Announcing the Wisconsin Transparency Force.

On Friday November 1 at 1:30 PM, a gathering of Wisconsin citizens, dubbed the Wisconsin Transparency Force, will wash the windows of the Wisconsin State Capitol to restore transparency. We demand a return to the lost Wisconsin tradition of clean and open government. The right to information is basic to democracy. Gotta clean off the grime and let in the light! Exactly 100 years ago, in an article discussing growing concentration of wealth and power driven by exploitive banking practices, U.S. Supreme Court Justice Louis D. Brandeis made his famous statement "sunlight is said to be the best of disinfectants." We’ll be scrubbing windows at the Wisconsin Capitol to let that sunlight in. Citizens in Wisconsin Transparency Force coveralls will deploy squeegees, sponges, and buckets. Squeegees mounted on tall poles will be used to wash the windows of the governor’s office - tall poles to cleanse the Capitol of the governor’s tall tales. Wisconsin Transparency Force will also wash the windows of less-than-transparent state representatives and senators (e.g. State Senator Mary Lazich, R-New Berlin, who is refusing to hold public hearings on bills that would make the redistricting process apolitical and transparent). We call attention to three recent examples of loss of transparency in Wisconsin government: 1. Secret Redistricting Redistricting maps were drawn up in secret in the Madison offices of Michael Best & Friedrich (attorneys working for GOP legislators) rather than at the Capitol. Only GOP legislators were allowed to see the draft redistricting maps, and only after signing pledges of secrecy; moreover a GOP memo instructed the legislators to ignore public comments. After redistricting was completed, when sued to release redistricting documents, attorneys working for GOP legislators withheld 34 e-mails despite three stern court orders ordering their release. After being ordered to turn over hard-drives used in the redistricting, GOP staffers "inadvertently" deleted hundreds of thousands of redistricting files. Moreover, the maps were clearly gerrymandered to advantage GOP legislators, and even apparently rigged to benefit the future political careers of the Fitzgerald brothers (Senate Majority Leader and Assembly Speaker at the time). A panel of three federal judges concluded that "Every effort was made to keep this work out of the public eye", described the drafting of the redistricting bill as "needlessly secret, regrettably excluding input from the overwhelming majority of Wisconsin citizens", stated that "What could have -- indeed should have -- been accomplished publicly instead took place in private, in an all but shameful attempt to hide the redistricting process from public scrutiny" and further stated "Quite frankly, the Legislature and the actions of its counsel give every appearance of flailing wildly in a desperate attempt to hide from both the court and the public the true nature of exactly what transpired in the redistricting process." Federal Judge Stadtmueller wrote: "The facts are the facts, and what has occurred here is beyond the pale in terms of lack of transparency (and) secrecy. Appearances are everything, and Wisconsin has prided itself one generation after another on openness and fairness in doing the right thing. And to be frank we have seen everything but that in the way this case has proceeded." Two much-needed reform bills have now been put forward to take redistricting out of the hands of politicians, giving the task to a nonpartisan state service agency (as is done in Iowa). Though it appears

that the bills will not be allowed to advance, editorials in multiple media venues have pressed the issue – including editorials in the Wisconsin State Journal, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, Green Bay PressGazette, Appleton Post-Crescent, Beloit Daily News, La Crosse Tribune, Chippewa Herald, Wisconsin Rapids Daily Tribune, Oshkosh Northwestern, Janesville Gazette, and WISC-TV. 2. The United Sportsmen Scandal (AKA Fat Cats Fishing) The politically-well-connected conservative lobbying group United Sportsmen of Wisconsin was the intended beneficiary of a $500,000 grant surreptitiously added to the state budget at the direction of Assembly Majority Leader Scott Suder. United Sportsmen was set up by John W. Connors, the former director of Americans for Prosperity (a Koch operation and apparently one of the organizations targeted in the new John Doe probe), and had previously sent out absentee ballot mailers (in apparent coordination with Americans for Prosperity) specifying incorrect dates for return of ballots, in a potential voter suppression operation. The language of the legislative provision for the $500,000 grant was tailored to exclude other qualified non-profits and the availability of the grant was never advertised, apparently to ensure that United Sportsmen was the recipient. United Sportsmen had virtually no experience performing the type of training the grant called for, and United Sportsmen repeatedly misrepresented its nonprofit tax status. Most crucially, U.S. officials had twice warned the Walker Administration that proceeding with the grant, as written in the legislation, would lead to loss of $28 million in federal funds. This information was known to Assembly Majority Leader Suder and, according to Walker spokeswoman Jocelyn Webster, other undisclosed Republican legislators were also notified by the Walker Administration. However, the information was not made public and was not made available to any Democratic legislators. GOP legislators proceeded to pass the bill, and Walker kept the grant alive for United Sportsmen by using his partial veto powers to rewrite the legislative provisions so that the $500,000 grant would entirely be paid for with state money (and no federal money would be used). Eighteen GOP legislators signed onto a letter urging Wisconsin DNR to award the grant to United Sportsmen. The grant was awarded to United Sportsmen (despite its deficient tax status), but later rescinded when news media broke the scandal. It thus appears that certain parties in the GOP treated the DNR as a private GOP piggy bank, to pay off a well-connected lobbying group. It seems very unlikely that Scott Suder, Walker, and the other undisclosed GOP legislators who had been informed intended to cost Wisconsin taxpayers $28 million when concealing the federal warning letters and proceeding with the legislation. It seems far more likely that there was collusion – with the partial veto planned ahead in private before moving ahead with passage of the bill. 3. Leah Vukmir/ALEC and Wisconsin Open Records Laws Wisconsin State Senator Leah Vukmir is the national treasurer of ALEC (American Legislative Exchange Council), an organization that is essentially a collaboration between corporations and conservative state legislators (drafting model legislation). When presented with open records requests, Leah Vukmir refused to turn over records related to her involvement with ALEC.

State Senator Leah Vukmir is now attempting to circumvent Wisconsin open records laws by claiming that legislators cannot be sued while in office. If successful, this tactic would entirely gut Wisconsin open records laws, allowing all legislators to ignore open records requests. Vukmir is being aided and abetted in this maneuver by GOP Attorney General J.B. Van Hollen. The Wisconsin constitution states that legislators are not "subject to any civil process during the session of the Legislature". This provision was clearly intended to prevent the public from losing its voice due to legal proceedings while the Legislature is actively in session (i.e. while a floor session is ongoing). Vukmir and Van Hollen are reinterpreting "session of the Legislature" to mean a legislator’s entire time in office (until they lose office or retire potentially decades). Moreover, Van Hollen’s current position appears contrary to the stance he took when a Democratic legislator was sued under the open records law by a conservative organization. Vukmir’s attempts to avoid honoring open records laws turned ludicrous on September 3, when, in an attempt to evade being served, her aid Jason Rostan chased a process server (hired to notify Vukmir of an open records suit), allegedly pushing him to the ground, assailing him with abusive language, and attempting to stuff the served papers back into his pockets. Given the extreme measures Vukmir is taking, one wonders what she is hiding. Multiple editorials have been written in Wisconsin news media denouncing Vukmir and Van Hollen’s maneuver, including editorials in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, Wisconsin State Journal, Cap Times, Milton Courier, Appleton Post-Crescent, Badger Herald, HNG News, Beloit Daily News, Green Bay Press Gazette, Chippewa Herald, and LaCrosse Tribune. John Doe: Finally, we’ll note that issues with transparency in the Walker Administration may trace back to practices in Walker’s Milwaukee County Executive office. The original John Doe investigation revealed that a secret e-mail system, separate from the normal county system, was set up to conduct illegal campaign activity, with a secret router feet from Walker’s desk. It appears that another John Doe investigation is now underway, following up on leads from the first John Doe probe and focused on more recent events, including the recall elections. Walker and Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald have remained mum regarding the new John Doe investigation. On the purifying effect of transparency and light: Passage from "Brandeis And The History Of Transparency" by Sunlight Foundation Intern, Andrew Berger: Brandeis made his famous statement that "sunlight is said to be the best of disinfectants" in a 1913 Harper's Weekly article, entitled "What Publicity Can Do." But it was an image that had been in his mind for decades. Twenty years earlier, in a letter to his fiance, Brandeis had expressed an interest in writing a "a sort of companion piece" to his influential article on "The Right to Privacy," but this time he would focus on "The Duty of Publicity." He had been thinking, he wrote, "about the wickedness of people shielding wrongdoers & passing them off (or at least allowing them to pass themselves off) as honest men." He then proposed a remedy: "If the broad light of day could be let in upon men’s actions, it would purify them as the sun disinfects."

Graphic from U.S. Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis’ 1913 article in Harper’s Weekly:

"Government must be a transparent garment which tightly clings to the people's body." ~ Georg Buchner "Actually, we who engage in nonviolent direct action are not the creators of tension. We merely bring to the surface the hidden tension that is already alive. We bring it out in the open, where it can be seen and dealt with. Like a boil that can never be cured so long as it is covered up but must be opened with all its ugliness to the natural medicines of air and light, injustice must be exposed, with all the tension its exposure creates, to the light of human conscience and the air of national opinion before it can be cured." ~ Martin Luther King Jr. "If Wisconsin were not known as the Dairy State it could be known, and rightfully so, as the Sunshine State. All branches of Wisconsin government have, over many years, kept a strong commitment to transparent government." ~ Wisconsin Supreme Court in Schill v. Wisconsin Rapids School District As an aside, we’ll note that the Wisconsin tradition of open, clean government (along with municipal home rule, and many other reforms) is a legacy of Robert M. "Fighting Bob" La Follette Sr., whose bust resides in the Wisconsin Capitol rotunda. Wisconsin Transparency Force honors that legacy and proclaims, in the words of Dylan Thomas, "rage, rage against the dying of the light". This loss of transparency, this loss of light, shall not be allowed to stand! By the time we’re done, we expect that the bust of "Fighting Bob" will again be sparkling in the sunlight, with a certain twinkle in the eye.

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