Empower Wisconsin | June 16, 2020
By M.D. Kittle
MADISON — Team Evers’ secret recording of a meeting with Republican legislative leadership last month didn’t merely cross an ethical line, it may have been a felony, according to a newly released review by the non-partisan Legislative Reference Bureau.
Gov. Tony Evers’ handlers say the Democrat had no knowledge of the conversation, which occurred on May 14, the day after the state Supreme Court struck down the administration’s public health lockdown order.
On Monday, Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald (R-Juneau) released LRB’s legal memo outlining how a felony may have been committed by the governor’s staff.
“If the governor didn’t know that his staff was recording him, this is a bigger problem than he thinks,” Fitzgerald said in a statement. “The governor should be in control of his office — the buck stops with him. So if one of his staff committed a felony, he needs to hold that person accountable.”
The memo notes that legislative staff was invited to listen on the call between Fitzgerald, Assembly Speaker Robin Vos (R-Rochester), Evers, his chief of staff, Maggie Gau, and the governor’s chief legal Counsel, Ryan Nilsestuen. Under Wisconsin’s one-party consent law, any of the parties with knowledge of the call could have recorded it. That is, the secret recording was legal if Evers or his two top staff members knew about it.
“(T)he governor was clearly a party to the communication and Chief of Staff Gau and Chief Legal Counsel Nilsestuen were very likely parties to the communication as well, since they were announced by the governor as being on the call and they participated in conversations during the call,” the memo states.
“However, if another person in the governor’s office recorded the telephone call without the prior consent or authorization of the governor, Chief of Staff Gau, or Chief Legal Counsel Nilsestuen, then the person may well have violated Wis. Stat. § 968.31 (1) since the person was not a party to the communication.”
That’s a Class H felony and is subject to a fine of not more than $10,000 or a term of imprisonment for not more than six years or both.
Fitzgerald is calling on the governor to “immediately make clear” who in his office recorded the conversation, “who authorized it, and what disciplinary actions his staff is facing.” Apparently Evers gave his staff a stern talking to, warning them not to secretly record members of the Legislature again.
Nilsestuen on Thursday told reporters Evers’ staff had authorized the recording, but he refused to say who recorded the meeting.
Evers spokespeople did not answer questions from the press following the release of the LRB memo.
“After bipartisan condemnation of these actions, he (the governor) also needs to assure legislators that no more recordings exist between our members and the governor or his staff,” Fitzgerald said.
Empower Wisconsin has filed three separate records requests with the governor’s office seeking that information.