Vos, Assembly cited for contempt after not turning over election review records

By: - March 30, 2022 8:17 pm

Assembly Speaker Robin Vos | official website

A Dane County judge cited Assembly Speaker Robin Vos with contempt of court Wednesday for failing to comply with her order five months ago to turn over records from the 2020 election review that Vos commissioned.

The failure of Vos and the Wisconsin Assembly to search for and produce the records amounted to “a collective and abject disregard for the Court’s order,” wrote Dane County Circuit Judge Valerie Bailey-Rihn in her order Wednesday afternoon. “Accordingly, the Court concludes that Robin Vos and the assembly, after hearing and notice, have chosen to willfully violate a court order and are held in contempt.”

Bailey-Rihn ordered Vos and the Assembly to produce proof that they have complied with the public records law by searching for the requested records, including deleted, lost or missing records, and by turning over any records that they have found to American Oversight, the watchdog group that originally sought them under Wisconsin’s open records law.

The order states that if Vos and the Assembly fail to comply within 14 days, each will be fined $1,000 a day until they do. It does not extend to the Assembly’s chief clerk and records custodian, Edward Blazel, also a defendant in the case, because doing so “would be duplicative” of the finding against the Assembly, the judge wrote.

“Speaker Vos and the Assembly have had ample opportunity to comply with the court’s order and produce records,” said Melanie Sloan, senior advisor for American Oversight, in a statement from the organization. “Maybe the threat of a $1,000/day fine until the records are produced will finally encourage compliance and give the people of Wisconsin the answers they deserve.”

Vos’ office did not respond to an email message Wednesday evening seeking comment. The Wisconsin State Journal reported that after a Racine County town hall event Wednesday, Vos told a reporter “You can’t produce emails you don’t have” and that “This all focuses on them not wanting to get to the truth of what happened in 2020.”

Wednesday’s order grows out of the partisan review of the 2020 presidential election in Wisconsin that Vos initiated in late June 2021, appointing former state Supreme Court Justice Michael Gableman to conduct it.

After the review started, American Oversight filed an open records request for documents connected with the review, then sued Vos and the Assembly when the request was not honored. On Nov. 5, 2021, Bailey-Rihn ordered the records’ release and gave Vos and the Assembly 10 days to comply.

After receiving some documents, but suspecting that many more exist, American Oversight on Jan. 4 asked the judge to hold Vos in contempt of court. Vos has been fighting the contempt motion since then.

On March 10, Bailey-Rihn added deleted emails and text messages to the list of records that Vos was required to turn over.

In her order, Bailey-Rihn observed that Wisconsin law requires outside contractors who are working at the direction of the government to follow the state’s public records law as though the records were maintained directly by the government itself. That provision in the state law is to prevent government agencies from evading their responsibilities under the public records law.

“But evading responsibilities is exactly what the Respondents have done so far,” Bailey-Rihn wrote, referring to Vos, the Assembly and Blazel.

Vos, she wrote, passed off the records request to a staffer “who did nothing more than send one vague email to one contractor” — Gableman.

“Putting aside for the moment the impropriety of making a contractor responsible for a records request,” Bailey-Rihn wrote, “Robin Vos did not tell that contractor which records to produce, did not ask any of the other contractors to produce records, and did not even review the records ultimately received. Still worse, the assembly did nothing at all.”

In a separate American Oversight lawsuit, Dane County Circuit Judge Frank Remington on March 8 ordered the release of more than 700 pages of records from Gableman’s review.

This story was updated 3/31/2022, 6:50 a.m., with information about Robin Vos’ comment on the case in a published report.

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Erik Gunn
Erik Gunn

Deputy Editor Erik Gunn reports and writes on work and the economy, health policy and related subjects, for the Wisconsin Examiner. He spent 24 years as a freelance writer for Milwaukee Magazine, Isthmus, The Progressive, BNA Inc., and other publications, winning awards for investigative reporting, feature writing, beat coverage, business writing, and commentary. An East Coast native, he previously covered labor for The Milwaukee Journal after reporting for newspapers in upstate New York and northern Illinois. He's a graduate of Beloit College (English Comp.) and the Columbia School of Journalism. Off hours he is the Examiner's resident Springsteen and Jackson Browne fanboy and model railroad nerd.

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