Tag Archives: good government

Trump conflict plan woefully inadequate 

President-elect Donald Trump’s planned arrangement with the Trump Organization falls far short of what’s necessary to avoid conflicts of interest and Emoluments Clause violations that will dog his administration and severely undermine the public’s faith in government.

Common Cause has called on President-elect Trump to divest from the Trump Organization and put his wealth into a blind trust managed independently from him.

Instead, he’s decided to retain full ownership of the Trump Organization and have two of his sons run it—no divestment and no independence.

These are the same two sons who recently had their name attached to an inauguration fundraiser that promised access to their father for those willing to pay $1 million dollars. The event was cancelled but the precedent was troubling.

The American public must now demand complete transparency of the Trump Organization and President-elect Trump’s finances.

Such transparency is America’s only hope for protecting itself against conflicts of interest and Emoluments Clause violations — and holding President-elect Trump accountable for his promises to avoid conflicts and violations of the constitution.

The president-elect must take additional steps immediately to safeguard the integrity of the office of the president.

To begin with, Trump must release his taxes and quit hiding the facts and the potential conflicts from the American people.

At today’s press conference, when asked to release his tax returns, the president-elect rejected the request and claimed that the “only one that cares about my tax returns are the reporters.”

Common Cause’s more than 700,000 members and supporters care about the president-elect’s tax returns and additional financial disclosure.

We demand it.

Common Cause is a nonpartisan, nonprofit advocacy organization founded in 1970 by John Gardner as a vehicle for citizens to make their voices heard in the political process and to hold their elected leaders accountable to the public interest.

In the sunshine: Open records and open government

Journalists come to their profession motivated to serve the public good, protect the public welfare and strengthen the Fourth Estate.

Chief among our concerns as reporters, editors and publishers is safeguarding open records and open government. We cannot have good government without an open government, without government that operates visibly, in the sunlight.

James Madison, the father of the U.S. Constitution, wrote “consent of the governed” requires that the people be able to “arm themselves with the power which knowledge gives.”

Each March, for Madison’s birthday, we celebrate Sunshine Week. Journalists and others who work in media, along with our press associations, watchdog organizations and civil liberties groups, trumpet the value of transparency and warn against the damage that society suffers without it, such as during the dark days of the notorious Nixon years.

Sunshine Week dates to Sunshine Sunday in 2002, which came in response to efforts to carve up one of the strongest public records laws in the country and create new records exemptions in Florida.

By 2005, the sunshine movement had gone national.

Keeping government in the sunshine is not a left or right issue or a partisan matter. For proof, look to the Open Government Traveling Show making its way around Wisconsin. To present 90-minute programs on the open records law, the Wisconsin Freedom of Information Council and the Madison chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists are joining with the liberal Wisconsin Democracy Campaign and the Center for Media and Democracy and the conservative MacIver Institute for Public Policy and the Wisconsin Institute for Law and Liberty.

Representatives of those groups, as well as Madison attorney April Barker, are traveling March 15–17 to La Crosse, Eau Claire, Wausau, Green Bay, Appleton, Sheboygan, Waukesha and Janesville to talk about the freedom of information and protecting public access to government records. The Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism also is involved.

In Wisconsin, we’re fighting to protect our laws from an administration that’s shown a blatant disregard for the public’s right to know.

We united last summer to defeat an overhaul of the state public records law, dodging a sneak attack on open government that Republicans launched as we celebrated the country’s independence.

Yet, we must remain vigilant because attacks on open government continue in Wisconsin.

Remember, every citizen in our participatory democracy has an inherent right to access government meetings and public records. Open and accessible government is vital to establishing and maintaining the people’s trust and confidence in lawmakers and other elected officials. Without such knowledge, the people are powerless.

For Sunshine Week, we encourage you to share a pledge with your elected officials and appointed clerks who keep government records:

  • Government meetings must be properly promoted and open to the public.
  • Government agencies or departments must accept, as a minimum, information requests by phone, mail, over the counter or online.
  • Information requests must be responded to promptly.
  • Government departments and agencies must keep a log of information requests.
  • Governments must post on-site and online records that are likely to be the subject of repeated requests, including contracts that exceed $5,000.

Sunshine Week is for all of us to celebrate. Catch some rays.

Concerns linger over ‘transitory’ records in Wisconsin

The last six months have been a roller coaster for Wisconsin’s open records law. After the Legislature’s failed attack on the law over the Independence Day holiday, August brought a new threat.

A little-known state board expanded the definition of “transitory records,” which can be immediately destroyed. Once this action was revealed, there was an impressive outcry from the public and that change was dialed back last month. But there is still cause for concern.

The state Public Records Board sets retention schedules for state and local government records. Retention is important—if records aren’t retained, they can’t be requested and obtained by the public. State law makes retention the rule, and records can be disposed of only if the Public Records Board grants permission. The board’s mandate is to “safeguard the legal, financial and historical interests of the state in public records.”         

But in 2010, the board made the questionable decision to allow immediate deletion of some correspondence. Such “transitory records” were deemed of such temporary value as to not require any retention. State agency employees could simply delete these records after they were created, without any further oversight.

On Aug. 24, 2015, the board held a meeting and expanded the transitory records category. Now it included not just correspondence, but other documents such as “interim files” and “recordings used for training purposes.”

The board’s meeting notice and minutes contained no indication of this change, later prompting the Wisconsin Freedom of Information Council to file an Open Meetings complaint with the district attorney. The day after the new definition was passed, the Walker administration notified the Wisconsin State Journal that records it previously requested had already been destroyed as “transitory.”

News outlets then reported the Public Record Board’s actions, and the reaction was swift. Critics said the change undermined the records law and the public’s right to know, inviting abuse. They pointed out that records the board defined as “transitory” were actually of significant public interest.  There were also concerns that whole categories of electronic communications would be deleted as “transitory.” The Public Records Board was flooded with nearly 1,900 emails.

Fortunately, the board listened. At a meeting in January, it rescinded its August decision to expand the definition of “transitory records.”

But the danger has not passed. The old, 2010 definition of “transitory records” is still in place. Records custodians can still immediately delete some correspondence. Comments from board members in January suggested they are resistant to eliminating this category, despite state law suggesting that no records can be instantly deleted. Board president Matt Blessing said the issue would be revisited at a future meeting.  The board next convenes on March 7.

Another positive step is a bill being circulated by Democratic lawmakers that would create penalties for destroying public records. As Assembly Minority Leader Peter Barca observed, “There’s no recourse if agencies destroy records.” The bill would shore up existing provisions in the law that deter premature destruction of public records.

Let’s hope one or both of these potential fixes advance. Otherwise, Wisconsin’s weak records retention requirements will continue to undermine the public’s right to know.

Christa Westerberg is an attorney at Bender Westerberg LLC in Madison, and co-vice president of the Wisconsin Freedom of Information Council.


GOP seeks to ram through laws undoing Wisconsin’s good government tradition

In times of war and national crisis, Congress has had to respond nimbly, passing laws without going through the usual legislative process, which includes “readings” — dissemination of proposals to legislators — along with holding debates and public hearings. For example, Congress bypassed normal protocol to enact laws responding to the Great Depression, the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor and the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, said David T. Canon, professor of political science at UW-Madison.

But federal and state governments have seldom, if ever, resorted to such deviations from the legislative process in the absence of public emergencies, Canon noted. He and other political experts are concerned that Wisconsin’s Republican leadership, in the absence of any emergency, is circumventing normal procedures to quickly enact a series of measures drastically changing both election laws and the ground rules for how state workers are hired and fired. 

Besides lacking an underlying public emergency that would justify fast-tracking the GOP’s legislative priorities, there’s been no public demand — or even interest — in refashioning the laws. The changes appear based only on Republican lawmakers’ self-interests.

Canon and many others lament that Republican leaders are turning their backs on Wisconsin’s century-old stature as the standard bearer of good government. With the GOP’s proposed changes comes the potential danger that Wisconsin will devolve into a cesspool of early 20th-century-style political corruption.

Fast-tracking partisan ‘reforms’

In June, Republicans tried to sneak a measure gutting the state’s open records law nto the biennial budget bill at the 11th hour. They backed off after an outcry from the public, but even Republican apologists such as talk radio’s Charlie Sykes were red-faced over the incident.

Although GOP leaders abandoned that effort, “Just the fact that they even tried to do this in the first place should bother everybody in this state,” Sen. Jon Erpenbach, D-Madison, said at the time.

That concern seems prophetic now that the state’s GOP leaders have turned to new ways of shielding public officials who engage in unethical and illegal campaign activities. Critics say the GOP’s government “reforms” are largely motivated by the GOP’s desire to avenge the bipartisan John Doe investigations of Gov. Scott Walker and his staffers, some of whom landed in jail.

The first piece of legislation Republicans went after was the John Doe law, which they rewrote to exclude political investigations (see page 6). That was just the beginning. There are several other pieces of redefining legislation speeding to Walker’s desk. The three that rise to the most transformative level are:

• The annihilation of the Government Accountability Board.

• An overhaul of campaign finance law that will allow unlimited, anonymous money in Wisconsin elections.

• The end of Wisconsin’s current civil service system, which could usher in Chicago-style political patronage and cronyism.

Government Accountability Board

By a nearly unanimous vote, the GAB was formed in 2008, largely in reaction to a scandal two years’ prior that sent members of both parties to jail. At the time of its creation, both parties hailed the GAB as a shining example of Wisconsin’s bipartisan commitment to clean, open government.

The GAB administers and enforces Wisconsin laws governing elections, ethics, campaign financing and lobbying. It’s composed of the Elections Division and the Ethics and Accountability Division.

Six retired state judges comprise the board. The governor appoints them from a list of candidates selected by the Wisconsin Court of Appeals and the Senate must approve them. 

Despite the bipartisan makeup of the GAB, including appointments made by Walker, Republicans say the group organized a vicious, partisan-motivated witch-hunt of Walker’s campaign activities.

In response, GOP leaders have decided to eliminate the GAB and break it into two separate entities, one to oversee elections and another to monitor ethics and accountability. Each would have a bipartisan board consisting of three Republicans and three Democrats — and perhaps two judges. Details remained sketchy as WiG went to press.

The unspoken but widely recognized goal of this transformation is to create built-in partisan gridlock that will prevent the board from moving forward on investigations. That’s exactly what’s happened on the federal level, according to Canon.

The Wisconsin Democracy Campaign called the proposal “a recipe for corruption.” The notion of eliminating partisanship by switching to a partisan oversight board is oxymoronic, they emphasize.

Republicans claim the GAB in its current form is guilty of overreach and anti-GOP sentiment. That claim ignores that the board’s members are bipartisan and judges rather than politicians.

Canon said the facts belie Republican claims. The Legislative Audit Bureau, also in the crosshairs of GOP leaders, looked at three or four years of GAB decisions and found no evidence of partisanship.

Although the GAB participated in the John Doe cases against Walker, the board also has taken high-profile  actions against Democratic interests. For instance, during the state Senate recall races, the GAB allowed Republicans to place fake candidates on the ballots to improve their odds of holding on to their seats, which drew outcries of pro-Republican bias from Democrats. The GAB looked into the infamous “lost votes” in the Supreme Court race between Justice David Prosser and challenger JoAnne Kloppenburg. Republican Waukesha County Clerk Kathy Nickolaus claimed to have found 14,315 votes after Kloppenburg declared herself the winner by a few hundred votes, a “discovery” that handed the victory to Prosser.

The GAB investigated Nickolaus’ handling of the votes and determined the staunch Republican had engaged in no wrongdoing.

Those two examples refute Republican leaders’ claims that the GAB has been “out to get” them. The fact that the board has run afoul of both parties suggests that it’s performing its duties in a non-partisan manner.

Despite the potential damage of eliminating the GAB, the proposal has failed to generate much attention from the public, let along outrage.

“A lot of people can’t understand why (the GAB overhaul) is such an important thing to care about,” Canon said. “It’s hard to get the kind of very strong reaction that you got with the backlash over the open records law.”

The Assembly quickly passed the measure to get rid of the GAB, but four Republican senators — Luther Olsen, Sheila Harsdorf, Jerry Petrowski, and Rob Cowles have reportedly stalled it in the Senate, as of press time.

Campaign finance law

Republicans also are fast-tracking a complete rewrite of Chapter 11 of the Wisconsin Statutes, which sets campaign donation limits as well as disclosure and reporting requirements. Originally, it also prohibited  coordination among candidates, political parties and independent groups.

The GOP plan will double the amount of contributions candidates for state and local office can legally accept. The plan will also increase contribution limits every five years to account for inflation.

The bill removes regulations that prevented campaigns from coordinating their communication strategies with political action committees, which can raise unlimited sums of money and provide anonymity to their donors. At the same time, the law leaves in place a ban on coordinating advertising and promotional materials that ask voters to elect or defeat a specific candidate.

The change in campaign coordination rules reflects a state Supreme Court ruling earlier this year that said coordination is legal so long as it advocates for or against issues rather than candidates. But federal law prevents any coordination between PACs and campaigns, which means the state would have one set of rules governing state elections and a different set governing state elections for federal office-seekers.

The ruling on state campaign coordination was issued in a John Doe case involving Walker’s 2012 recall campaign staff, which coordinated their activities with supportive PACs. The court’s four conservative justices sided with the PACs’ position that the coordination was protected by the state’s constitutional guarantee of free speech. But an ethical shadow hangs over that ruling, because the prevailing justices received at least $8 million in campaign contributions from the PACs involved in the case.

“The Republican-led effort to scrap Wisconsin’s proud tradition of clean, open government and stringent campaign finance and ethics laws is shameful,” state Rep. Mark Spreitzer, D-Beloit, said. “Under the guise of protecting free speech, this proposal opens the floodgates and allows more money to flow into the pockets of politicians as fast and as often as special interests can write a check.”

The campaign finance law has moved with such speed that Spreitzer and others complained there was no time to review or analyze the proposal. An 18-page amendment to the original Assembly bill passed out of committee before Democrats even saw it. As of press time, the bill was scheduled for a vote within a week.

Civil service rules

Assembly Republicans also passed a rewrite of Wisconsin’s civil service laws that would make it easier to hire and fire people for state jobs.

In addition to shortening the timeline for new hires, the bill would end the civil service exam for state government job applicants and replace it with a “resume system.” By making the process subjective, campaign donors and workers could be rewarded with jobs, regardless of their qualifications.

Republican Majority Leader Jim Steineke, R-Kaukauna, insisted, “This bill will simply accelerate the hiring process, making it infinitely more likely that we’re going to be able to attract the best candidate.”

But the change will unquestionably open the door to hiring and firing decisions based on personal decision-making as opposed to objective criteria. Democrats contend the process will lead to patronage hiring and firing. Rep. Gary Hebl, D-Sun Prairie, said it would create an “army” of “partisan lackeys.”

“(Government workers) will owe their allegiance to General Walker, or they will be dishonorably discharged if they don’t carry the water for General Walker,” Hebl said.

The plan passed the Assembly on a party line vote and, as of press time, was headed to the Senate, where Republicans were considering a competing version that will probably pass during the time this issue of WiG is on newsstands.

Ironic GOP revolt

Over a century ago, America was in the throes of a shameful chapter that included child slavery, slumlords and routine police shakedowns of small businesses. Laborers toiled under dangerous conditions for 12 hours a day, seven days a week, and were lucky if they were paid enough to survive. Injuries and deaths on the job were commonplace and victims had no legal recourse.

The situation was made possible by a small minority of wealthy oligarchs who ran the United States government — along with the governments of states and municipalities — by paying politicians to enact laws and policies designed to make them wealthier. If they couldn’t get what they wanted by buying elected officials, they bribed judges and police.

Political deals were made in back rooms and ballot boxes were rigged by partisan grunts who were rewarded with government jobs for which they were unqualified. 

But in the earliest years of the 20th century, Wisconsinite Bob La Follette — a Republican congressman, U.S. senator and governor — became a national figure by cleaning up Wisconsin’s corruption and cronyism, earning him the title of “Fighting Bob.” 

Today, with no apparent sense of irony or shame, La Follette’s party is in the process of undoing the reforms he championed — right in Fighting Bob’s own backyard.

Or, as Spreitzer put it, “In just shy of two weeks, Republicans will have unraveled 100 years of tradition.”

Needed: Conscience and courage

As the fall chill takes hold, we can mope about the prospect of another long, dreary winter or make plans to shake up our lives and make good use of our time.

What’s true for our personal lives is equally true for our political climate.

Many liberals are discouraged by the endless stream of inanities from right-wing media, Congressional committees and Republican presidential candidates. Corporate shills vigorously deny global warming despite growing evidence of rising temperatures, deforestation, ocean acidification and species extinction.

Closer to home, Gov. Scott Walker and his GOP majorities in our Legislature continue to destroy multi-party, transparent government. Their methods are legion: gerrymandering legislative districts; prohibiting prosecutors from conducting John Doe investigations into corrupt practices; increasing the amount of allowable political campaign contributions while enabling donor anonymity; eliminating civil service rules that prevent cronyism; trying to trash our open records law; dismantling the nonpartisan board that oversees ethics and accountability; depressing voter participation through restrictive, confusing voter ID laws; restricting local ballot initiatives.

With Wisconsin in the grip of incipient fascism, it’s not the time for us to hibernate. There are many opportunities to get involved and help to turn our state back to a progressive path.

Contact the League of Women Voters (608-256-0827) or the Democratic Party in your region of the state to participate in voter education and registration drives. The GOP is counting on chaos and low voter turnout in next year’s elections. You can take an active role in seeing their plans crushed. At a minimum, make sure that you and everyone you know has the proper ID and knows when and where to vote.

I am far to the left of the Democratic Party, but I’m also a pragmatist. Democrats are the most viable alternative to the GOP right now. The GOP has a 63–36 majority in the state Assembly and a 19–14 majority in the Senate. It will be difficult to turn that around, but it’s not impossible. It wasn’t long ago that we had a Democratic governor and Democratic majority in the Senate.

I urge you to contact the Democratic Party and get active in campaigns, canvassing, issues research, social media and other forms of organizing. Participation of this kind has many benefits, including new skills, friendships and adventures. You can change your life while you change our state.

The Wisconsin Legislature is in session through Dec. 31. GOP leaders are promoting more legislation that will restrict public oversight and women’s reproductive freedom. 

Your voice matters. When issues concern you, call, write or email your representatives. Sign up for Twitter and email alerts from your favorite advocacy organizations. Planned Parenthood Advocates kept me informed daily during its federal funding crisis and allows me to send messages to my elected officials with just one keystroke. 

Spread the word and activate your family, friends and workmates. It is only through individual initiative that we will rescue democratic governance in our state.

“In a democracy,” wrote Marilynne Robinson, “abdications of conscience are never trivial. A successful autocracy rests on the universal failure of individual courage.”

In Wisconsin, it’s time we put conscience and courage into high gear.

Demand clean, open gov’t

Differences of opinion are inevitable in government. Disagreements between Democrats and Republicans over public investments, funding for schools or the fairness of our tax code are common.

Despite these differences, everyone can agree that an open, transparent and accessible government is essential to democracy.

Throughout Wisconsin’s history, both Democrats and Republicans have supported laws to protect citizen access, prevent political corruption and maintain high ethical standards.

Unfortunately, this historical bipartisan agreement is nearing an end.

Republicans who control the Legislature in Madison are pushing a package of bills that severely limit the ability of Wisconsin citizens to have their voices heard and hold officials accountable.

These bills follow the recent attempt by Gov. Scott Walker and legislative Republicans to gut Wisconsin’s open record laws. These misguided efforts to limit disclosure of public documents were abandoned only after newspapers, media outlets and citizens responded with overwhelming opposition.

Now, less than three months after the failed attempt to restrict open record access, the GOP is using an end-run tactic to rewrite long-standing campaign finance, ethics and anti-corruption laws.

Walker privately signed the first of these bills, Senate Bill 43, into law on Oct. 23. This law makes it more difficult to prosecute political corruption by exempting politicians from Wisconsin’s John Doe criminal investigation laws.

A second bill completely rewrites Wisconsin’s campaign finance laws allowing corporations to contribute directly to political parties and eliminating important disclosure requirements. The sweeping changes in this bill go beyond the controversial Citizens United Supreme Court decision and will result in even more TV ads, robocalls and special interest attack mailers during campaign season.

Finally, a third Republican proposal dismantles the nonpartisan Government Accountability Board, which oversees state elections and ethics laws. The board would be replaced with political appointees using a flawed model that encourages partisan bickering and gridlock rather than actual oversight.

Taken together, these bills make sweeping changes to many long-standing good government protections. This trio of bills is so troubling that one prominent government watchdog group recently called it “a massive, coordinated blitzkrieg on democracy and transparency.”

At a time when students, families and seniors across Wisconsin continue to face serious challenges, we should be focused on strengthening our state’s economy and improving financial security.

These misguided attacks on Wisconsin’s long-standing, bipartisan tradition of open and clean government are a threat to our democratic institutions and will only serve to further polarize Wisconsin’s political environment.

Senate Minority Leader Jennifer Shilling represents the 32nd Senate District. 

Good government group says Walker among the worst governors

The good government group Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington on July 17 released its report naming the “Worst Governors in America,” which included Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker.

CREW said it examined the job performance of the 50 governors for “shady and unethical conduct” to compile the study. The organization looked at:

• Corruption: Has there been outright corruption? Did a governor violate state ethics laws or campaign finance laws, or did the governor use his or her position to influence the awarding of state contracts?

• Transparency: Did a governor block access to records that state law deems discoverable? Did the governor oppose legislation to make public records more accessible or promote measures to make government less transparent? Did the governor take steps to foil transparency?

• Partisan politics: Did a governor appear to put partisan politics above the interests of the citizens of his or her state?

• Pressuring public officials: Has a governor attempted to pressure or intimidate other state officials in an inappropriate manner?

• Cronyism: Did a governor abuse his or her position to reward family, friends or major donors with state employment or other benefits?

• Self-enrichment: Did a governor use his or her position for personal financial enrichment?

• Scandal: Was a governor involved in a personal scandal that clearly distracted from his or her ability to govern effectively?

• Mismanagement: Did a governor fail to discharge his or her duties responsibly and in the public interest?

“CREW’s research reveals many state leaders aren’t always looking out for their constituents’ best interests,” stated CREW executive director Melanie Sloan in a news release. “It seems some governors are more interested in what their states can do for them rather than what they can do for their states.”

The report divides the “worst” governors into three tiers — those who are the absolute worst, those whose conduct raises serious questions about their leadership and those who engaged in some troubling conduct.

The six worst, according to CREW, are Walker, Georgia Gov. Nathan Deal, Maine Gov. Paul LePage, Virginia Gov. Robert McDonnell, Texas Gov. Rick Perry and Florida Gov. Rick Scott.

The middle six are Kentucky Gov. Steven Beshear, Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer, Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Corbett, South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley, New Mexico Gov. Susana Martinez and North Carolina Gov. Pat McCrory.

The governors CREW says are worth watching are Iowa Gov. Terry Branstad, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam, Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal, Ohio Gov. John Kasich and Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder.

Sloan said, “The problem of our elected leaders using their positions to benefit themselves, their families and their friends goes well beyond the Capital Beltway. Some of those named in this report could give Boss Tweed a run for his money.”

In its profile of Walker, CREW said the Republican governor:

• Violated the Wisconsin Constitution and state law by tracking down state senators to force a vote on a measure backed by his campaign donors to eliminate collective bargaining rights.

• Faced a wide-ranging investigation by the Milwaukee County District Attorney resulting in embezzlement charges and campaign finance-related charges against his aides.

On the Web…

CREW’s profile for Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker.