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High court set to rule on whistleblower case

The Wisconsin Supreme Court is set to decide Wednesday whether the state’s whistleblower statute should have protected a state justice-department employee who was demoted after warning her superiors that the law might have been violated when state employees were used to provide security for the then-attorney general’s trip to a political convention.

The case stems from a July 2008 complaint submitted to the Department of Workforce Development’s Equal Rights Division by Joell Schigur, a state Department of Justice employee.

Schigur, who was promoted in May 2006 to public integrity director for the DOJ’s criminal investigation division, alleged that her supervisor later demoted her in retaliation for emails she had sent to her supervisor. The emails stated that Schigur believed state law might have been violated when state employees were sent to provide security for then-Attorney General J.B. Van Hollen at the National Republican Convention in Minnesota.

In April 2008, Schigur learned at a staff meeting that Van Hollen would be attending the convention and that the division would be sending agents to provide around-the-clock security for him. Days later, Schigur sent emails to her supervisor about her concerns.

Schigur had received positive job reviews from 2006 to February 2008. In May 2008, shortly after she sent the emails about the security detail, she received a negative job review. Schigur was also demoted and transferred to a different division.

At issue is whether Schigur’s emails constitute information as defined by the Wisconsin Whistleblower Protection Act, which protects employees who disclose information that they reasonably believe shows a violation of any law, rule or regulation and mismanagement or abuse of authority.

The state Supreme Court heard oral arguments in the case in October.

Schigur is arguing that the court should reverse a February decision by District 4 Court of Appeals. The appeals court held that Schigur’s emails did not provide any unknown information that would have afforded her protection under the state’s whistleblower act. Rather, according to the court, Schigur only expressed her opinion, which does not satisfy the requirements for protection under the statute. Schigur appealed and the Supreme Court chose to review her case.

If the high court affirms the appeals court’s decision, Schigur has argued, the ruling will discourage whistleblowers from coming forward with information that could prevent the misuse of state resources or prevent illegal government activity. Rather, it would encourage them to wait until laws or regulations are violated or until state resources have already been misappropriated.

The appeals court’s rule affirmed a Dane County Circuit Court’s decision, which reversed the findings of an administrative-law judge in the DWD’s Equal Rights Division.

The judge had sided with Schigur, ruling that she was protected because she had provided the sort of information defined in the state’s whistleblower act and that the information contributed to the decision to demote her. The DOJ asked the judge to reconsider her decision in July 2011, arguing that the emails Schigur sent were not information as defined in the statute.

About Erika Strebel, [email protected]

Erika Strebel is the law beat reporter for the Wisconsin Law Journal and a law school student at UW-Madison. She can be reached at 414-225-1825.

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