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Plain Talk: Lawmakers' exemption from open records retention law invites corruption

Plain Talk: Lawmakers' exemption from open records retention law invites corruption

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An aerial view of the Wisconsin state Capitol building.

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Wisconsin state Sen. Chris Larson, a Milwaukee Democrat, pointed out years ago that the Legislature's exemption from the state's open records retention law is an invitation to corruption.

He's right, of course. That Wisconsin legislators aren't required to save their emails and other correspondence allows them to simply destroy anything they don't want the public to know. That would include any quid pro quo they might have made with a contributor, a deal with a powerful constituent or their involvement with special interest groups that could prove embarrassing.

While the governor's office, state agencies, Wisconsin municipalities, police and fire departments and other public bodies must save public records and when requested make them available to the public (the Department of Justice needs to save them for three years and then deposit them in the State Historical Society's archives), legislators can do as they please.

It's ironic that many unelected public workers need to keep their records while legislators, who stand for election and whose conduct in office ought to be an open book for all voters to see, get to destroy any evidence. It's not only ironic, it's a direct assault on the need for openness in democratic government.

Larson has been trying to get this changed for a decade. He's back again this session with yet another bill aimed at getting this exemption removed. State Rep. Jimmy Anderson, D-Fitchburg, has joined him.

The exemption to the open records law doesn't mean that legislators have to destroy their correspondence, but they can if they want. Many have frustrated government watchdogs who seek to discover the kind of mail legislators are receiving from their constituents on a particular issue or bill, for instance.

Some claim they are backing certain legislation because their constituents are demanding it, but when asked to see the evidence, they're told the correspondence had been deleted. So much for accountability.

The group A Better Wisconsin Together recently requested emails from two Saukville Republicans — state Sen. Duey Stroebel and Rep. Bob Brooks — on a bill aimed at bypassing the State Elections Commission on matters of alleged voter fraud, but discovered their identical requests produced different results — indicating that the two legislators had somehow "lost" some of the emails in question. But, while it doesn't pass the ethics smell test, there's nothing illegal about it, thanks to the exemption legislators gave themselves.

Larson and Anderson were succinct in a memo asking other legislators to join them in correcting this hole in the state's transparency laws.

“(The exemption) essentially makes open records for legislators an ‘honor system,’ and creates perverse incentives to delete records the public would otherwise have access to,” they said.

If a majority of legislators actually believe in the public good, the bill would pass. But, five will get you ten that that majority doesn't exist in this Legislature.

Dave Zweifel is editor emeritus of The Capital Times. dzweifel@madison.com608-252-6410 and on Twitter @DaveZweifel.  

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