Wisconsin attorney general J.B. Van Hollen used the occasion of Sunshine Week to remind us Wednesday of all the work he’s done in the care and feeding of laws enacted to ensure government transparency — the cause to which Sunshine Week is dedicated.
The efforts of the two-term Republican, who has decided not to run for re-election, are nothing to sneeze at.
But they are at odds with his response so far to what could be a brewing scandal or a mere isolated oversight in the office he leads.
Van Hollen said Wednesday that two “extremely negligent” Department of Justice employees lost their jobs after taking too long to follow up on tips about possible child pornography.
They took so long, in fact, that at least one suspect allegedly sexually assaulted a child while the tips languished somewhere in an agency file.
Among the things Van Hollen either didn’t bother or refused to say were: the names and tenures of the former employees; whether they had been disciplined — or commended — for their work in the past; whether they were fired or forced to resign; and whether there are other child porn cases the department has not acted on in a timely fashion.
Nevertheless, Van Hollen — who has made fighting child pornography a priority — assured us the delays were not “systemic.”
The problem is that it’s hard to trust in government assurances without the government information needed to verify them.
This is not the first time Van Hollen’s position on transparency has struck a sour note.
Back in 2011, he defended the state in a lawsuit brought by Democratic Dane County District Attorney Ismael Ozanne — now a candidate to replace Van Hollen — that sought to overturn Act 10 on the basis of an open meetings violation.
Ozanne ultimately lost before a state Supreme Court divided along ideological lines, with four conservative justices outvoting the three liberal ones. But some saw the decision as a signal to the Legislature that it didn’t have to abide by its own open meetings law.
Similarly, Van Hollen’s office has defended Republican state Sen. Leah Vukmir’s refusal to disclose documents related to her work with the American Legislative Exchange Council — essentially taking the position that a sitting legislator should be immune from litigation.
The Department of Natural Resources also relied on the DOJ’s advice in deciding not to release to The Associated Press the names and positions of the 26 agency employees disciplined last year, according to DNR spokesman Bill Cosh.
And yet even as he’s sought to stymie the release of information, Van Hollen has opposed efforts by Republicans and Democrats to limit what appears in the state’s online court records system, and he’s launched efforts to educate people about open meetings and open records laws — including setting up a website designed to be “a resource for all Wisconsinites to understand and exercise their right to access their government.”
These latter efforts were among the reasons the Wisconsin Freedom of Information Council named Van Hollen its Political Openness Advocate of the Year in 2010.
Council president and journalist Bill Lueders said he had “no regrets” about the award but pointed to a number of areas where the group has since been disappointed with Van Hollen.
The “radical and dangerous position” Van Hollen’s taken in the Vukmir case was one of them, as was his unwillingness to push back against a federal court decision that some local law enforcement agencies have been using as an excuse to limit the information they release on the people they arrest.
In response to my questions about whether DOJ intended to be more forthcoming about its most recent missteps, DOJ spokeswoman Dana Brueck provided figures showing that from 2011 through 2013, DOJ received 2,392 “cyber tips” from the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, while the DOJ’s Internet Crimes Against Children Task Force handled 813 separate “proactive investigations.”
During that time, ICAC made 409 arrests and issued 1,066 subpoenas and 1,178 search warrants, she said.
As for information on former DOJ employees, Brueck told me I’d need to file a formal request under the state’s open records law.
I’m probably not the only one who’s done just that — or asked for information that might show how long it takes DOJ to follow up on child porn tips.
Employees’ names and personnel records are “routinely disclosed with respect to other state agencies,” according to Madison attorney Bob Dreps, who works on behalf of media organizations. Statistics and other details about law enforcement caseloads should be available as well as long as there isn’t a good reason to believe releasing them will jeopardize an investigation, he said.
In the waning months of his tenure, Van Hollen can release records showing his office’s handling of child porn allegations was solid. Or they might show the employees who lost their jobs were scapegoats for a bigger problem.
Either way, their release is a no-brainer for anyone who assumes the mantle of open-government advocate.