Media outlets sue to get lawmaker’s sex harassment records
MADISON, Wis. (AP) — The Associated Press and three Wisconsin media outlets filed a lawsuit Wednesday demanding that the state Assembly’s chief clerk release all records related to allegations of sexual harassment made against a Democratic legislator.
Assembly Democrats said in December that a legislative staffer had filed a sexual harassment complaint against Rep. Staush Gruszynski. The complaint spurred an investigation by the Legislature’s human resources office that substantiated the claims. Democratic Party leaders asked Gruszynski to resign but he has refused to step down and is running for re-election.
Reporters from the AP, the Wisconsin State Journal, The Capital Times and the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel filed open record requests with Assembly Chief Clerk Pat Fuller in December seeking copies of the complaint and documents created during the investigation.
Fuller denied the requests.
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 respecting the privacy of the complainant and witnesses outweighs the public interest in disclosing the documents. The state open records law allows records custodians to apply such balancing tests when deciding whether to release records.
The AP and the three newspapers filed the lawsuit in Dane County Circuit Court in response, arguing that Fuller and the Assembly violated the open records law. They say the law presumes complete access to government records and denial of such access is contrary to the public interest. They maintain Fuller and the Assembly had no valid basis for denial.
The lawsuit demands that Fuller and the Assembly release the records immediately and pay the outlets’ attorney fees and damages if a judge decides the defendants arbitrarily or capriciously withheld the records.
“The public has a right to know and understand what is happening inside its government,” said AP spokesman Patrick Maks. “By shielding public records from news organizations, including The Associated Press, the state of Wisconsin is infringing upon that fundamental right.”
Another plaintiff named in the lawsuit is University of Minnesota doctoral student Jonathan Anderson. The filing says he researches public and press access to government-held information. He also requested the Gruszynski materials in December and was denied.
Fuller and Kit Beyer, a spokeswoman for Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, didn’t immediately respond to emails seeking comment on the lawsuit.
Republican Rep. Rob Brooks lost his leadership position in 2018, but won reelection, after he made sexual and racist remarks to three female legislators that he admitted were “stupid comments while under the influence of alcohol.” In 2017, Democratic Rep. Josh Zepnick, of Milwaukee, was accused by two female colleagues of kissing them against their will. He refused to resign and lost a reelection bid in 2018.