RACINE — Alderman Sandy Weidner’s sealed open records case, which resulted in her being found in contempt of court for speaking with Wisconsin media outlets, has drawn attention from media across the state and open records advocates.
Weidner’s case and the secretive nature of the proceedings is ranked as the No. 4 story in The Journal Times news staff’s list of the Top 10 news stories for 2018.
Earlier this month, the Court of Appeals ruled in favor of the news media and ordered Racine County Circuit Court Judge Eugene Gasiorkiewicz, who sealed the case, to determine which specific documents involving the case, if any, should remain sealed within 60 days of the ruling.
Open records lawsuit
The sealed case began with an open-records lawsuit filed by Weidner. Last year, Scott Letteney, the city’s attorney, held a meeting with City Council members, showing them a collection of emails Weidner and two other aldermen had sent to constituents that he felt violated attorney-client privilege.
Weidner claimed the emails were publicly available information, like ordinances and resolutions. Letteney said he was going to send the emails to the city’s Ethics Board. When Weidner requested a copy of the emails, she was denied.
She filed a lawsuit in December 2017 demanding the records. But in February, Gasiorkiewicz decided to seal the case from the public, something that is highly unusual.
After discussing the case with the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel and The Associated Press in August, Weidner was found guilty on Sept. 25 of civil contempt of court by Gasiorkiewicz. She was ordered to pay the attorney’s fees accrued by the city in the contempt case.
Weidner’s attorneys filed a challenge to unseal the case, as well as to the contempt of court charge, with the Wisconsin Court of Appeals. Enforcement of the fine depends on the outcome of that case.
On Nov. 1, The Journal Times submitted a request to the city for invoices from the law firm that represented the city in Weidner’s contempt of court case. On Nov. 6, the request was denied: Letteney’s office stated the invoices also were under seal.
Shortly after, the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, USA Today Network-Wisconsin, the Wisconsin Freedom of Information Council, the Wisconsin Newspaper Association and the Wisconsin Broadcasters Association all filed a motion to challenge Gasiorkiewicz’s decision to seal the case. The Court of Appeals sided with the media.
It’s unknown when Weidner’s appeals court hearing will be at this point because that information is also sealed. By the end of January, Gasiorkiewicz should decide what information will be available to the public and what will remain under seal.