An environmental group says the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources withheld communications by the embattled head of its policy board in violation of state laws.
Midwest Environmental Advocates filed a lawsuit Tuesday against the DNR and Natural Resources Board chair Fred Prehn demanding the department release text messages Prehn sent and received about his decision not to relinquish his seat.
Prehn, a Wausau dentist appointed by former Gov. Scott Walker in 2015, has refused to step down since his term expired May 1, denying Gov. Tony Evers’ appointee Sandra Naas a seat and maintaining a 4-3 majority for Republican appointees.
MEA requested all communications — including emails, texts and other written messages — Prehn sent and received in the year leading up to June 29, according to the complaint filed in Dane County Circuit Court.
On Aug. 13 the DNR released dozens of email messages — most from citizens demanding Prehn step down. No text messages were included, according to the complaint.
When MEA’s attorney asked, the DNR said they had not located any text messages relevant to the request.
No text messages were released in response to a similar request from the State Journal.
MEA filed a second request on Sept. 13 for text messages between fellow board member Bill Smith and Prehn.
The DNR released a string of messages that included one Prehn sent on April 26 stating: “I’ve got to decide if I’m going to stay on until the next appointee is confirmed. Evers notified me he’s not going to reappoint me I guess he thinks there’s some pretty big agenda items that I might not agree with LOL.”
Because the message was unprompted by Smith, MEA contends it indicates the existence of additional text messages relevant to the request.
The group says Prehn and the DNR violated open records law by not disclosing the text in response to its first request and is asking the court to order the agency to turn over any additional records.
MEA staff attorney Rob Lee said the lawsuit is about holding public officials accountable.
“Text messages related to government business are public records that officials have a duty to preserve and provide access to,” Lee said in a statement announcing the lawsuit. “The people of Wisconsin deserve a government that conducts its business lawfully and with transparency.”
Spokespeople for the DNR and Prehn did not respond to a request for comment Tuesday.
Prehn maintains that a 1964 Supreme Court ruling means he does not have to leave until Naas is confirmed by the Senate, but Republicans who control the chamber have made no move to set a hearing or answer questions on their plans to do so.
He has retained control of the board even as the Department of Justice has asked the courts to remove him. A Dane County judge last month declined Kaul’s request, which the Democratic attorney general has now appealed.