Open records expert says Vos contempt charge is unprecedented

MADISON, Wis. — Bill Lueders, the president of the Wisconsin Freedom of Information Council, said he has never seen an open records suit get to the point where a judge found a legislator in contempt.

The action Wednesday by Dane County Judge Valerie Bailey-Rihn to hold Assembly Speaker Robin Vos in contempt for not releasing documents was Lueders’ first.

“A public official being cited for contempt of court for their refusal to provide records — that’s a pretty extraordinary thing,” he said. “Most Democrats and most Republicans are pretty good when it comes to providing access to records.”

The issue stems from a suit brought by the liberal group American Oversight seeking records kept in relation to the Gableman investigation into the 2020 election. An attorney for Vos forwarded the records request to Gableman, but Bailey-Rihn said that was not enough.

“Robin Vos had delegated the search for contractors’ [Gableman’s] records to an employee who did nothing more than send one vague email to one contractor,” she wrote in her ruling.

“Whether the Respondents intended this woeful inaction to be contemptuous does not matter … the Court concludes that the Respondents do not meet their burden to show their conduct was not contemptuous,” she added.

Under the decision, Vos has 14 days to either produce the documents sought under the suit or provide evidence to the judge that he adequately searched for the records himself. If he does not, he will incur a $1,000 daily fine.

“It’s a liberal judge in Dane County, basically using the power of their office to try to make us look bad,” Vos told the Racine Journal Times. The speaker’s office did not return a request from News 3 Now.

“It’s really them trying to stop our investigation — this all focuses back on them not wanting to get to the truth of what happened in 2020,” Vos added. “But at the end of the day, a Dane County judge does what a Dane County judge does, which is usually hurt conservatives.”

Lueders said this is just Vos abdicating his responsibility.

“If you listen to what Robin Vos’s defense was — to blame this on the judge who’s supposedly trying to just make Republicans look bad — it’s clear he has actual contempt for the notion that he should be held accountable to anyone,” he said.

“People need to see all the records, not just the records that Justice Gableman and Speaker Vos want you to see,” said Melanie Sloan of American Oversight. “You really have to wonder how is it Justice Gableman’s finding election fraud when no documents in his possession seem to reveal any such fraud.”

Vos did not indicate in his interview with the Racine Journal Times whether he plans to appeal the Dane County ruling, saying he needed to speak with his lawyers. His office did not return a request Thursday when asked about those specific plans.