Conservative group sues Wisconsin secretary of state over records requests

The Institute for Reforming Government filed a lawsuit against Wisconsin Secretary of State Sarah Godlewski over records requests related to communications by her predecessor and the governor.

Associated Press

August 22, 2023

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Sarah Godlewski sits while speaking in a room with wood-paneled walls and electric wall sconces.

Wisconsin Secretary of State Sarah Godlewski is interviewed on March 23, 2023 in Madison. A conservative policy group on Aug. 22 filed an open records lawsuit against Godlewski, accusing her of blocking a request it hopes can shed light on the events that led to her appointment to the office. (Credit: AP Photo / Harm Venhuizen, File)

AP News

By Harm Verhuizen, AP

MADISON, Wis. (AP) — A conservative policy group filed an open records lawsuit on Aug. 22 against Wisconsin Secretary of State Sarah Godlewski, accusing her of blocking a request it hopes can shed light on the events that led to her appointment earlier in the year.

Democratic Gov. Tony Evers tapped Godlewski for the role on March 17, the day her predecessor, longtime Secretary of State Doug La Follette, abruptly resigned less than three months into his eleventh consecutive term. Republicans who control the state Legislature blasted the move as a quid pro quo and called on Evers to instead hold a special election to fill the job.

Godlewski, who previously served as state treasurer, was coming off an unsuccessful 2022 midterm bid for U.S. Senate. She and two other top contenders dropped out of the crowded Democratic primary in the same week in July to clear the way for former Lt. Gov. Mandela Barnes, who ultimately lost to incumbent Republican Sen. Ron Johnson.

Godlewski has repeatedly denied allegations that Evers handed her the office as a reward for dropping out of the Senate race and endorsing Barnes. She told The Associated Press in her first interview after being appointed that the governor’s decision came as a complete surprise to her.

The Institute for Reforming Government, a conservative, Wisconsin-based policy group, filed an open records request with Godlewski’s office on the same day she was appointed. The request asked for copies of all correspondence La Follette had sent to Evers, Godlewski and deputy secretaries of state in the year before he resigned.

Godlewski’s office confirmed on May 25, after the IRG sent multiple emails asking for updates, that it had received the request, according to a complaint filed in Waukesha County Court on Aug. 22 and provided to the AP in advance. The complaint alleges that since May 25, Godlewski’s office has not turned over any records, denied the request, or sent an update — effectively blocking the request.

In an Aug. 22 statement, Godlewski said her office had no responsive records for the request.

“We learned of this court action through news reports this morning. We do our best to respond to records requests as soon as practicable, and my office is seeking support from the Department of Justice to ensure this action is handled appropriately,” she said.

Republicans have gutted the secretary of state’s office over the past 10 years, stripping the role of most of its power and staff before relegating La Follette to a small office in the Capitol basement. The most significant duty the office still holds is sitting on the state timber board.

In his resignation letter, La Follette said he was leaving because he was tired of working with such limited resources.

During the midterm, Republicans had been openly discussing transferring election administration duties from a bipartisan commission to the secretary of state’s office, following the lead of at least 38 other states. The GOP candidate for the office in 2022, former Republican state Rep. Amy Loudenbeck, narrowly lost to La Follette by about 7,500 votes.

Harm Venhuizen is a corps member for the Associated Press/Report for America Statehouse News Initiative. Report for America is a nonprofit national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms to report on undercovered issues.

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