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Wisconsin agency won’t release records on harassment claims

By TODD RICHMOND
Associated Press

MADISON, Wis. (AP) — Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources officials are refusing to release records detailing allegations that an agency employee harassed female co-workers at a hotel in Milwaukee, saying such a disclosure would hurt workers’ morale and that people make mistakes.

The Associated Press used an open records request to obtain a disciplinary letter dated March 2018 informing a DNR employee that he or she would be suspended without pay for a day in April. The letter stated that the employee, whose name and division was blacked out, was socializing with fellow employees in January at the Hilton Hotel in Milwaukee the night before the Midwest Fish and Wildlife Conference.

The worker became drunk, stared inappropriately at a female co-worker and made an inappropriate comment to another female co-worker, the letter said. The worker acknowledged during an investigatory interview in February that the behavior wasn’t appropriate and “crossed a line.”

The letter offers no other details. The AP filed another open records request seeking all documents connected with the investigation. The agency’s administrative policy adviser, Victoria Harmon, responded on Oct. 31 with an email denying the request.

She wrote that releasing the documents would hamper the agency’s ability to hire competent employees as well as future internal investigations if workers knew their statements would be released publicly.

The agency needs to withhold the records to “avoid a loss of morale,” she added, but didn’t explain how such a loss might occur. She also warned that disclosure might subject employees and their families to harassment and the documents may contain inaccurate, unsubstantiated or irrelevant information.

“Human beings in all walks of life make mistakes,” Harmon wrote. “In this case, mistakes were made at a conference off work time and off work premises. While discipline was appropriate, public disclosure of all details is not warranted in this case.”

The department has released investigatory documents in the past in response to open-records requests. Bill Lueders, president of the Wisconsin Freedom of Information Council, called Harmon’s denial “obnoxious.”

“I think it’s an example of the humans who are records custodians making a mistake,” Lueders wrote in an email. “It is not their job to decide whether public employees are entitled to mulligans when it comes to minor bad behavior. That smacks of contempt for the public, which is perfectly capable of deciding whether something is minor or major.”

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