Evers’ Parole Board faces open records lawsuit

By M.D. Kittle

MADISON — Gov. Tony Evers’ Parole Commission has been slow to produce requested records on the criminals it has released. Now it faces a lawsuit.

The Wisconsin Institute for Law & Liberty (WILL) this week filed suit in Washington County Circuit Court on behalf of Wisconsin Right Now, which sought public records from the Wisconsin Parole Commission.

In May, the conservative news organization submitted a public records request to the board seeking a list of all inmates who were paroled over a period of several years, through 2022. The commission initially responded in June with records through the end of 2021, but none from calendar year 2022. It stated it would provide records for 2022 once those were pulled together, but provided no timeline for when that request would ultimately be fulfilled.

Wisconsin Right Now staff sent repeated follow-up correspondence to the commission, seeking an update on their request, and never received a response or the remaining records. The complaint urges parole officials to comply with their statutory obligations by turning over the records.

“State agencies are required to comply with the public records law. The Parole Commission’s unreasonable and unexplained delay in providing responsive records is unlawful, and we will pursue every legal angle on behalf of Wisconsin Right Now until the requested records have been turned over,” said Lucas Vebber, deputy legal counsel at the Milwaukee-based public interest law firm.

The news outlet has run a series of stories on the commission’s release of hundreds of convicted criminals, including more than 270 murderers and attempted murderers and 44 child rapists.

“We believe the public has a right to know who is being released on parole and the communities where they reside,” said Jim Piwowarczyk, co-founder and editor of Wisconsin Right Now. “The open records laws are meant to empower the citizens and a free press to be watchdogs over the actions of government, especially when they could imperil public safety. We want to know who received parole grants in 2022 to educate the public on this important public safety issue.”

Earlier this year, John Tate II,  Evers’ soft-on-crime Parole Commission chairman, resigned after mounting public pressure. Tate’s record of releasing brutal murderers and cop killers finally caught up with Evers, who reportedly asked the Parole Commission chair to step down.

Evers’ appointee was set to release from prison Douglas Balsewicz, who brutally murdered his wife in front of his young children in 1997. Balsewicz had served just 24 years of an 80-year prison sentence. After intense public objection, Evers finally asked Tate to reconsider his decision. The parole board chairman relented a few days before Balsewicz was scheduled to be released.

He also freed Kenneth Jordan, one of three men convicted in the 1973 slaying of Milwaukee Police Officer Ronald Patrick Reagan.

Evers and his defenders have tried to distance the Democrat from the commission’s decisions. While the four-member Parole Commission is an independent body in the Department of Corrections, the governor appoints the chair. Evers appointed Christopher Blythe after Tate’s departure. The other commissioners, hired through the state civil service system, are Douglas Drankiewicz, Jennifer Kramer  and Shannon Pierce.

Evers’ administration has been roundly — and rightly — criticized for violating the state’s open government laws.

Despite promising to uphold Wisconsin’s “rich tradition of transparency and accountability,” Evers and his administration have been playing hide and seek with the media, the legislature and the general public, as Wisconsin Spotlight reported in February 2021.

State government agencies failed to fill or were extremely slow in filling a dozen open records requests submitted by Empower Wisconsin and the MacIver Institute over the previous year-plus. In one case, it took 222 days for the state Department of Health Services to release critical public health documents.

It took more than a year for Fox6 News to prevail in its request for emails between the governor and his chief of staff. In September 2019, a Fox6 reporter requested about four weeks of emails. Evers’ legal counsel claimed the request was overly broad. The reporter narrowed the request to one week of emails. It was denied again. Finally, the request sought just one day of emails between the governor and his top adviser.

After public pressure, the governor’s office relented and released the minimum. It refused to release the rest of the records originally requested, saying it was not legally required to do so.

Dane County Circuit Court Judge Stephen Ehlke ruled the governor’s office’s interpretation of the state’s open records law was “incorrect.” Evers, again, was ordered to turn over all the documents sought and pay attorney fees.

Empower Wisconsin | Sept. 28, 2022

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