September: Contacts with lawmakers should be public

2011 Columns

Rep. John Nygren, R-Marinette, is an insurance agent who sponsored an auto insurance bill in January, one of the first bills to pass the new Legislature. His opponents pegged him as the insurance industry’s best friend; Nygren said he was following the will of the people, many of whom had told him their auto insurance premiums were rising to unaffordable levels.

What exactly had they said?

The Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism, while researching the issue, in May asked Nygren for all records of constituent contacts on the topic of auto insurance since 2009.

That was the year former Gov. Jim Doyle slipped auto insurance provisions into his budget to increase how much injured people could get in accident settlements. These changes were opposed by insurers and supported by trial lawyers, their opponents in court. Nygren had been trying to roll back those changes ever since.

Nygren, in response to the Center, released records of 42 emails and calls he had gotten on the issue over the past two and a half years. Some were form letters. Most cited concerns about rising insurance costs. Nearly all supported Nygren’s position.

On the face of it, the records affirmed Nygren’s claims. But all the names and addresses of all the citizens who contacted him were blacked out.

Elected officials often take pains to warn their constituents that their contacts are subject to Wisconsin’s Open Records Law. A footer on the email for Nygren’s aide does just that. And Gov. Scott Walker, who released thousands of constituent emails to media in a settlement earlier this year, warns citizens on his Web contact page that “our policy is generally to release communications” sent to him.

The Center asked Nygren to explain the redactions.

In three pages of legalese that cited constitutional provisions, statutes and the Assembly Policy Manual, Nygren argued that disclosing these names “would chill free speech and debate in the legislative process” and interfere with Nygren’s “constitutional rights and responsibilities” to take input from citizens.

“Citizens must have total freedom to contact me on issues of concern to them, without fear that their personal citizen information will be made public and that they will be put at risk of harassment, reprisal, identity theft, etc,” he wrote.

The Center’s attorney, Christa Westerberg, asked Nygren to reconsider, reminding him of the “presumption toward complete public access” in Wisconsin’s open records law. The statutes say that “only in an exceptional case may access be denied.”

“This,” she wrote, “is not an ‘exceptional case.’ ”

Westerberg added that Nygren’s own incomplete redaction suggested there was more to the story. Email footers left in some cases identified their senders as insurance company employees, who would have a vested interest in the auto insurance legislation.

Commendably, Nygren relented. In July he provided the records with names and addresses.

So just whose rights was Nygren protecting from potential harassment? At least two-thirds, it turned out, were insurance agents or industry employees.

The Open Records Law states that providing “the greatest possible information regarding the affairs of government and the official acts of those officers and employees who represent them” is “declared to be an essential function of a representative government.”

That means the public deserves to know who is whispering in state lawmakers’ ears.

Your Right to Know is a monthly column distributed by the Wisconsin Freedom of Information Council, a nonprofit group dedicated to open government. Kate Golden is a reporter and multimedia producer at the Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism. Her story on the insurance coverage changes can be found here.