This is to alert you to a provision in a motion adopted on May 24 by the Legislature’s Joint Finance Committee. The motion, at Point 6, would “amend current law to specify that statements of economic interest and any information contained therein may only be available for public inspection and copying at the office of the Government Accountability Board.”
Currently, requesters can fill out an online form and have these statements sent to them; this motion would apparently require that they make the journey to Madison to view these records in person.
In addition, some basic information on these records is now available online. It is possible to do key word searches here, for instance to instantly identify which public officials have an economic interest in a given company, like Exxon or BP.
It has been suggested (see letter from Christopher Ahmuty of the Wisconsin ACLU) that this motion “will prevent the GAB from providing these indices online.” GAB spokesperson Reid Magney tells me “We really do not know the impact of it. It’s possible we may have to remove the indices from the website, but at this point we don’t know.”
Finally, Magney says it’s unclear if the motion might affect the ability of requesters to purchase the entire database, as some media outlets and nonprofit groups (or is that redundant?) have done for the purpose of making this information available online.
This Joint Finance Committee’s action, says Magney, means that this provision will become part of the state budget bill. It would have to be specifically removed or amended.
Though the full repercussions are unclear, this legislative move to restrict access to this information is deeply troubling. While there’s no doubt some public officials would prefer that this information be more difficult to obtain, there is no sound public policy justification for doing so. This is information that the public has a right to access, to protect the integrity of our public institutions.
The Freedom of Information Council hopes that this provision receives much more scrutiny and debate, and asks for your help in making that happen, through news stories, editorials and other communications.
I can be reached at (608) 251-5627 or (608) 669-4712.
Bill Lueders, president
Wisconsin Freedom of Information Council