There’s no record of anyone authorizing secretly recording Wisconsin lawmakers by Gov. Tony Evers’ staff

Gov. Tony Evers speaks to reporters in his office at the Wisconsin State Capitol in December 2019.

MADISON – There is no written record of anyone authorizing the secret recording of top Republican lawmakers by an aide to Democratic Gov. Tony Evers, according to the governor’s office.

Someone on Evers’ team recorded a May conference call with top Republicans, Evers and the governor’s aides, but Evers has refused to say who made the recording and who knew about it at the time.

It’s a crime in Wisconsin to record a phone call without the knowledge of at least one person on the call. Evers has said he did not know about the recording at the time but his aides have said someone else was aware of it. The aides have not said who was aware of the recording and whether that was the same person who did the recording.

In response to an open records request from the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, the governor’s office provided a brief letter that said there was no record of anyone authorizing the recording of the call. The letter was unsigned, other than to say it came from Evers’ Office of Legal Counsel.

The letter also said the governor’s office had no other recordings of conversations with lawmakers. Republicans had worried the governor had a trove of recordings of earlier calls, but the governor’s office says that is not the case.

While there is no written authorization to record the May 14 call, that doesn’t mean the recording wasn’t approved in advance.

If someone on the call made the recording, that person would not have needed to get approval from anyone else. And if someone who wasn’t on the call made the recording, they could have gotten verbal approval from someone on the call.

In a statement, Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald of Juneau said the lack of records raises questions. 

“Is the governor’s office harboring someone who committed a felony? It’s clear that the governor thinks he can hide from this and that it will just go away — that’s totally unacceptable,” Fitzgerald said in a statement.

“The governor needs to immediately make clear who recorded this call, who authorized the recording, and what discipline members of his staff are facing.”

Assembly Speaker Robin Vos (left) and Senate Majoritiy Leader Scott Fitzgerald.

Speaking on the call were Evers, Evers chief of staff Maggie Gau, Evers legal counsel Ryan Nilsestuen, Assembly Speaker Robin Vos of Rochester and Fitzgerald. Others listened in on the call but did not speak.

The hourlong discussion centered on how the leaders should respond to a 4-3 decision by the state Supreme Court striking down the Evers administration’s stay-at-home order.

Evers and the two Republicans were far apart. Evers said he wanted to know what rules the Republicans would accept to limit the spread of the coronavirus, but Vos and Fitzgerald said they were not convinced any rules were needed. In the six weeks since then, they haven’t put any in place.

The call also included Vos saying an outbreak in his part of the state was “because of a large immigrant population where it’s just a difference in culture where people are living much closer and working much closer.”

The comment prompted calls from Latino leaders who said Vos should apologize or resign for claiming the outbreak was related to culture. Vos said he didn’t have anything to apologize for, noting infection rates are higher in Hispanic communities.

The lack of certainty about who made the recording or approved it continues to anger Republicans, who say they can’t trust Evers after his office broke norms by making the recording. Some Democrats have sided with them, saying the recording was in poor form.

Meanwhile, Bill Lueders, the president of the Wisconsin Freedom of Information Council, has argued the officials should have had their meeting in public given the issues at stake.

Evers and top Republicans have had trouble getting along from the start. They rarely talk directly and when they do they have trouble seeing eye to eye.

Democrats contend Republicans soured relations by approving lame-duck laws just before Evers was sworn in limiting his powers. Republicans argue Evers hasn’t been willing to compromise with them.

Contact Patrick Marley at patrick.marley@jrn.com. Follow him on Twitter at @patrickdmarley.