Fred Prehn
Fred Prehn

By Shereen Siewert

An environmental group filed a lawsuit this week to compel Dr. Frederick Prehn to turn over text messages, emails, and all other communications related to his refusal to step down from the Wisconsin Natural Resources Board after the expiration of his term.

The lawsuit, filed Oct. 19 by Midwest Environmental Advocates, names Prehn along with the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources Board and the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources.

Prehn’s term ended in May. Democratic Gov. Tony Evers appointed Sandra Naas to replace him, which would give Evers appointees control of the board. Prehn was appointed by former Republican Gov. Scott Walker and has refused to step down, ensuring Walker appointees maintain their majority on the board.

The lawsuit comes on the heels of a June open records requests eeking all communications sent or received by Prehn regarding his tenure on the NRB. In response to MEA’s public records request, Prehn turned over emails revealing that he had communicated with staff of Republican legislators and lobbyists for special interest groups—including Wisconsin Manufacturers and Commerce—about staying on after the expiration of his term.

According to a statement from the MEA, the lawsuit stems from the discovery that, in addition to communicating by email, Prehn also communicated about his tenure on the board by text. Through a separate public records request to another public official, MEA obtained a text message sent by Prehn in which Prehn discussed his decision to remain on the NRB.

The complaint alleges Prehn violated the Public Records Law by improperly withholding this and other relevant text messages in his response to MEA’s June request. Wisconsin’s Public Records Law entitles the public to the greatest possible information regarding the affairs of government. The law promotes democracy by ensuring that state, regional, and local governments
conduct their business with transparency.

Initially, DNR officials said they couldn’t find any messages responsive to the request. The lawsuit alleges that board member Bill Smith released texts between him and Prehn that prove such messages do exist.

“This legal action is about holding Dr. Prehn accountable to the law, just like any other government official,” said MEA Staff Attorney Rob Lee. “Text messages related to government business are public records that officials have a duty to preserve and provide access to.”

The filing demands all of Prehn’s texts from June 29, 2020, through June 29, 2021, that pertain to his decision to remain on the board.

Democratic Attorney General Josh Kaul filed a lawsuit to force Prehn off the board, but a Dane County judge dismissed it in September, pointing to a 1964 state Supreme Court decision that found appointees can remain in their positions until the state Senate confirms their replacements. Republicans who control the state Senate have taken no steps toward confirming Naas.

The Associated Press contributed to this story.