When University of Wisconsin-Madison student journalist Peter Coutu investigated frequent lottery winners in Wisconsin in 2018, he uncovered a pattern: The owners and clerks of stores that sell lottery tickets seemed to have more luck than normal.
Wisconsin legislators are looking to reform current law governing the expungement of criminal records. Among other things, SB-39 would allow those convicted of crimes for which the maximum term of imprisonment is six years or less (including some felonies) to ask a judge to expunge their convictions even if they fail to do so at the time of sentencing, as is currently required. It would also allow those older than age 25 at the time of an offense to request expungement, and expressly provide that an expunged record cannot be considered a conviction for purposes of employment. The standard under present law would be carried forward, which lets judges grant expungement if they determine “that the person will benefit and society will not be harmed.”
The rationale for the bill, which has broad bipartisan support, is to give those who have made minor mistakes a fresh start, including supposedly enhanced employment opportunities. It is one of several current proposals to expand the availability of expungement.
The behavior of public employees on the job is subject to public scrutiny in nearly every circumstance under Wisconsin law. That means the public has a right to see disciplinary records of all employees. The right doesn’t just apply to the records of elected or appointed officials. It doesn’t just apply to managers or supervisors. It applies to all public employees.
In advance of the Nov. 6 elections, the Wisconsin Freedom of Information Council surveyed candidates for state Assembly and Senate to gauge support for initiatives to require more openness by public officials, including the Legislature. We sent surveys to 204 candidates: 106 Democrats, 84 Republicans and 14 third-party contenders. We received 75 responses from 60 Democrats, eight Republicans and seven third-party candidates, for a 37 percent response rate. Most of the Democrats who responded offered conditional support for many of the ideas.
Perhaps no other political issue receives so little attention, relative to its importance, as open government. Elections come and go without candidates addressing this fundamental tenet of a democratic society. That’s because virtually all candidates, when asked, will say they are big fans of transparency. It’s an easy position to take, a harder one to live up to. But in Wisconsin’s fall elections, fidelity to open government has come up in several races, for governor, attorney general and U.S. Senate.
When the Oconto Police and Fire Commission said in April that it had interviewed two finalists for the open position of chief of police, Kent Tempus of the Oconto County Reporter asked who the finalists were.
It was a simple request, made under the part of Wisconsin’s open records law that requires the naming of final candidates for public offices.
The answer should have been simple, too — but it wasn’t.
A few weeks back, while looking into a court case in Waukesha County, I went to the court’s website seeking contact information. There were a few phone numbers but no email addresses. So I called one of the numbers and asked for the judge’s email address.
One great thing about Wisconsin’s open records law is that it’s not supposed to matter who wants records or why. The law, enacted in 1983, asserts that no state or local government office may deny a request because the person making it “is unwilling to be identified or to state the purpose of the request.”
This is an important principle, because access to public information should not be limited to people whose motives have been deemed pure. In fact, citizens and political parties often use the law to scrutinize public officials and political opponents. That’s how it should be. A few years back, the primary author of Wisconsin’s open records law, former state Sen. Lynn Adelman, now a federal judge, told a group of open government advocates that he was prepared to kill the entire bill rather than accept an amendment that would have removed this ability to make anonymous requests.