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Sen. Leah Vukmir settles open records lawsuit

Sen. Leah Vukmir, R-Wauwatosa, has settled a lawsuit related to her role with the American Legislative Exchange Council.

A state senator has agreed to release documents related to her work with a national organization that helps draft conservative legislation, but the settlement doesn’t resolve a question about when lawmakers can be sued.

The agreement comes as part of a lawsuit settlement between Sen. Leah Vukmir, R-Wauwatosa, and the Center for Media and Democracy, a liberal advocacy group, over documents it sought related to the American Legislative Exchange Council. It includes $15,000 in payments from the state on behalf of Vukmir.

“Overall what we’re hoping comes of the outcome of the lawsuit is legislators won’t repeat Sen. Vukmir’s error and not make such a flawed legal argument to evade compliance with the open records law,” said Brendan Fischer, a lawyer for the center.

Vukmir, ALEC’s second vice-chairwoman, said in a statement that multiple searches of her personal email account found inconsistent search results.

“I am happy to have reached a settlement with CMD on this matter and look forward to working with them in the future to ensure access to public records,” Vukmir said. “I regret the technical issues we had fulfilling this request, but I have now fulfilled the request and turned over all records. Additionally, I have worked to identify the problems we encountered through this process and have taken action to ensure that this will not be an issue in the future.”

The lawsuit gained additional attention because Attorney General J.B. Van Hollen’s office, representing Vukmir, argued the state constitution allows legislators to claim exemption from lawsuits while in office. As part of the settlement, Van Hollen’s office agreed to withdraw its motion making that argument, though it does not settle the broader legal question.

Van Hollen “will continue to vigorously protect and defend the constitution,” DOJ spokeswoman Dana Brueck said. “All clients’ matters are reviewed on a case-by-case basis to provide the very best representation.”

Vukmir agreed to pay $12,500 in lawyer’s fees and $2,500 in punitive damages as part of the settlement, according to the settlement. Brueck said the state will pay those amounts.

Vukmir previously claimed she had produced all records in compliance with state law, but is now expected to release more records from a private email account, Fischer said.

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Vukmir had provided some records to the center related to her work with ALEC. But the center disputed that she provided all records responsive to their request, filing a lawsuit June 6.

The documents, which were identified by an independent investigator who reviewed Vukmir’s private email account, aren’t expected to be released until next week after being reviewed by DOJ, Fischer said.

The state constitution exempts lawmakers from lawsuits “during the session of the Legislature,” which open records advocates said referred to a “floor session” when lawmakers are debating and voting.

Van Hollen faced heavy criticism for trying to apply the constitutional protection to the entire two-year session a legislator is in office. If it had been upheld by a court, the interpretation could have shielded lawmakers from complying with the state’s open records law as long as they hold office.

ALEC has come under scrutiny for connecting state lawmakers and corporate lobbyists in closed-door meetings. The organization has stamped internal documents as confidential, even though the state’s open records law requires lawmakers to make public their public and private emails related to official state business in most cases.

As part of the settlement, Vukmir acknowledged that the ALEC confidentiality disclaimer has no force of law in Wisconsin, and that records located in personal emails or online drop boxes are subject to the open records law.

The center agreed to dismiss the lawsuit and filed the related paperwork Friday in Dane County Circuit Court before Judge Ellen Berz.

“Overall what we’re hoping comes of the outcome of the lawsuit is legislators won’t repeat Sen. Vukmir’s error and not make such a flawed legal argument to evade compliance with the open records law.” — Brendan Fischer, a lawyer for the center.

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