By M.D. Kittle
MADISON — A liberal Dane County judge’s power push to force a former Public Service Commission member to turn over his cellphone and other records to environmental groups has been stopped — at least for now.
The District III Court of Appeals on Monday stalled Judge Jacob Frost’s demand that Michael Huebsch turn over records and answer questions from environmental groups and opponents of the Cardinal-Hickory Creek transmission line.
“IT IS ORDERED that the deposition subpoena requiring Michael Huebsch to appear and produce, among other things, his personal cellphone and related records, is temporarily stayed in its entirety until further order of this court.” Judge Lisa Stark wrote in Monday’s filing.
Sources say because of the complexity of the case it could take weeks before the appeals court issues a subsequent order.
The case has the civil litigation feel of Wisconsin’s infamous John Doe investigations into conservatives, as a Dane County judge who signed the recall petition against former Republican Gov. Scott Walker allows liberal special interest groups to go after the personal information of Walker’s former Administration secretary and appointee to the PSC.
Huebsch’s legal counsel moved quickly to quash the subpoena after Frost on Friday rejected Huebsch’s motion to stop the probe into his private records. Frost did allow a disinterested “third party” to rummage through the former commissioner’s possessions, but disinterested third parties in Madison — the pit of Wisconsin liberalism — are hard to come by.
Sources with knowledge of the situation tell Empower Wisconsin opponents of the planned $492 million power line between Dubuque, Iowa and suburban Madison have no constitutional argument that the Public Service Commission’s approval of the project was biased. They’ve been told as much by commission Chair Rebecca Valcq, appointed by liberal Gov. Tony Evers.
“The enviros are persisting in their campaign of harassment,” a source with knowledge of the court case told Empower Wisconsin.
Cardinal-Hickory Creek won unanimous approval by the three-member PSC, though environmental groups and their lawyers have stopped at nothing to kill the power line project. But it took far left Frost and his ease in putting aside the civil rights of public officials and private citizens to validate the environmentalists’ litigious campaign.
Driftless Area Land Conservancy v Huebsch has the smell of Wisconsin’s unconstitutional John Doe investigations into former Gov. Scott Walker and his allies. Like the political probes, the judge in this case and the plaintiffs already agree the defendants are guilty of something, they just need more time and permission to expand their search to figure out what that something is.
The Dritfless case centers on the Cardinal-Hickory Creek power line environmental groups have been fighting since 2017. When the groups failed to convince regulators to reject permitting the line, they began making allegations of bias against members of the Public Service Commission who approved it.
As the Wisconsin State Journal reported, “After a preliminary 3-0 vote by the PSC to grant a permit in September 2019, the land conservancy and wildlife federation requested that Commissioner Mike Huebsch and PSC Chair Rebecca Valcq recuse themselves from the final decision based on perceived conflicts of interest. Valcq previously worked for WEC Energy Group, the majority owner of American Transmission Co., the lead developer of the project, and Huebsch had served on a committee of the Midwest grid operator, MISO, a party to the proceedings. Both rejected those claims and again voted with Commissioner Ellen Nowak to authorize construction.”
After failing in state and federal courts to overturn the PCS’s ruling, environmental groups again accused former Commissioner Huebsch of bias because he applied for the job of CEO for Dairyland Cooperative, a company with 9% interest in the project, eight months after the first vote to approve the power line and two months after he had left the PSC. Huebsch was never contacted to interview for the job. He received a standard rejection letter after Dairyland announced their new CEO. Nothing to see here.
In the most recent twist, American Transmission Company (ATC), a party to the case, discovered and disclosed that in addition to using text and email for work-related communications, Huebsch, an ATC employee, a former ITC contractor, and other individuals had been communicating privately via Signal, over the course of several years.
Signal is a popular instant messaging application that allows users to talk or text one on one or in groups, and to share high quality pictures and videos across multiple user platforms. Such messaging applications use encryption to ensure messages remain private and secure from hackers and mass technology platform breaches. These apps are used by millions of people in both the public and private sector, not for nefarious reasons, but because they want to keep their private lives private.
It turns out Commissioner Huebsch and the other individuals in question have been close personal friends for decades, long before most of them were in the business of regulating or advocating for utilities, so it makes even more sense for them to keep their public and private communications separate.
But the environmental groups demand access to Huebsch’s personal communications, as John Doe prosecutors and government bureaucrats did in their long-running spying operation against Wisconsin conservatives. And, just like the overreaching Doe investigators, the environmentalists in the power line case have a pliant judge to help them bend the constitution for their pursuits.
We’ll see if Appeals Court Judge Stark, who in the interest of full disclosure noted her past contributions of less than $100 to the Wisconsin Wildlife Federation — ultimately checks another overreaching Dane County judge.