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Weekly newspaper sues Madison police over records delay (UPDATE)

Associated Press

MADISON, Wis. (AP) — A weekly newspaper filed a lawsuit on Thursday demanding the Madison Police Department turn over hundreds of pages of records the publication paid for nearly a year ago.

The Wisconsin Institute for Law and Liberty, a conservative law firm, filed the lawsuit in Dane County Circuit Court on behalf of Isthmus, Madison’s alternative weekly newspaper. The lawsuit demands that a judge order the department to turn over the records immediately and award the newspaper unspecified punitive damages.

Wisconsin law states that government agencies must respond to records requests “as soon as practicable and without delay” but doesn’t establish any deadlines. Judith Davidoff, editor of the Isthmus, said in a news release announcing the lawsuit that she hopes the filing can help all record requestors by establishing limits on waiting periods for government records.

“Records custodians around the state slow-walk people seeking records all the time without facing any consequences,” attorney Tom Kamenick said in the release. “I see requests that get sat on for six, seven, eight months sometimes for no good reason. Isthmus has been waiting over 13 months, which is atrocious and inexcusable.”

City Attorney Michael May said in an email that he would consult the department and will produce any records available for release “as soon as possible”. He didn’t elaborate.

According to the lawsuit, reporters filed an open-records request with the department in December 2016 seeking emails that mention Stephen Heimsness, an officer who shot and killed the local musician Paul Heenan in 2012.

Heimsness was cleared of criminal wrongdoing in the shooting. He agreed to retire, however, after then-Chief Noble Wray sought to fire him for policy violations unrelated to Heenan’s death.

The request also sought emails that mention Sarah Anderson, another officer. Heimsness hid her rifle from her about a month before the shooting and then lied about it, according to city Police and Fire Commission documents.

The department identified 729 pages of responsive records in March 2017 and demanded a $182.25 prepayment. The newspaper paid the money that month.

The newspaper got in touch with Lt. John Radovan, the records custodian for the department, at least six times over the ensuing months asking for the records, according to the lawsuit. Each time Radovan apologized, offered excuses and promised to “get right on it.”

He told the newspaper in early August that he had finished redacting the records, but he still hasn’t released them.

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