After being sued for violating an open records request pertaining to her relationship with the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), Wisconsin State Sen. Leah Vukmir is claiming that she cannot be sued while in office, a motion that could change the face of how politicians deal with open records requests in the future. Last week, the office of Wisconsin attorney general J.B. Van Hollen filed a motion in Dane County Circuit Court on behalf of Vukmir, in which the State Senator claims she is immune from lawsuits while in office. Brendan Fischer, general council for the Center for Media and Democracy, who brought about the original open records request and lawsuit told the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel:
“It’s pretty shocking. Open records are a basic part of their legislative duties,” he said. “To not be able to hold them to account has the potential to undermine the law, clean government and citizens’ trust in government.”
The original lawsuit stems from Vukmir’s failure to provide the Center for Media and Democracy, who created the ALEC exposed website, with information pertaining to an ALEC task force meeting in Oklahoma City. Vukmir is a member ALEC’s Board of Directors serving as national treasurer. At that meeting, she sponsored a piece of model legislation that was adopted as ALEC policy. She now claims that she has no records pertaining to the bill or meetings about it. When a process server notified Vukmir’s office of the lawsuit a legislative aide verbally and physically attacked the server. Court records show that the attitude of Vukmir’s office is one that does not have to obey the law of the “common man.”
Instead of giving in and providing the information or accepting fault for not providing it Vukmir, with the assistance of the Wisconsin republican machine, is attempting to simply change the law.
The move by Attorney General Van Hollen would effectively create a precedent in which a member of the state legislature could not be held accountable for failing or refusing to comply with an open records request. There is a provision of the Wisconsin Constitution from 1848, which provides legislators limited immunity “during the session of the legislature.” However, 165 years later, the nature of a legislative session has changed from a one to two month period to never ending. According to Brendan Fischer:
“Because the current practice of the legislature is never to be out of session, the Attorney General’s position means that state legislators can’t be held accountable for refusing to comply with their duties under the open records law. This is a radical departure from the clear language of the law, from the position taken by previous Attorneys General, and from Wisconsin’s long, proud history of transparency and commitment to open government.”
Susan Crawford, former assistant attorney general under Governor Jim Doyle, told the Journal-Sentinel:
I think the attorney general’s position is a radical misinterpretation of that provision of the constitution, Crawford said.
“I’ve never heard a legislator asserting they’re above the law, which is what she’s doing. You have to wonder what she’s trying to hide.”
For Vukmir, changing the law may be the only way to save herself from having to expose the culture of ALEC and how it does business. As a major player in the machine, her communications would help the CMD expose how ALEC controls state governments by promoting a culture where corporate interests are the bottomline. Lisa Graves, Executive Director of the CMD, said of the lawsuits:
“Senator Vukmir is acting like she is above the law, but Wisconsin’s open records laws have always applied to legislators. I’ve seen her at ALEC resort meetings and cigar parties, and we have documented that as a state elected official she has sponsored numerous ALEC bills secretly voted on by corporations and politicians. We have uncovered that she has received thousands of dollars in ALEC ‘scholarships’ for these trips, and now she is trying to keep ALEC’s communications with her secret from the people of Wisconsin by claiming no citizen of the state can enforce civil laws against legislators. What is she really hiding?”