Judge holds alderwoman in contempt in open records case
MADISON, Wis. (AP) — A judge decided to hold a Racine alderwoman in contempt of court for speaking to news outlets about his decision to seal her open records lawsuit.
Records of the proceeding are inaccessible, but Sandy Weidner told The Associated Press on Thursday that Racine County Circuit Judge Eugene Gasiorkiewicz found her in contempt during a hearing Wednesday. The judge warned her that he would fine her $1,000 a day for every day she talks about the case going forward.
“I got a tongue-lashing, that’s for sure,” Weidner said in a telephone interview. “I knew I would be considered in contempt. I think the sanctions are fair. It is serious to defy a judge’s order,” she said.
Bill Lueders, president of the Wisconsin Freedom of Information Council, called Gasiorkiewicz’s contempt finding “an extraordinary development in an already extraordinary case.”
“This is a case that merits widespread outrage by the public and press, whom these elected officials seek to keep in the dark” Lueders said in an email to council members and media outlets.
Weidner, an 18-year alderwoman, has said the dispute began last year after city attorney Scott Letteney declared any communications coming out of his office were confidential under attorney-client privilege. Letteney said emails Weidner sent to constituents violated that privilege and he planned to forward them to the city Ethics Board, according to Weidner.
She filed an open records request for the emails but was denied. She sued in December to obtain the messages.
Gasiorkiewcz took the unusual step of sealing the case in February. The judge ruled in April that some of the emails were confidential work products and some were not. Weidner has appealed; that proceeding is sealed as well.
Weidner told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel and the AP about the case in September at Lueders’ urging, trigging the contempt hearing.
Michael Cohen, an attorney representing the city, had asked the judge to fine Weidner $15,000 as well as force her to pay the city’s attorneys’ fee, but Gasiorkiewicz chose to make her pay only the fees.
Weidner’s attorney, Terry Rose, didn’t immediately return a voicemail Thursday. He told the Journal Sentinel that he has never heard of a public records case being completed sealed. The newspaper reported that the judge defended his decision to seal the case during Wednesday’s contempt hearing, saying there were multiple reasons to do it, including protecting Weidner’s privacy.
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