AP, others win records lawsuit against Wisconsin legislators
By TODD RICHMOND, The Associated Press
MADISON, Wis. (AP) — The Associated Press and three other Wisconsin media outlets won a lawsuit Wednesday seeking records related to sexual harassment allegations against a former legislator.
The AP, the Wisconsin State Journal, The Capital Times and the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel sued in March 2020 after then-Assembly Chief Clerk Pat Fuller denied their open records requests seeking copies of the complaint against then-state Rep. Staush Gruszynski as well as documents related to the investigation.
Dane County Circuit Judge Juan B. Colas issued a ruling Wednesday saying that Assembly leaders misapplied a balancing test, erroneously finding that the complainant’s privacy outweighed the public’s interest in the documents.
Colas ordered Assembly leaders to release unredacted versions within five days. He said the media outlets should file an affidavit seeking attorney fees and costs as well as any claims for damages.
Assembly leaders could ask a state appeals court to stay the decision pending review. Ted Blazel, the current Assembly chief clerk, and Angela Joyce, a spokeswoman for Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, didn’t immediately respond to a message seeking comment.
Gruszynski, a Democrat, represented Green Bay in 2019. According to Colas’ ruling, a legislative employee alleged that he sexually harassed her that October at a Madison bar. The media outlets filed their requests for the documents that December.
According to the lawsuit, Amanda Jorgenson, a manager in the Legislature’s human resources office, said in an email to the media outlets that the office treats internal employee complaints as confidentially as possible and that the woman’s privacy outweighed the public interest in the documents.
Wisconsin law allows records custodians to apply such balancing tests. The media outlets argued that the state’s open records law presumes complete access to government records and denial of requests is contrary to the public interest. They maintained Fuller and the Assembly had no valid basis for denial.
The Assembly released redacted versions of the records in August after the woman gave The Capital Times details of her complaint. The media outlets challenged the redactions that same month as part of the lawsuit.
Those documents revealed that Gruszynski told the woman as they sat at the bar that he had had his eye on her for years and asked her to have sex with him. She refused, reminding him that he was married and that sex between a legislator and an aide would be inappropriate. She then left the bar.
Gruszynski said in a statement in August that he was “black out drunk” during the encounter. He lost a primary for his seat that month and is no longer a legislator.
The Assembly passed a bill Tuesday that calls for creating a new human resources office for the Legislature. Open government advocates fear that language in the bill would allow the new office to keep complaints about lawmakers secret.
The Senate passed the bill Wednesday on a voice vote with no debate and sent it to Gov. Tony Evers. Britt Cudaback, a spokeswoman for the governor, didn’t immediately respond to a message inquiring about his position on the bill.
This version corrects the number of media outlets that sued from two to three in the first paragraph.