MADISON, Wis. (AP) — A Wisconsin judge on Monday declined to dismiss a lawsuit seeking to ensure that no records are deleted from a now-closed state office created to investigate former President Donald Trump’s loss in 2020.
The lawsuit was one of several filed by liberal watchdog group American Oversight against former Wisconsin Supreme Court Justice Michael Gableman and the office of special counsel that he led. Assembly Speaker Robin Vos hired Gableman to lead the probe in 2021 under pressure from Trump and conservative Republicans in Wisconsin who were pushing for decertifying Biden’s win.
Vos put the investigation on hold in April 2022 and then fired Gableman in August 2022 after he turned up no evidence to back Trump’s false claims that the election had been stolen from him. Vos fired Gableman just days after Vos won his primary over an opponent endorsed by Gableman and Trump. Vos called Gableman an “embarrassment” to himself and the state.
Even though the office has been unstaffed for nearly a year, it continues to fight open records lawsuits. Courts have repeatedly ruled against Gableman and his former office in those cases.
Dane County Circuit Judge Jacob Frost on Monday affirmed with his latest ruling that the office formerly led by Gableman, and any future version of it, is subject to Wisconsin’s open records law. Frost granted a temporary injunction against any deletion of records by the office and rejected the motion to dismiss, a request made nearly a year ago.
“Today’s ruling is a victory for democracy that affirms what we’ve been arguing all along: Wisconsin’s Office of Special Counsel is a state agency and must follow Wisconsin’s public records retention laws,” said Rachel Fried, an attorney with Democracy Forward, which represented American Oversight in the case along with Madison-based Pines Bach.
Frost, in his ruling, said Gableman’s office “throws a variety of arguments against the wall to try to avoid the Retention Law,” but “they all fail.” He said the public interest in preserving, requesting and reviewing records obtained during the investigation was “paramount.”
James Bopp, who represented the office of special counsel, said no decision had been made on whether to appeal.
“We are surprised by the ruling since all of the documents have been transferred to the clerk of the Wisconsin Assembly,” he said. “The special counsel has no documents to preserve or produce.”
At a hearing in September, Bopp told the judge that the lawsuit was moot and that all records collected by the office would soon be made public.
Assembly Chief Clerk Ted Blazel said Monday that he had the records and was working on getting them posted online “in the near future.”
President Joe Biden defeated Donald Trump in 2020 by just under 21,000 votes in Wisconsin, a victory that withstood recounts, multiple state and federal lawsuits, an audit by the nonpartisan Legislative Audit Bureau and a report by the conservative Wisconsin Institute for Law & Liberty. An Associated Press review of Wisconsin and other battleground states also found far too little fraud to have tipped the election for Trump.