Green Bay audio lawsuit filed by election deniers, Republicans with ties to mayoral challenger
Green Bay City Hall | Green Bay government photo
A fight over audio recording capabilities in the Green Bay city hall security system has drawn a lawsuit, calls for criminal charges and numerous headlines in the weeks leading up to the city’s April 4 mayoral election.
The lawsuit, filed by state Sen. Andre Jacque (R-DePere), the Wisconsin Senate and a couple of local political figures, alleges the recording system amounts to “a stark invasion of privacy.” Yet not included in the legal briefs is the fact that a disruption by one of the plaintiffs, a proponent of election conspiracies, precipitated the installation of the audio equipment in the first place. The loudest opponents of the equipment also have ties to the conservative challenger to incumbent Mayor Eric Genrich.
Since 2020, Green Bay has been a hotbed of election conspiracism. Green Bay was one of the five municipalities across the state that received a large amount of grant money through the Center for Tech and Civic Life (CTCL), a nonprofit partially funded by Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg. After the 2020 election, in which Wisconsin elected Joe Biden, conspiracies spread that the CTCL grants, or “Zucker-bucks” as Republicans took to calling them, were sent to mostly Democratic voting parts of the state in an effort to garner more Biden votes through bribery.
In reality, the money was used to help cover the mundane operational costs of an overburdened city clerk’s office dealing with the added expenses of administering an election during a pandemic.
“There was no way for the City to react to the changes brought on by the pandemic without the infusion of funding,” former city attorney Vanessa Chavez wrote in a 2021 memo summarizing her investigation into the city’s administration of the 2020 election. “Notably, prior to the pandemic, absentee ballots requested were generally under 3,000, whereas for the August 2020 primary, the requests exceeded 10,000, and for the November general election, the number was approximately 33,000.”
“The Clerk’s Office was overwhelmed and overstressed with the level of work required during 2020, as employees were routinely working well beyond their scheduled work hours just to keep up with their obligations, and with no end in sight,” Chavez continued.
Persistent conspiracy claims
Despite numerous investigations, audits and reviews confirming that there was no fraud in the 2020 election in Green Bay or Wisconsin as a whole, the conspiracies continued to fester.
In 2021, after Assembly Speaker Robin Vos (R-Burlington) hired former state Supreme Court Justice Michael Gableman to investigate the election, Gableman focused heavily on Green Bay — largely retracing the tracks of the already debunked “Zuckerbucks” theories.
Gableman’s focus on the city continued to escalate during his 14-month review. As he continued to dig, fruitlessly, for evidence of election fraud, Gableman and his staff sent several subpoenas requesting documents and testimony from local officials across the state, including the mayors of Green Bay and Madison.
The mayors argued that Gableman’s didn’t have the authority to demand private depositions. They filed a lawsuit to fight the subpoenas. Gableman responded by trying to have a Waukesha County judge throw both mayors in jail for contempt of court.
As these fights were playing out, a small group of local election conspiracy theorists in Green Bay decided to take action.
The course of action they chose was mostly to loudly and publicly confront the people who work in and around city hall and accuse them of wrongdoing.
Chavez, a New Mexico native, left the city attorney’s office after a group of local election deniers cornered her in city hall and told her to go back where she was from.
In November of 2021, a group of those same election deniers confronted a reporter for the Green Bay Press Gazette after a common council meeting in an incident the newspaper’s leadership said amounted to “harassment, with the intention of bullying a member of the press.”
The group, according to several witnesses, surrounded the reporter and lobbed personal insults at her because of her work.
“While we understand that people are entitled to their opinions, the manner in which this group isolated and verbally assaulted an employee creates concerns about her future ability to safely and securely do her job at City Hall,” then-editor of the paper Mark Treinen wrote in a letter to Genrich. “This harassment, with the intention of bullying a member of the press to stop doing her work as a journalist, threatens a key element of the democratic process.”
Observers at the clerk’s office
The disruptions continued for months, including during the April 2022 election. That election occurred after Wisconsin Republicans successfully sued to dismantle a number of methods local election clerks had implemented to make returning absentee ballots easier. The Wisconsin Supreme Court ruled that absentee ballot drop boxes were illegal, and there was a public debate about whether anybody could return someone else’s ballot. That question was especially important for voters with disabilities who are unable to go to the polls on Election Day or place their ballot envelopes in a mailbox without assistance.
The April 2022 election took place after the drop box decision but before a federal judge ruled that the Americans with Disabilities Act protects disabled voters’ right to have someone else assist them in returning their ballots. Because of this, local clerks were left to interpret the law for themselves.
Green Bay City Clerk Celestine Jeffreys, consulting with the city attorney’s office, determined that in order to comply with the ADA, the city would accept absentee ballots returned by people who said they were assisting a voter who was unable to turn in the ballot because of sickness or disability.
On that Election Day, a group of election deniers were hanging around the clerk’s office to act as “observers” as people returned ballots when Molly Senechal walked in to return her ballot and that of her husband, who has a chronic illness and was unable to come in to return his own ballot.
One of the group of “observers,” local attorney Janet Angus, burst into the clerk’s office from the hallway to yell that Senechal and Jeffreys were “doing something illegal.” The incident continued to escalate and as Angus continued yelling Senechal started to cry.
“I felt like I had done something wrong, which upset me, and I admit I did start crying because I felt I had initiated the situation,” Senechal, who did not respond to a request for an interview, later told police. A member of the clerk’s office staff walked the upset Senechal out to her car.
Months later, the city cited Angus for disorderly conduct because of the incident. Angus, who did not respond to a request for comment, attempted to have the citation dismissed but the case is still pending.
Jeffreys tells the Wisconsin Examiner that ongoing election denier interactions with city staff, U.S. postal workers and other community members have the result of discouraging people from voting.
“I think deliberately that escalation is meant to dissuade people from the polls,” Jeffreys says. “That is what this is all about. Everyone should be upset about that. When those people who are dissuading, policing, scrutinizing, they think they’re only scrutinizing people they don’t want at the polls. When in fact you scrutinize all people from the polls.”
Because of these ongoing incidents, including several involving Angus, the city upgraded its security system to include audio recording. Months later, Angus — pseudonymously listed in the lawsuit as “Jane Doe” — joined Republicans in the state Senate to sue Genrich and the city over the audio.
That Angus, whose alleged harassment of people in the hallways of Green Bay City Hall led local officials to upgrade security, is now suing over having her privacy violated has not gone unnoticed by city leaders.
“Ironic would be the word for that,” Genrich says, adding that audio recording equipment has been used in several other local government buildings, public transit in cities all over Wisconsin and several other municipalities. “What prompted this installation were the bad behaviors of a small number of individuals that were threatening and harassing city staff and members of the media.”
The lawsuit alleges that the use of audio recording violates Wisconsin’s recording statutes, which require at least one party involved in a conversation to give consent to be recorded. The lawsuit argues that if people having a discussion in city hall don’t know the audio equipment is there, none of them can give consent.
While several members of city leadership acknowledge that reasonable people can have competing views on the best security systems for public places like the city hall, the timing of the lawsuit and the people involved in it raise questions about its true motivation.
The lawsuit was initially filed in late February, right as the city’s mayoral election was beginning in earnest.
“I’m concerned that there was some type of underhandedness or strategy in waiting until after the city primary and before the city election to dirty up the mayor — and that’s unfortunate,” Brown County Judge Marc Hammer, who is overseeing the case, said after issuing a temporary injunction against the use of audio recording in city hall. “That’s extremely disappointing, quite frankly, to use a fundamental right that our people have as a political tool.”
Recording capabilities long known
All of the parties involved in the lawsuit knew about the recording capabilities months before it was filed.
A series of open records requests filed in late August of 2022 with the city by the attorneys representing Angus in her disorderly conduct case, and obtained by the Examiner, show that she knew about the audio capabilities six months before the lawsuit was filed.
A memo from the Wisconsin Legislative Council to Jacque in late October of 2022 explaining the relevant laws after he had “asked about the legality of a municipality’s use of a device to record conversations in a governmental building,” shows that he knew about the audio recording at least four months before the lawsuit was filed.
The audio recording debate ignited at an early February common council meeting when Green Bay Alder Chris Wery brought it up.
“In a flagrant flaunting of federal and state law in direct defiance of our own city policy, audio recording devices are present at city hall,” Wery said, demanding that the audio capabilities be removed. “Anyone who approved this blatant disregard for privacy should resign or be severely reprimanded.”
Yet several members of city staff and a former council member have confirmed that several members of the council, including Wery knew about the audio recording as early as November 2022.
Ties to challenger
Aside from its timing, the lawsuit has the appearance of a political effort since everyone involved seems to have direct political or financial ties to Chad Weininger, the Brown County official running to unseat Genrich.
The Wisconsin State Senate is not normally a party in lawsuits over extremely local policy decisions such as city hall security systems. But the complainant in this case, Jacque, previously worked with Weininger in the Green Bay mayor’s office under former mayor Jim Schmitt.
Weininger, campaign finance records show, gave $1,000 to Jacque’s first senate campaign in 2018. That is the largest donation Weininger has given to any individual state campaign since 2008, records show. His only larger contributions went to the state Republican Party and his own races for the Assembly.
The Senate’s involvement, at taxpayer expense, in a lawsuit over a local issue, is especially disturbing to Jeffreys.
“What happened to home rule? I thought cities had home rule?” she says. “I thought we were somewhat independent. I don’t get that at all. How’s this a matter for the state? Maybe I’m missing something but I don’t see how it’s a matter for the state.”
Genrich considers it outrageous that the Senate would spend taxpayer money on this lawsuit, comparing it to the millions of dollars the Assembly spent on Gableman’s review of the 2020 election.
“It’s mind-blowing to me that this is going on,” he says. “The Wisconsin state Senate is a legislative body, obviously. They’re not there to bring lawsuits against local governments and waste taxpayer dollars. This is on top of the $2.5 million the Assembly spent with the Gableman fiasco and that tab continues to grow.”
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Wery, who brought attention to the issue in early February, did “consulting” work for Weininger’s 2012 Assembly race. Campaign finance records show that Weininger’s campaign paid Wery $600 for consulting fees ahead of that race. The records also show that the Weininger campaign paid Wery’s wife $600, Wery’s mother $600 and his children, who at the time were nine and six years old, $500 each. In total, the Weininger campaign paid the entire Wery family a total of $2,800.
In 2016, Wery was sued for using his job at a bank to access the financial information of his election opponent, a tactic that observers say is a far worse invasion of privacy than audio recording in a public building.
“Chris Wery is the one calling out the mayor for invasion of privacy, he’s familiar with invasion of privacy,” former council member Barbara Dorff says. “It looks to me as if there’s interference by a major political party in our elections. It seems to be an ongoing saga in Green Bay that the election deniers, the far right, MAGA Republicans, get involved and stick their noses in our elections.”
Additionally, Weininger’s campaign finance documents for his current mayoral race show an unpaid bill owed to Janet Angus on Feb. 1, just weeks before she anonymously joined the lawsuit against Weininger’s political opponent.
“Just about everybody involved in this legal action is either politically or financially connected to my opponent,” Genrich says. “So it’s pretty obvious what the motivation is here, that’s something Judge Hammer also pointed out. The people bringing this suit were aware of this system going back to fall of 2022, and waited to do anything about it until we were very close to the spring general election, so it’s pretty clear that this is a politically motivated action brought about by far right political interests who have been attacking the city of Green Bay for now over two years.”
Jacque, Weininger and Wery did not respond to requests for comment.
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