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Feb
2013
5

Hidden Computers, Secret E-mail, Subpoenas and Legal Fees Mar Wisconsin Legislature as Gerrymandering Trial Heats Up

Robin Vos aka Jerry Mander


Wisconsin Assembly Speaker Robin Vos is on a shortlist of Republicans who have been subpoenaed as part of a long running legal fight over redistricting. Vos, Senate Chief Clerk Jeffrey Renk, Assembly Chief Clerk Patrick Fuller, and the Legislative Technology Service Bureau were all issued subpoenas as state investigators continue to search for computers and files used when the Republican party redrew districts after the 2010 census. Two different groups have been requesting the information that has so far been wrongfully withheld from them. Peter Earle, attorney for immigrant workers rights group Voces de la Frontera told the Journal Times that Vos was asked to testify under oath (on Friday) about the missing computers.

The question of where these computers are and whether all documents on the computers have been produced is crucial to the case.

Originally, Voces de la Frontera became involved with the case after the original redistricting was found to have an unfair negative impact on Latino voters. While researching that case they became aware that Vos and other Republicans were withholding evidence from them. For the past five months the location of the computers has been unknown to all but this small group of Republicans. Assembly Minority Leader Peter Barca told Madison.com that he couldn’t understand why the state refused to tell the plaintiffs where the computers were:

“This is public property that people pay for,” the Kenosha Democrat said. “The fact they won’t share this information is beyond comprehension.”

Officials in the Vos camp have said that they are not aware of where the computers currently are. Yet, lawyers for the legislature were fined $17,500 for frivolously filing motions to block their release. Experts say that the location of the computers is known by another Republican, Senate majority leader Scott Fitzgerald for whom a subpoena is also planned:

Jeff Ylvisaker, director of the Legislative Technology Services Bureau, said two of the state computers used in redistricting are now in Fitzgerald’s office. He said the third is “controlled by” the Assembly chief clerk, although neither he nor the chief clerk would say where that computer is now.

Onlookers on the non-Right have called the events “shameful” and highlighted the improbability of the state’s election results:

Out of all the states re-drawing Congressional boundaries along partisan lines after the 2010 elections, Wisconsin’s gerrymandering may have been the most egregious.

As neuroscientist Sam Wang explained in Sunday’s New York Times, “Democrats received 1.4 million more votes for the House of Representatives, yet Republicans won control of the House by a 234 to 201 margin. This is only the second such reversal since World War II.”

Wisconsin was one of five states where the party that won more than half of the votes for Congress got fewer than half of the seats. Largely because of redistricting, Republicans in Wisconsin received just 49 percent of the 2.9 million votes cast in the state’s congressional races, but won five out of eight seats, or 62.5 percent. And that redistricting process was carried out with a nearly unprecedented level of secrecy and obfuscation.

Not surprisingly, the American Legislative Exchange Council has its paw-prints on this one as well, but you wouldn’t know it unless you read watchdog blogs forced to play the role of political policeman. Such is the goal of PR Watch:

The court ruled in February of 2012 that two of the districts violated the voting rights of Latinos. However, U.S. Supreme Court precedent discourages redistricting challenges based on partisan chicanery. Despite the court’s criticism of the Wisconsin GOP’s redistricting process and legal strategy, the maps themselves, rather than the process used in creating them, were the subject of the trial. But that didn’t stop Republican legislators from making every possible effort to keep that process secret.

As the federal court ruled on Wisconsin’s maps, the Center for Media and Democracy (publishers of PRwatch.org) revealed that the highly partisan American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) was involved in redistricting, based on emails obtained through open records requests to Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald. ALEC had pushed redistricting approaches spearheaded by the former lawyer for the national Republican Party, Mark Braden, and hosted a special conference call with that partisan lawyer to advise ALEC legislators on redistricting.

The emails CMD obtained were not released to the lawyers challenging the maps. But they should have been. This failure to release all redistricting-related documents opened a new round of legal wrangling, with the court questioning what other documents Republican legislators and their lawyers had kept secret. 

In recent weeks, this has led to subpoenas for Assembly Speaker Robin Vos (the ALEC State Chair for Wisconsin) and other legislators to conduct an independent search of computers used in redistricting, in order to identify whether other records were withheld. (A deal was later reached and the subpoenas were withdrawn.)

Republican legislators have already charged Wisconsin taxpayers $1.9 million in legal fees, and last week hired another law firm to defend their actions, meaning the price tag will continue to rise.

This last point is perhaps the most laughable as the party of “no-taxes” is passing the literal buck of their clandestine affairs onto the taxpaying Wisconsinite. What’s more, secrecy is leaking into all aspects of government in Dairyland with both Assembly panels and the Senate now allowing paper and e-mail ballots in lieu of public votes:

A key state Assembly panel has joined the Senate in letting its members cast paper or e-mailed committee ballots without having to meet in public to vote and it’s raising concerns that the government is trying to do more of its business in secret.

Members of the Assembly organization panel submitted or e-mailed their votes to the clerk’s office last week when they voted to hire a law firm. That was after Speaker Robin Vos and others were subpoenaed by those trying to dig up alleged hidden documents in the GOP redistricting plan.

The public notices of those votes are posted at the Capitol, but not on the Legislature’s website along with other committee meetings where votes are taken. Also, those who want to watch a debate before a committee vote cannot do so.

It turns out that this practice is neither new nor partisan with both Republicans and Democrats casting votes this way. Via the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel:

Paper ballots have arrived in the Assembly, completing a legislative comeback they started in the Senate four years ago. Last week alone, eight separate votes were taken by paper ballot in the Legislature. Last session, the Senate took 320 committee votes that way, including some on controversial bills such as limiting liability lawsuits, putting new restrictions on abortions and removing the enrollment cap on a long-term care program for the needy.

Bill Lueders, president of the Wisconsin Freedom of Information Council, said that wasn’t acceptable.

“It’s poor form,” Lueders said. “The Legislature should not be making it harder for people to see what the Legislature is up to. Period.”

The long-standing practice has been used by both Republicans and Democrats who see it as a convenience for busy lawmakers from districts around the state to handle routine business. But critics say that it makes the people’s business less open, especially for votes on controversial policies, and that other options such as telephone or video conferencing allow for both more debate and more public scrutiny.

The casual dismissal by Republicans of taxpayer concerns regarding redistricting trial proceedings was challenged by Democrats who attempted to cap the legal fees the legislature could rack up fighting gerrymandering charges. But because of the nature of the e-mail ballot proceedings the amendment could not be heard:

Both the Senate and Assembly used paper ballots on party-line votes last month to approve hiring the law firm of Whyte Hirschboeck Dudek to help deal with what has already been a costly litigation over new legislative maps drawn by GOP lawmakers in 2011. The vote was taken before a contract with the law firm had been completed, and Democrats such as Rep. Andy Jorgensen of Fort Atkinson and Senate Minority Leader Chris Larson of Milwaukee complained that they were being asked to vote without being told details such as the firm’s hourly rate.

In the Assembly committee, a Democratic amendment to cap the legal fees to Whyte Hirschboeck at $50,000 was ignored by Republicans.

For that reason, Larson and Jorgensen said, paper ballots may make sense for some routine matters but shouldn’t be used for controversial or significant actions.

“It’s basically take it or leave it, here’s what the proposal is. There’s no room for discussion. There’s no room for debate,” Larson said.

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