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Legal Standoff Continues Between Attorney General, GOP Lawmakers

Wednesday Meeting Cancelled Over Ongoing Confidentiality Disagreement

The Wisconsin Capitol reflected in an office window
Steve Brown & John Verkleir (CC-BY)

GOP state lawmakers and Democratic Attorney General Josh Kaul hit another roadblock Wednesday in a continued standoff over how to handle legal settlements involving the state.

Under a law passed during December’s lame-duck session of the state Legislature, Kaul must seek approval from the state’s budget-writing committee, which is controlled by Republicans, to settle any lawsuits involving the state.

The committee was set to meet Wednesday afternoon to take up a number of pending cases. The cases, mostly related to unpaid bills resulting from automobile accidents, involve balances owed to the state ranging from about $100,000 to $6,000.

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However, the meeting was cancelled at the last minute as concerns over confidentiality continue to cloud the proceedings.

Rep. John Nygren, R-Marinette, said lawmakers called off the meeting because the state Department of Justice didn’t provide enough information about the cases.

Lawmakers have requested the DOJ provide several pieces of information about each pending case, including summaries, lists of similar cases and settlement figures for comparable cases.

Nygren said it would be “irresponsible” to approve settlements without that information.

“Everybody’s goal should be to protect the taxpayer,” he said.

In the past, the attorney general’s office said information sharing must be limited, due to legal requirements for confidentiality, unless lawmakers sign non-disclosure agreements.

“Last week, when AG Kaul asked committee members to sign secrecy agreements, members of both parties and the governor agreed that we should not be subjected to secrecy agreements,” Nygren said.

Kaul released a statement late Wednesday afternoon calling on lawmakers to repeal the new law.

“(In) stark contrast with the haste with which Republicans in the legislature passed the extraordinary session legislation, there has been delay after delay from the Joint Finance Committee when it comes to setting up a workable review process and reviewing proposed resolutions,” he said. “If the members of JFC aren’t willing to do that, the legislature should repeal the parts of the extraordinary session law that relate to case resolutions. It’s time for the Republicans in the legislature to clean up the mess they made with the extraordinary session legislation.”

Lawmakers and the attorney general have clashed for months over how to discuss the cases, which are sometimes bound by strict confidentiality agreements.

Late last week, GOP lawmakers hired a private lawyer to sign a confidentiality agreement on behalf of the committee. They believed that would meet Kaul’s demands, but the attorney general’s office has since said it won’t.

According to the DOJ, more than 15 cases are stalled because of the impasse.

In addition to the relatively small settlements slated for discussion Wednesday, the state could soon face decisions involving large settlement negotiations in multi-state lawsuits. Those lawsuits include challenges to pharmaceutical manufacturers over their role in the nationwide opioid epidemic.

NPR reported last week that Purdue Pharma, Johnson & Johnson, Endo International and Allergan are currently holding settlement talks with attorneys general across the country.

Editor’s note: This story was updated with comments from Attorney General Josh Kaul.