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View from around the state: Enough is enough

By: Associated Press//June 30, 2022//

View from around the state: Enough is enough

By: Associated Press//June 30, 2022//

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The admission Thursday by former Wisconsin Supreme Court Justice Michael Gableman that he had deleted public records, even after he had received open-records requests, isn’t entirely surprising. His conduct at a previous hearing, berating a judge over questions, had already suggested he didn’t want to answer.

Now we know why.

The Associated Press reported that Gableman “routinely deleted records.” It’s stunningly bad judgement from someone with enough of a legal background to surely know better. The idea that an investigation like Gableman’s would proceed without open-records requests being made is so laughable that it’s not even worth considering. He knew requests would be made. And now, in his own words, he has admitted to deleting documents.

Specifically, the report said Gableman testified that he “deleted records if there was no pending open records request and he determined it was not useful or pertinent to his work.” That seems more than anything to be an attempt to get ahead of requests, to act before people could seek things he didn’t want to release.

In some cases those decisions didn’t come quickly enough. Gableman, stunningly, used his personal Yahoo email account during early portions of the investigation. He told the court a person in his office deleted the account for him. But that step only came after he received an open records request for the emails.

Gableman’s claim that he searched the account for records relevant to the request before having it deleted rings hollow. It fits a pattern throughout his work in which he arrogated to himself the sole authority to determine what records were relevant and, in at least this case, ensured the records were put beyond any possible review by a neutral party.

It is past time for Assembly Speaker Robin Vos to pull the plug on Gableman’s work. The criticism of Gableman’s work, which has cost Wisconsin taxpayers more than $900,000, is bipartisan. No matter what he concludes, it will have no effect on the results of the 2020 election, which have been confirmed by multiple recounts, lawsuits and an independent audit.

In fact, at this point the only concrete results that seem likely are professional sanctions for Gableman himself. He was fined $2,000 per day for failing to produce documents in the open records request and his behavior in court got him referred for potential disciplinary proceedings to Wisconsin’s office for overseeing attorneys.

Vos himself isn’t clear, either. A hearing July 28 will determine whether he will be faced with penalties for how he responded to open-records requests.

We haven’t said a great deal on any of these proceedings so far. Frankly, we haven’t thought there was a great deal we could add to the conversation. But the destruction of public records isn’t something we can ignore.

Seeking public records is a central part of journalism. Our reporters file such requests routinely, looking for information that can further illuminate claims by governmental bodies. The vast majority of those requests are routine, and are returned in relatively short order.

When local governments try to deny access to public records, though, that becomes a problem. We’ve touched on those incidents at least a half-dozen times this year alone.

But in none of those cases did anyone respond with “Yeah, we deleted those records a while back.” At no time had the records we sought been destroyed. Hearing someone charged by the state Legislature admitting to such acts should be deeply shocking. It does considerable violence to the very concept of public records and the responsibility of government to preserve them in the interests of government accountability.

We cannot be silent in the face of such an admission. Open records and open access for the public are not negotiable. They are the law.

We don’t care whether you supported Gableman’s appointment or whether you thought it was a bad idea. The reality is that the records from a taxpayer-funded investigation, documents that ultimately belong to the people who paid for them, were destroyed.

That’s unacceptable.

– Eau Claire-Leader Telegram


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