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Sunshine Week finds darkness over Evers administration

Empower Wisconsin | March 16,  2020

By M.D. Kittle

MADISON — As National Sunshine Week gets underway, darkness continues to shroud Wisconsin state government.

In his first year-plus in office, Gov. Tony Evers and his administration have closed a lot of doors to open government, evidenced by the transparency and First Amendment lawsuits pending.

In December, Fox6 News, represented by the Wisconsin Transparency Project, filed a lawsuit against the governor.

You’ll recall that reporter Amanda St. Hilaire had filed a basic request seeking all emails between the governor and his chief of staff over a four-week period. Evers’ legal counsel rejected the request, insisting it was too broad and burdensome.

St. Hilaire pared back her request, seeking only a week’s worth of emails.

Denied again.

She then asked for just a day’s worth. Evers told her that would be “pretty boring.” He said if he sent out one email a day, “that’s an extraordinary day.”

Eventually, Evers’ legal team relented — most likely on the threat of lawsuit. His office claims the governor is making an “exception” to St. Hilaire and that he could deny a similar request.

“He made a conscious choice to not turn over these emails when he could,” Tom Kamenick, founder and president of the Transparency Project, told Empower Wisconsin at the time. “He’s looking for a way not to be transparent. That’s not the behavior of a governor committed to transparency, that’s the behavior of somebody looking to release as little as possible.”

Kamenick on Friday could not provide details on the status of the litigation.

Also last year, the MacIver Institute sued Evers in federal court on First Amendment grounds. The Wisconsin Institute for Law & Liberty has sued the state Department of Public Instruction and the agency’s handpicked successor of the governor, who previously served as DPI superintendent. That lawsuit, too, involves transparency problems.

In January, one of Evers’ agencies was accused of threatening an NBC journalist with criminal charges simply for doing his job.

National investigative reporter Mike Hixenbaugh exposed the unchecked power of child welfare agencies — with the assistance of physicians —  to take children away from their parents. His special report was met with silence and silencing orders from the Milwaukee County District Attorney’s Office and the Wisconsin Department of Children and Families.

“Authorities in Wisconsin did not want you to read this story,” Hixenbaugh tweeted at the time. “First a prosecutor sought a gag order after I reached out seeking comment. Then a state agency sent me a cease and desist order warning of potential criminal charges.”

Empower Wisconsin can testify to the Evers administration’s continuing transparency troubles. Officials have yet to fill several records requests filed months ago.

Sunshine Week, founded by the American Society of New Editors and coordinated in partnership with the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, is designed to shine a spotlight on the dark places in government. As organizers assert, it’s not just a press issue.

“It is a  cornerstone of democracy, enlightening and empowering people to play an active role in their government at all levels. It helps keep public officials honest, makes government more efficient and provides a check against abuse of power,” states a press release.

The Evers administration has, in so many ways, failed to let the sunshine in.

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