Alderwoman faces contempt of court in records case
MADISON, Wis. (AP) — A southeastern Wisconsin alderwoman said Monday a judge has set up a secret hearing to decide whether she’s in contempt of court for complaining publicly about his decision to seal her open records lawsuit.
Racine Alderwoman Sandy Weidner said she is scheduled to appear at a closed hearing Tuesday where Racine County Circuit Judge Eugene Gasiorkiewicz will consider whether to punish her for speaking about the case to the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel newspaper.
“I can’t understand how this hearing could be sealed,” Weidner, 18-year alderwoman, told The Associated Press in a telephone interview. “How can I be held in contempt (but) not in public? This is devastating to see not only how our city government operates, but now the court system. This can’t be America.”
With all records, schedules and documents in the case sealed and inaccessible, it’s impossible to confirm Weidner’s assertions. According to her, the dispute began last year after Scot Letteney, the city attorney, declared that any communications coming out of his office are confidential under attorney-client privilege.
Letteney held a meeting with council members in September. He showed the members a collection of emails that Weidner and two other aldermen had sent to constituents that he felt violated the attorney-client privilege, Weidner said. She said her emails contained publicly available information like ordinances and resolutions that she supplied directly to constituents at their request.
Letteney said he was going to send the emails to the city’s Ethics Board. Weidner requested a copy of the emails but was denied and filed a lawsuit in December demanding the records.
During the first hearing in the case in February, Gasiorkiewicz took the unusual step of sealing the case and all proceedings. Weidner said the judge took the action at the city attorney’s request.
In April, according to Weidner, the judge said some of the emails were confidential work product and some were not. Weidner has filed an appeal, which is also sealed.
She spoke to the Journal Sentinel for a story last week complaining about Gasiorkiewicz’s decisions at the urging of Bill Lueders, president of the Wisconsin Freedom of Information Council, she said.
“Wisconsin does not and should not have secret courts, especially when it comes to the litigation of open records issues,” Lueders wrote in an email Monday to FOIC members alerting them of the case. “The public has a right to know when public officials seek to quash our right to know.”
Letteney’s attorney, Michael Cohen, declined comment. Gasiorkiewicz declined to confirm whether a contempt hearing was on his Tuesday calendar during a phone interview Monday. He did say, however, that both sides asked for the seal order and he went through a “complicated rubric” of weighing whether the public interest in the case outweighed privacy issues.
“There’s factors a judge can go through,” Gasiorkiewicz said. “I can tell you I did that.”
Weidner said the judge decided to seal the case after closed-door discussion with attorneys from both sides. She said her lawyer, Mark Hinkston, never agreed to seal the proceedings. Hinkston didn’t immediately return a voicemail Monday afternoon.
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