Wisconsin secretary of state settles lawsuit over open records request from a conservative policy group

Democratic Wisconsin Secretary of State Sarah Godlewski settled an open records lawsuit brought by the conservative Institute for Reforming Government, agreeing to respond to all requests even when her office has no responsive records.

Associated Press

July 10, 2024

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Sarah Godlewski smiles while sitting at a glass-topped table with a pair of glasses on its surface, in a room with wood and leather furniture, wood-paneled walls and electric wall sconces.

Wisconsin Secretary of State Sarah Godlewski is interviewed on March 23, 2023, at the Wisconsin State Capitol in Madison. Godlewski settled an open records lawsuit brought by a conservative policy group on July 10, 2024, agreeing to respond to all requests even when her office has no responsive records. (Credit: AP Photo / Harm Verhuizen)

AP News

By Scott Bauer, AP

MADISON, Wis. (AP) — Wisconsin’s Democratic secretary of state settled an open records lawsuit brought by a conservative policy group, agreeing to respond to all future requests even when her office has no responsive records.

The Institute for Reforming Government sought records in 2023 related to Democrat Sarah Godlewski’s appointment as secretary of state. The Wisconsin-based group filed its request the day Gov. Tony Evers appointed Godlewski — an appointment that even she said was a complete surprise.

Godlewski did not respond to the request for 189 days. Godlewski initially said she didn’t have to respond because she had no responsive records, but after the lawsuit was filed she turned over communication sent from her private email to another email account used by her predecessor, Doug La Follette.

The emails discussed personal issues and state business raised by La Follette, according to the settlement.

Under the settlement released on July 10, Godlewski agreed to respond to future open records requests as soon as practicable and without delay, even when the office determines that no records exist. The office also agreed to check private emails that are used for state business and provide any responsive records.

“We requested these records as part of our mission to maintain vigorous oversight of state agencies, and we are pleased that this litigation has resulted in a policy change that will benefit all record requesters going forward,” Institute for Reforming Government President and CEO CJ Szafir said in a statement.

Lucas Vebber, attorney for the Wisconsin Institute for Law and Liberty, which represented IRG, said the settlement ensures that state law will be followed going forward.

Godlewski said in a statement that the office “has and will continue to follow open records law.”

State law requires that the settlement be approved by the Legislature’s Republican-controlled budget committee before it takes effect.

Evers appointed Godlewski on March 17, 2023, the day that La Follette abruptly resigned less than three months into his 11th consecutive term. Republicans who control the state Legislature blasted the move as a quid pro quo and called on Evers to hold a special election to fill the job.

Godlewski has repeatedly denied allegations that Evers handed her the office as a reward for dropping out of the U.S. Senate race in 2022 and endorsing then-Lt. Gov. Mandela Barnes.

The secretary of state’s office in Wisconsin does not have any role in running elections, unlike in other states, and has very few official duties.

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