Attorney general likely to review report’s delay; DOT waited months


Attorney general likely to review report’s delay

DOT waited months to release study on cost of contracting

Madison — State Attorney General Peg Lautenschlager said Wednesday that her office likely will investigate why the state Department of Transportation took months to release a report that conflicted with Gov. Jim Doyle’s account of contracting costs.

Late Wednesday, the Wisconsin Freedom of Information Council hand- delivered a letter to Lautenschlager’s office asking her to investigate why the report wasn’t made public when first requested under the state open records law.

“We will look at the (letter) and likely assign it to the Public Integrity Unit,” said Lautenschlager, who was out of the office Wednesday and had not yet read the letter.

Doyle was not available for comment late Wednesday, but an aide said he saw no need for an inquiry.

“We have not seen anything that would warrant an investigation by the attorney general’s office, but ultimately she has to make the investigative priorities,” said Dan Leistikow, a Doyle spokesman.

The Freedom of Information Council includes representatives of the Wisconsin Newspaper Association, the Wisconsin Broadcasters Association, the Society of Professional Journalists and other media groups, as well as individual journalists.

The call for an investigation was made after the Journal Sentinel reported the DOT took seven months to release the April report to the State Engineering Association, a public employees union.

Transportation Secretary Frank Busalacchi, who could not be reached Wednesday, has said the report was in draft status until November, and thus not eligible for release under the law. But a November memo says the report had been completed in April and that it had been given to the Department of Administration.

Once a document is circulated beyond the officials for whom it is written, it can no longer be considered a draft, according to state law.

The November memo was released to the Journal Sentinel on Dec. 10 by Jim Thiel, the department’s top lawyer. Thiel has said Busalacchi aide Randy Romanski became upset when he learned he had turned the document over to the newspaper. The following Monday, after 31 years as the department’s chief counsel, Thiel was demoted.

He remains a staff attorney and his $112,579 salary has not been cut.

Facts sought

The Freedom of Information Council asked Lautenschlager to determine why the department withheld the document for so long and how the decision was made to demote Thiel. The council also asked her office to investigate how decisions were made on classifying the report as a draft.

Thiel said he would welcome an investigation but noted it could make his workplace more tense in the short run.

“It makes it more difficult to proceed with routine matters, but what’s the purpose of an open records law if nobody enforces it?” he said.

An investigation would help ensure future compliance with the law, said Mark Klipstein, president of the union that first requested the document.

“Obviously, in the past they took our request, and they didn’t take it very seriously, and they played games with it,” he said.

The council monitors compliance with the state’s open records and open meetings laws but rarely asks for formal investigations. Bill Lueders, acting president of the council and an editor of the Madison weekly Isthmus, said the group decided to ask for the investigation because of the extent of the apparent violation.

Doyle, who served as attorney general before becoming governor, has long championed open records laws. But he has said he does not believe Busalacchi mishandled the repeated requests for the report.

Forcing compliance

“Someone in state government ought to take this seriously and investigate this, and if that’s not the governor, then that’s the attorney general,” Lueders said.

Peter Fox, executive director of the Wisconsin Newspaper Association, said an investigation would remind state officials to be vigilant in handling open records requests.

“I think the most important outcome here is education and compliance,” he said.

The Supreme Court has defined narrow terms of when documents can be considered drafts.

“Calling a public document . . . a draft as a means to withhold it is a great concern,” Fox said.

The April report found that DOT engineers are 18% cheaper than consultants and made a case for using state engineers to do more work. The department outsources more than half of its engineering work.

The report’s finding contradicts claims by Doyle’s budget office that consultants are cheaper. It has emerged at a time when Doyle is contemplating cutting hundreds of jobs in the department.

The issue is more than a bureaucratic dust-up, Fox said.

“Because every citizen in this state is concerned about the health of the state budget, the issues involved in the discussion about the Department of Transportation (costs) is really a matter that affects everyone in Wisconsin,” he said.

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