Brief

Legislators: Office policy is to delete public emails

By: - April 8, 2021 5:44 am
A picture of a computer delete key on an Apple keyboard

Photo by Matt McGee via Flickr CC BY-ND 2.0

Several weeks ago Sen. Duey Stroebel (R-Saukville) and Rep. Rob Brooks (R-Saukville) responded to an open records request submitted by the progressive group A Better Wisconsin Together (ABWT). The identical request on SB 213, an elections bill that allows complainants to go straight to court rather than the Wisconsin Elections Commission, produced discrepancies in the results. 

They were asked to check their records by attorney Mel Barnes from Law Forward, which is representing WBWT, because certain records provided by one office, that showed both offices copied, were only included by one of the legislators. 

The offices both responded to the lawyer’s request for additional information. Stroebel offered no additional open records, while Brooks forwarded one document he said had been an “unintentional omission” that was “substantially similar” to a document he already sent. 

Brooks stated that he had conducted a second, thorough review of his records and only that one email was missing from his response, 

“It is my office’s policy that my staff and I frequently delete emails during the normal course of business each day,” wrote Brooks, who signed his letter “kind regards.” 

Stroebel wrote, “As a threshold matter, I reject the assertion that my office’s March 5th response was inadequate or withheld any responsive records, unintentional or otherwise. As I’m sure you are aware, members of the Legislature are exempted from certain document retention requirements.”

He, too, outlined his open records policy: “My office’s document retention policy is to retain any document my staff or I believe will assist in the commission of my duties and delete the remainder in the ordinary course of business to aid in organization and preserve limited Microsoft Outlook memory space.”

Stroebel also pointed out that he had provided a preliminary draft of the bill, which he stated was not a public record, so that the request would not be held up.

And he took issue with the request for additional information being shared with this news organization.

“While completely within the First Amendment rights of your client, it appears your client submitted your March 18th letter to the Wisconsin Examiner and cleared you to provide critical quotes toward a news article. Doing this on or before March 22nd, before I had a reasonable period to respond, demonstrates a distinct lack of that same good faith.”

There were no “kind regards” at the end of his letter, which was simply signed, “Duey Stroebel, Senator 20th Senate District.” 

While this particular records request was made to the Republican authors of a particular election bill, it is common practice by legislators and their staff in both parties, to delete emails.  A bill to reverse the legislative exception in the open records statutes and force legislators and their offices to comply with the records law like everyone else has been introduced by Democrats.

 A Better Wisconsin Together was not satisfied with the information they received, particularly given that the bill that was the focus of the request would curtail people’s voting rights. 

“Rep. Brooks and Sen. Stroebel are using a loophole in the open records law to conceal information from the public,” responds Julia Gunther, ABWT research and communications associate. “No part of their records policy prevents them from simply deleting information that would look unfavorable if it became public.

“In this particular case, they seem to have deleted records that show outside, unknown influence on the origins and development of this bill. Their abuse of this loophole in the open records law is particularly galling as they introduce a series of bills that would constrain the freedom to vote, but do so in the name of transparency and trust.”

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Melanie Conklin
Melanie Conklin

Melanie Conklin is proud to be a native of the state of Wisconsin, which gave humankind the typewriter, progressivism and deep-fried cheese curds. Her several decades in journalism include political beats and columns at Isthmus newspaper, the Wisconsin State Journal and other publications. When not an ink-stained wretch, she served time inside state, local and federal government in communications. She is excited to be back at the craft of journalism as Deputy Editor of the Wisconsin Examiner. It’s what she’s loved ever since getting her master’s degree in journalism from the UW-Madison. Her family includes one husband, two kids, four dogs and five (or more) chinchillas.

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