MADISON — After nearly a year of litigation, the Center for Media and Democracy has settled its open records lawsuit against American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) National Board member and Wisconsin State Senator Leah Vukmir.
Senator Vukmir, who had previously insisted that she had no records in her possession and made an unprecedented claim of legislative immunity, is anticipated to release numerous emails from her private email account, and pay $2,500 in damages. This may be the first time a Wisconsin legislator has had to pay damages under Wisconsin’s open records law.
“The case shows that legislators who deny open records requests and seek refuge behind improbable claims of immunity will be held accountable by the public, the media and the legal system,” said Brendan Fischer, General Counsel for the Center for Media and Democracy.
The Attorney General’s office withdrew their claim of legislative immunity as part of the settlement agreement.
Senator Vukmir had previously asserted that she had “fully complied with the public records law and [had] produced all records subject to this open records request” and had described the lawsuit as a “unfortunate and largely misunderstood matter.”
That was not the case. After numerous court filings debating the issue of legislative immunity, the Attorney General decided to settle the case. An independent review of Senator Vukmir’s personal email account was then conducted.
“The Wisconsin press plays an important role as the guardian of the state’s strong open records law,” said CMD Executive Director Lisa Graves. “It is important that legislators and our state’s constitutional officers understand that rash assertions of immunity and a disregard for their duties under the law will not be treated lightly.”
CMD filed suit against Vukmir in May of 2013 after she refused to disclose records pertaining to ALEC’s Spring meeting. At the time, ALEC had begun stamping its materials with an extraordinary “disclaimer” asserting that documents it sends to legislators are not subject to any state’s public records law, and distributing bills and other material via an Internet dropbox, which makes the records more difficult to access through public records requests. Because Vukmir is on the National Board of ALEC, attended the Spring meeting, and even sponsored a bill at that meeting, CMD was convinced that she held records responsive to our request.
In September, after Senator Vukmir’s staffers made headlines by berating and chasing CMD’s process server, Attorney General J.B. Van Hollen’s office took the unprecedented step of asserting that Vukmir is entirely immune from civil suit and her obligations under the open records law based on a novel reading of the Wisconsin Constitution. This legal argument, if it were upheld, would undermine the public records law, since legislators could never be held accountable for their failure to comply with their duties under the law.
As part of the settlement agreement, Vukmir acknowledges that the ALEC “disclaimer” has no force of law in Wisconsin, and that records held on a dropbox are subject to the public records law.
The Center for Media and Democracy is a small investigative reporting group located in Madison, Wisconsin. The Wisconsin Freedom of Information Council presented the “Citizen Openness Award” to CMD in 2012 for a lawsuit securing access to records being kept in the personal email accounts of legislators. CMD is best known for its award-winning “ALEC Exposed” investigation. After CMD published 1,000 ALEC bills and other documents at ALECexposed.org, ninety corporations and non-profits, including Wal-Mart, Coca Cola, Kraft, McDonalds, GM, and GE, have stopped funding ALEC.
CMD also publishes PRwatch.org and the wiki SourceWatch.org. Its investigations have been featured in the New York Times, the Guardian, the Washington Post, on Bill Moyers & Company, CNN, MSNBC, and more.