The governor’s signature jobs agency is taking too long to fulfill a records request from state lawmakers.
It’s been 10 months since Assembly Minority Leader Peter Barca, D-Kenosha, and Sen. Julie Lassa, D-Stevens Point, formally asked for public documents related to 28 economic development awards totaling $126 million.
So far, the Wisconsin Economic Development Corp. has provided records for just four of those awards. That has led Barca and Lassa — both members of WEDC’s board — to wonder if the agency is hiding something. Some loans went bad, and some recipients weren’t properly vetted.
We know that because a State Journal investigation last year revealed WEDC made a $500,000 loan to Milwaukee-based Building Committee Inc. in 2011 after Gov. Scott Walker’s top Cabinet secretary pressed for millions of dollars to go to the struggling construction company. The loan has not been repaid, and BCI included false information on its application.
WEDC’s CEO Mark Hogan, who wasn’t around when WEDC made those mistakes, has complained about his staff having to spend long hours collecting old documents for the two Democratic lawmakers. Besides finding records, staff must review them for confidential information.
But part of every state agency’s job is to respond in a timely and complete way to requests for public information. It shouldn’t be viewed as extra work. Moreover, WEDC has exaggerated the scope of the lawmaker’s request, originally suggesting some 450,000 records would have to be scoured. It was an obvious attempt to paint this legitimate inquiry as unreasonable. And it didn’t work.
Hogan and other WEDC board members say they don’t like the Democrats’ tone in seeking information on past awards.
Well, too bad. The motivations of the Democrats — whether political or pure — don’t really matter, as far as the law is concerned. Wisconsin’s open records law must be followed regardless of the purpose behind any request. In fact, requesters don’t even have to identify who they are, much less why they want the information.
Barca and Lassa say the records they’re seeking could expose improper or even criminal lapses with public money. Barca points to an email showing WEDC officials tried to help BCI get a federally subsidized bond even after learning the company’s owner had sought state money to pay for a lease on a luxury sports car.
Ultimately, the Democrats want to end and replace WEDC, while the Republicans hope to save this business booster their governor created.
None of that changes the need for transparency, which helps the public keep state government honest and accountable.
It’s not just politicians weighing into this important issue. To its credit, the Justice Department’s open government office urged WEDC last month to do a better job communicating and observing transparency rules.
Full disclosure could help show that policies WEDC adopted in 2013 have solved the problems of the past, as Hogan contends. It also could lead to further improvement.
WEDC should embrace openness and finally get past this distracting fight.