MADISON – Republican legislative leaders lashed out Wednesday at Democratic Gov. Tony Evers for secretly recording their meeting last month over how to respond to the coronavirus pandemic after the Wisconsin Supreme Court struck down the state’s stay-at-home order.
The recording and the GOP reaction to it underscore how broken the relationship is between Evers and Republicans who control the Legislature. The two sides have rarely gotten along since Evers was elected in 2018.
Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald of Juneau called the recording “Nixonesque.” Assembly Speaker Robin Vos called it “shameful.”
Evers’ team recorded the May 14 conversation to make sure they had an accurate account of what happened because Republicans and Democrats have publicly disagreed over how past meetings went, according to those close to Evers.
A copy of the recording was provided to the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel late Tuesday under the state’s open records law. Similar requests were made to the offices of Vos and Fitzgerald following the meeting and aides said there were no records responsive to the request.
An aide to Evers informed Vos and Fitzgerald it had been released to the paper on Wednesday before the Journal Sentinel published a story about the recording.
The hourlong tape reveals the two sides often talked past one another as they discussed how to respond to the Supreme Court’s decision. Evers sought a new rule to fight the coronavirus but Vos and Fitzgerald said they wanted more details about what it contained and questioned whether one was necessary.
Evers’ administration put the stay-at-home order in place to fight the coronavirus. Vos and Fitzgerald sued and the high court ruled 4-3 in their favor.
Fitzgerald, who is running for Congress this fall, said in a statement that the recording “will completely erode our ability to work together for the foreseeable future.”
“In 26 years in the Legislature, this is one of the most brazen examples of unethical, unprofessional conduct I have ever seen,” his statement said. “The governor has gone so far off the deep end, he’s making secret Nixonesque recordings from the East Wing of the Capitol. This conduct is totally unbecoming of our state’s top executive and opens up questions about what other recordings his administration may have.”
Vos called the recording “clearly outside the norm.”
“Governor Evers has dragged partisan politics to a new low in Wisconsin and damaged his reputation and the state’s, as well,” his statement said.
Bill Lueders, president of the Wisconsin Freedom of Information Council, said recording a conversation without alerting the other parties is likely in bad form but that the nature of the meeting should have pushed the three to talk publicly instead of privately.
“It’s not illegal because Wisconsin has one-party consent (to record conversations) but it might be considered bad form — I wouldn’t do that as a journalist, to record someone without them knowing,” Lueders said. “On the other hand, I don’t know what would have been said in that meeting that needed to be kept private.
“A better outcome would have resulted if the whole thing would have been done in plain view,” he said.
Lueders said it was right for Evers to release the recording because it is considered a record once it’s made.
“On that level he did the right thing. Whether it was a good idea to record a meeting without telling the other participants is not really a open meetings question but more of a civility question,” he said.
The recording left Republicans fuming, but their relationship with Evers has been in tatters from the beginning. Between the time he was elected and sworn in, they passed a set of lame-duck laws that limited his powers.
They saw his proposed state budget as an unrealistic liberal wish list and rewrote it from top to bottom. They got in an argument with his administration over mental health assistance for farmers that led to the state Senate firing the agriculture secretary, for the first time in decades not ever.
And they have repeatedly fought in courts, most recently over the stay-at-home order.
While Evers, Vos and Fitzgerald didn’t see eye to eye in their phone call last month, they talked to each other respectfully. But often they disagreed on what was happening in the state and what officials should do next.
Evers at one stage said he was frustrated the state wasn’t able to open up in a uniform, phased way. When the Supreme Court issued its decision, bars were “bursting at the seams,” he complained.
Fitzgerald was incredulous, saying people were already out in large numbers before the decision.
“Governor, when was the last time you were at a Home Depot on a Saturday? When was the last time you were in Walmart on a Saturday?” he said. “Are you kidding me? You’re not being serious right now, are you? Those places are bursting at the seams every weekend. Come on.”
Evers said many retail stores were using social distancing and limiting how many people could come in at once. He asked Vos and Fitzgerald what they wanted to do if there was a catastrophic increase in cases, expressing frustration with their hands-off approach.
“Do we just say the hell with it?” Evers asked.
“No. Someone should call Barry Alvarez and say is there going to be football in Camp Randall in August?” Fitzgerald said, referring to the University of Wisconsin football coach.
Contact Patrick Marley at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter at @patrickdmarley.
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