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Attorney General's open government office getting hit from left and right

Attorney General Brad Schimel, shown attending an Open Government Summit his office hosted in 2015, faces criticism from the left and right over his office's handling of public records requests.

Attorney General Brad Schimel’s Office of Open Government is getting knocked by two groups — one conservative and the other liberal — for not responding quickly enough to public records requests.

Conservative government watchdog group Citizens for Responsible Government made several requests last year for records related to the job performance of Assistant Attorney General Paul Ferguson, who runs the Office of Open Government. A DOJ lawyer recently warned the group those requests “bordered on harassing and retaliatory.”

Liberal advocacy group One Wisconsin Now has waited more than a month for calendars for Schimel and department spokesman Johnny Koremenos, who also worked on Schimel’s campaign.

Ferguson responded that the agency processes a high volume of requests as quickly as practicable and without delay, as required by law.

The complaints come two years after Schimel opened the office to respond more promptly to records requests and help the public obtain records from local governments. When Schimel took office in 2015 he said there were 60 to 70 requests for Justice Department records that were waiting to be fulfilled.

According to DOJ records provided last week to the Wisconsin State Journal, the department has 110 records requests without response dates recorded going back to 2015. Some of the entries in the tracking log don’t accurately reflect that the records were provided, Ferguson said. He said according to his latest count, the number of pending requests is 81.

“It appears that the public is using the Public Records Law more frequently each year, which is a good thing,” Ferguson said. “And at the same time as requests have increased, our response times have plummeted. This is a success story for Sunshine Week.”

Sunshine Week is a national celebration of open government that began Sunday.

The department’s average response time to records requests from Jan. 1, 2015 until March 11, 2016 — when Gov. Scott Walker issued an executive order urging other state agencies to expedite their records request processing — was 23 work days compared with 13 work days for all agencies. Since then, the DOJ’s average response time has been 16 work days compared with nine days for all agencies.

Schimel’s office issued a press release Monday touting the agency reducing its response time.

The release suggested the average response time in the first quarter of 2017 was five days, however that doesn’t account for 50 out of 124 requests filed in the first quarter not being fulfilled yet. The longer those requests take to fulfill, the higher the average first-quarter response time will be.

The Office of Open Government provided 13 trainings for state agencies, local government officials and law enforcement in 2016, Schimel said. It also received more than 400 calls to the Public Records & Open Meetings help line, which allows anyone to obtain legal assistance on the state’s public records and open meetings laws, and published an updated fee schedule that clarifies the basis for charging fees for records.

Wisconsin Freedom of Information Council president Bill Lueders said a recent State Journal analysis and a separate report in the Appleton Post-Crescent show the DOJ responding more slowly to records requests than other agencies.

But other than Citizens for Responsible Government and One Wisconsin Now, he hasn’t heard from others concerned about slow response rates.

“It’s important for the Department of Justice to lead in this area,” Lueders said. “They have an actual office of open government, which is more than what other agencies have.”

Requester disputes harassment claim

Citizens for Responsible Government field operations director Orville Seymer’s criticism of Schimel’s office stems from a dispute with the Florence School District over personnel records related to a former superintendent.

Seymer filed a series of related records requests with the district, which the district combined and charged a fee for the amount of time it would take to locate them. Often such fees are waived for a single request if they are less than $50.

Seymer contacted the DOJ’s Office of Open Government on Feb. 9, 2016, asking for help. Ferguson, the assistant attorney general, responded on July 7 with a letter saying the school district could not combine the records requests. But the district has still not released the records and Seymer blames Ferguson for not taking action.

Seymer then filed a series of records requests seeking Ferguson’s emails, phone records and calendars, receiving some records in response, but not others.

On Feb. 27, a DOJ lawyer wrote Seymer saying the department had responded appropriately to his requests.

“I understand you are frustrated,” senior counsel Daniel Lennington wrote. “On the other hand your frequent requests have bordered on harassing and retaliatory.”

Lennington then cited a recent Wisconsin Supreme Court case, in which the court denied a Democratic Party of Wisconsin’s request for training videos in which the party believes Schimel made inappropriate remarks, saying the “context” and the “purpose” of the underlying records request may be considered.

“I am very concerned about that,” Seymer said. “Where is the line? There’s nothing in state statute and nothing in case law that says you can’t make a request every day.”

Seymer made nine requests to the DOJ in less than a two-month span.

Seymer, who worked on Schimel’s 2014 campaign, said the agency often refers citizens seeking legal help on public records matters to local district attorneys, when he said it should be taking enforcement action itself.

“There’s hundreds of people like myself who are not journalists, not media people and they want to know what government is doing,” Seymer said.

Group seeks calendars

One Wisconsin Now executive director Scot Ross said DOJ’s delay in providing records related to Koremenos’ calendars creates a “cloud over the office.”

The group requested the calendars on Jan. 24 and hadn’t received a response as of Monday, or 34 working days.

Ross pointed to a DOJ policy stating 10 working days generally is a reasonable time for responding to a simple request for a limited number of easily identifiable records.

Ross said the information is of high interest because until recently Koremenos was being paid by both taxpayers and the Schimel campaign. After the campaign stopped paying him, he received a 17.5 percent raise at the DOJ.

Deputy Attorney General Paul Connell said Koremenos was paid $18,000 for work on the campaign, but now does that work voluntarily. He received a raise from $80,000 to $93,995 in February, though Connell noted his predecessor’s salary was $90,000 and she didn’t supervise any employees.

The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel first reported Koremenos’ salary increase.

“Maybe Brad Schimel should spend a little less time promoting himself as an open government champion and instead start abiding by the open records law and his own policy,” Ross said. “Fulfilling our request for copies of his and one of his employee’s calendar would be a good place to start.”

Ferguson noted the One Wisconsin Now request is a multipart request requiring the gathering of records from different parts of the DOJ.

“All requesters are welcome to contact us to discuss the status of their requests at any time,” Ferguson said.

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Matthew DeFour covers state government and politics for the Wisconsin State Journal.