State News

As Sunshine Week celebrates accountability, watchdog group questions Walker’s record on open government

As Scott Walker was honored for his executive orders on government transparency, an open records advocacy group debated his record on the matter.

Image By: Scott Walker

In a week dedicated to government openness, Gov. Scott Walker received an award for past open record initiatives, while critics charge hypocrisy to his own history of closing access to public records.

Sunshine Week, running March 11-17, is dedicated to celebrating greater transparency in the government by promoting access to public records and bringing to light the importance of an open government.

Last week, Walker was awarded the 2018 Political Openness Award by the Wisconsin Freedom of Information Council for his history of advocacy on this front.

In the past, Walker has issued a series of executive orders directing state agencies to standardize the fees charged to those who request records in an effort to make the system more economical.

He also moved to provide public record resources and training for all agencial constituents and to improve records request response rates.

Since then, the number of requests the Department of Justice has received has increased nearly 60 percent from 2015, while the response rate has decreased by 80 percent. As a result, a record-breaking amount of records — more than 6.2 million pages worth — have been released since 2011.

This award, critics argue, may have been wrongly received, given Walker’s track record of keeping off-the-record accounts and increasing the anonymity of campaign financiers.

In 2015, several cabinet members were instructed by Walker’s top aide to keep certain materials off public records by transmitting information orally and over private channels, equivalent to “mobsters walking around in trench coats,” said Matthew Rothschild, the executive director of the open government watchdog Wisconsin Democracy Campaign.

According to Rothschild, the purpose of this was to avoid “reporters or public interests groups from snooping around by creating maximum deniability.”

Rothschild describes the council’s decision to award Walker as “naive” to “the ruinous effects of the public’s right to know,” referencing Walker’s refusal to discuss the donors of nearly half a million dollars to his political corruption case and eliminating the requirement to disclose employer names of campaign contributors above $100.

“It’s a joke that he received this award,” Rothschild said. “A bad joke.”

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