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Judge presses attorney for Vos in records lawsuit

Judge Valerie Bailey-Rihn says 'the buck stops' with Speaker Robin Vos in dispute over election investigation

Clouds and a blue sky are seen behind the Wisconsin State Capitol
The Wisconsin state Capitol on Thursday, April 29, 2021, in Madison, Wis. Angela Major/WPR

In an open records case seeking sanctions against Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, R-Rochester, a lawyer for the speaker said he had little involvement with a sweeping investigation Vos ordered of the 2020 election.

The testimony from Vos’ chief legal counsel Steve Fawcett prompted Dane County Circuit Court Judge Valerie Bailey-Rihn to interject on multiple occasions, at one point asking Fawcett if he understood that when it comes to records of the investigation, “the buck stops” with Vos.

Monday’s hearing stemmed from one of the three open records lawsuits filed by the liberal watchdog group American Oversight. The group sued Vos and former state Supreme Court Justice Michael Gableman, whom Vos tapped to lead a broad investigation of the 2020 election, arguing they failed to adequately respond to records requests connected to the probe. American Oversight is asking Bailey-Rihn to force Vos’ office to turn over more records of the investigation, arguing that evidence shows they did not adequately respond the first time.

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Fawcett was listed as the contact person for Vos’ office on Gableman’s contract, but he testified that he had not trained Gableman on how to respond to records requests, including what records to keep. During nearly three hours of testimony, he frequently told American Oversight attorney Christa Westerberg that he did not personally oversee Gableman’s response to the group’s records request.

“Did you visit the special counsel’s office to assist with the search?” Westerberg asked.

“I did not,” Fawcett replied.

“Have you ever been to those offices?” she responded.

“I have not,” said Fawcett.

“Do you know where they are?” Westerberg continued.

“I do not,” Fawcett said.

“Do you know if there’s anybody else associated with the Wisconsin Assembly who visited the Office of Special Counsel’s offices to search for those records?” Westerberg asked.

“I have no idea,” Fawcett said.

Vos hired Gableman last year to oversee the taxpayer-funded investigation at an estimated cost of $676,000.

Gableman, who has been working out of an office in Brookfield, has argued that his position is akin to a prosecutor, and that revealing all records connected to his case could jeopardize his investigation. So far, the judges hearing these open records disputes have viewed the cases differently.

Judge Bailey-Rihn ordered Vos to turn over records related to the case last year. On Monday, she told Fawcett that it was up to Vos to make sure those records were thorough and accurate since he had hired Gableman as an independent contractor. She noted that the initial records produced by Gableman didn’t include communication with Vos’ office.

“Didn’t it strike you odd that when you looked at these records from Mr. Gableman that none of your communications with them for the first several months were in these records?” Bailey-Rihn asked Fawcett.

“I’m not a part of that office. I don’t really have any oversight. I don’t know how they conduct their business,” Fawcett replied.

“But you understand that ultimately the buck stops with Mr. Vos and his office to produce relevant documents, right?” Bailey-Rihn responded.

Bailey-Rihn asked for additional briefing from attorneys to be completed by March 16. She said she would likely issue a written order after that’s completed.

In another case that could have developments this week, Judge Frank Remington said Friday that he was “unimpressed” by Gableman’s argument that he’s conducting a law enforcement operation or that the open records laws don’t apply to his work. Remington set a hearing date for Thursday and ordered Gableman to turn over documents to him for a private review by Jan. 31 in advance of oral arguments on March 8.