. Robin Vos, the Republican co-chairman of the powerful legislative Joint Finance Committee, appears to have coordinated an effort to have legislators intentionally violate open meetings and public notice requirements with regard to the redistricting process.
Documents filed in association with a lawsuit brought by the group Voces de la Frontera — which challenges the maps developed in secret by Vos and his Republican colleagues — suggest that Vos was party to an effort to deliberately deceive fellow legislators, the media and, most significantly, the voters of Wisconsin.
The documents, which were revealed in the discovery process relating to the lawsuit, now form the basis for a complaint filed with the Dane County district attorney alleging serious violations of the Wisconsin Constitution and open meetings statutes. They reveal that 58 Assembly Republicans and 17 Republican state senators signed a secrecy agreement that essentially required them to withhold information from the public about what was supposed to be an open and transparent process.
"What we have here is an egregious example of intentional violation of the public trust. That secrecy agreement went to the planning process, the negotiating process, and ultimately the decision-making process," says attorney Peter Earle, who represents the group that is suing to challenge the hyper-partisan map of legislative districts that was passed by the Republican-controlled legislative chambers and signed by Gov. Walker. The maps have been broadly decried by civil rights and open-government groups as discriminatory.
The most damning evidence with regard to this assault on open meetings laws and the state's open government tradition involves Vos. A "talking points memo" prepared for Republican legislators instructs them to dismiss public input, declaring: "Public comments on this map may be different than what you hear in this room. Ignore the public comments."
That memo was saved to the hard drive under the title "talking points for Robin (Vos)." And associated documents suggest that it was used by Vos as he coordinated the signing of secrecy agreements by Republican legislators. That process took place not in the state Capitol but in the law offices of a firm paid hundreds of thousands of taxpayer dollars to manage the redistricting process, Michael Best and Friedrich. And the secrecy agreements that Vos apparently urged legislators to sign were with attorneys for the law firm.
Republican National Committee chairman Reince Priebus is a Michael Best and Friedrich partner, and the firm has also provided legal counsel to the campaign of Gov. Walker as it deals with mounting legal issues raised by the John Doe probe into criminal wrongdoing.
It is hard to look at this evidence and come away with any conclusion save the obvious one: that Vos led a deliberate effort to deceive the public, violate rules and standards and warp the legislative process for his and his political allies' advantage.
Specifically, the actions of the Joint Finance Committee co-chair breach Wisconsin's open meetings law and the prohibition of legislative secrecy contained in Article IV, §10 of the Wisconsin Constitution.
Vos, a central player in the redistricting process from the start, has confirmed that he was aware of the documents and utilized them in advancing the secret redistricting scheme.
Attorney Earle suggested: "The only appropriate response to these serious breaches of the public trust is to throw the maps out and begin the process again in a legal and open manner."
Earle is right. But that is only the first step in dealing with what appears to be a dramatic affront to the state constitution, to the law and to the legislative process.
The Dane County district attorney should, as has been requested, open an investigation into Vos' activities.
At the same time, the Legislature should examine whether Vos, who swore an oath to uphold the state constitution, has violated that oath. If that is the case, Vos has a duty to resign from the Legislature. Should he fail to do so, his colleagues have a responsibility to remove him.
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