MADISON, Wis. (AP) — The Republican co-chair of the Legislature’s budget committee filed a lawsuit Tuesday seeking to force Gov. Tony Evers to release records related to the funding of farmer mental health programs, the latest salvo in the ongoing battle over the funding that already contributed to the agriculture secretary losing his job.
The lawsuit filed by Rep. John Nygren of Marinette in Dane County Circuit Court is also the latest attack on Evers over his handling of open records. Evers drew criticism earlier this month from open records advocates for refusing to fulfill a television station’s request for one day’s worth of emails, saying the request needed to include a subject or specific words to look for.
The lawsuit revolves around Evers’ rejection of a records request that Nygren made in August for emails over a one-month span that included any of nine phrases or topics related to the funding of the farmer mental health programs. The state agriculture department fulfilled an identical request, but Evers rejected it as overly broad.
Nygren, through his attorney Kevin St. John, argued that the request to the governor was not too broad and asks a judge to force Evers to make the records available for review.
Evers’ spokeswoman, Melissa Baldauff, had no immediate comment. She said the governor had not been served with the lawsuit yet.
“This is one more indication that the governor’s office likes to come up with excuses for not providing records when it should instead be providing them,” said Bill Lueders, president of the Wisconsin Freedom of Information Council. “Best practice is for public officials to work with requesters and not just say no to them.”
The lawsuit extends a fight between the Republican-controlled Legislature and the Democratic governor over $100,000 in funding for farmer mental health programs. The funding was approved in the state budget Evers signed in July, but the agriculture department had to request the funding from the budget committee.
The department did that on July 15, but the budget committee did not immediately release it. It wanted to wait for recommendations from a farmer suicide task force convened by Republican Assembly Speaker Robin Vos. After those recommendations came out, the budget committee released the funding in September.
The decision not to immediately release the funding in July drew derision from then-Agriculture Secretary Brad Pfaff, who accused the committee of abandoning farmers who were at risk of killing themselves. His comments were later cited by Senate Republicans as part of the reason they voted to fire him from his post earlier this month.
Nygren filed his open records request with Evers and the Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection on Aug. 15. He sought emails, text messages, memos and other records from July 2 to Aug. 2 that contained phrases or topics including “farmer mental health,” “mental health” and the names of five Republican lawmakers, including himself.
Evers’ attorney, Erin Deeley, rejected the request a week later.
“As presented, your request contemplates review of every Office of the Governor employee’s records for reference to any one of nine general subject areas,” Deeley wrote. “This is not a reasonably limited request.”
Nygren, in a statement Tuesday, accused Evers and his staff of “blatantly hiding and denying access to public documents. … These brazen attempts to hide public documents is shameful and begs to question what Governor Evers and his staff are hiding.”