How A News Coalition Dug Up Scott Walker's Email Secrets

This week's release of 27,000 emails linking Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker to his staff's illegal engagement in political activities while he was Milwaukee County executive did not occur through the generosity of state officials, but through the diligence of journalists.

The emails and hundreds of court documents made public under court order Wednesday came about after a five-month battle in which several news outlets, led by the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, joined forces to demand access to public records.

The emails, including those from private accounts, revealed that some of Walker's staff were discussing and illegally performing campaign work on county time and in county offices in 2009 and 2010. They were discovered through a Milwaukee County District Attorney investigation dating back to 2010 that has already resulted in the convictions of six county staffers.

The investigation was conducted under Wisconsin's so-called “John Doe” provision, a special secret inquiry that strictly limits information that can be revealed during the proceedings and even after their completion. Among the findings was the existence of a secret email router in the county executive's office that allowed staffers to send and receive emails through private accounts not monitored by the county's regular email system.

The county staffers targeted in the probe included Walker's former chief of staff, Kelly Rindfleisch, who pleaded guilty in 2012 to a single count of felony misconduct in public office and was sentenced to six months in jail. When she appealed her conviction last year, The Journal Sentinel sought to gain access to the emails, which had been sealed by the court during the investigation and subsequent appeals.

The newspaper's effort to obtain access dates back to August 9, when Editor Martin Kaiser submitted a public records request to the current Milwaukee County executive seeking access to the emails. 

When Kaiser's letter received no formal response, lawyers for the Journal Sentinel filed a motion on September 18 in Milwaukee County Circuit Court requesting that the district attorney be ordered to return the emails and other related documents to the county executive, who would then be required to make them available as public records.

“Ordinarily government communications, whether by email or paper or any other form, are presumed public under our public records law,” said Robert J. Dreps, the newspaper's attorney. “These were never available for request under the public records law because their existence wasn't even known until they were swept up as part of this criminal investigation.”

On September 27, the judge hearing former Walker staffer Rindfleisch's appeal ordered that numerous documents from the original John Doe investigation, including private emails from Rindfleisch's accounts, be released to the appeals court.

The Journal Sentinel followed two days later with a letter to the judge urging that those records not be sealed so that the newspaper can gain access if its motion is granted. On October 3, Rindfleisch filed a motion to seal the documents in her appeals case, including the emails.

A second motion was then filed by the Journal Sentinel on October 8, seeking the right to intervene in the appeals court case for the purpose of keeping the documents from being sealed.

In this motion, however, the newspaper was joined by seven other news and journalistic entities, which included: the Wisconsin State Journal of Madison and its parent company, Capital Newspapers Inc.; the Associated Press; the Wisconsin Newspapers Association; the Wisconsin Freedom of Information Council; the Wisconsin Broadcasters Association; Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press; and the American Society of News Editors.

Dreps said most of the news entities reached out to the Journal Sentinel offering their assistance as supporters and, in some cases, offering financial assistance.

On October 9, Appeals Court Judge Patricia Curley granted the motion for the news organizations to intervene in the case.

But their effort was not done yet. It would be four more months before the emails and other records would be released. Judge Curley ruled on February 10 that the documents would be released on February 19, which they were.

“It always seems to me that fighting for open records and public records and open meetings is a continued battle that never ends,” said George Stanley, Journal Sentinel managing editor. “It is in the interest of public officials to keep this kind of thing secret. With technology, if you can set up a secret email system and get around it, who knows what kind of business can be conducted on the public dime.”

Stanley added that having the support of other entities was both a financial and public relations boost: “We did get partners and that helps.”

Wisconsin State Journal Editor John Smalley said his newspaper “felt like it was the thing to do. It wasn't going to be shared publicly if we and others didn't force the issue, so we were happy to join that very broad coalition of folks that had an interest in that. We were happy to share in the cost with others.”

Arnie Robbins, ASNE executive director and former editor of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, said signing on to this kind of public records battle is almost automatic.

“It's important to at least get that information and what the news organization does with it is a different issue,” he said. “If it is important to citizens, it should be accessible to citizens. The government tries to keep everything closed this day and age. We in the media are often in the position of fighting to get information open, often just on principal.”

Added Journal Sentinel lawyer Drep, “It reaffirms for the public that our court system is public and what happens there is public and it undoubtedly will provide the public greater insight into how the Milwaukee County Executive's office operated under Scott Walker.”