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Judge threatens to fine Vos in open records case involving Gableman election investigation

Judge Valerie Baliey-Rihn told an attorney for Assembly Speaker Robin Vos that Michael Gableman's investigation had 'run amok'

Speaker Robin Vos, R-Rochester, is seen during a convening of the Assembly
Speaker Robin Vos, R-Rochester, is seen during a convening of the Assembly at the Wisconsin State Capitol on Jan. 25, 2020 in Madison, Wis. Coburn Dukehart/Wisconsin Watch

A Dane County judge warned a lawyer for Assembly Speaker Robin Vos that she would start fining the speaker for contempt of court if he didn’t get answers from the head of a Republican election investigation.

The warning from Judge Valerie Bailey-Rihn was her sharpest yet in an open records case that has dragged on for months between the liberal watchdog group American Oversight and Wisconsin Republicans including special counsel Michael Gableman.

“I still don’t have anything from Mr. Gableman as to what the heck he did,” Bailey-Rihn said during a hearing Thursday. “And no one has given me any evidence that, yes, we have complied with the open records request.”

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Earlier this month, Bailey-Rihn ordered Vos to tell Gableman not to destroy records after a lawyer for Gableman revealed that he was deleting records he deemed irrelevant to the investigation. She was the second judge to issue such an order in an open records case involving Gableman’s investigation.

On Thursday, Bailey-Rihn expressed frustration that she still did not have a signed affidavit from Gableman pledging that he had complied with the open records request.

“It’s not like this is Batman that you have to send out the bat signal to get somebody to respond. This is a contractor that is in Waukesha (County),” Bailey-Rihn said. “You don’t need a bat phone for that. I mean, it’s not like you don’t know where the Office of Special Counsel is.”

Vos attorney Ronald Stadler told Bailey-Rihn that he could not enforce the order, playing off of her repeated Batman references.

“It isn’t as simple as Commissioner Gordon turning on the bat light and summoning Batman,” Stadler said. “Somebody has to see it, and somebody has to respond to it. I don’t have control over Mr. Gableman.”

It’s not the first time Stadler has argued that Vos does not control Gableman, even though the speaker has signed multiple contracts with the former state Supreme Court justice on behalf of the Wisconsin Assembly. On Thursday, he again emphasized that point.

“I don’t have the authority and nobody in the state has the authority to walk into his office and demand that he sit for an inquisition, a deposition, anything like that. I can’t go to his office and search his computers. I can’t search his desk,” Stadler said. “I have done all that I can to comply with the court’s order. And I don’t have any ability to do more.”

Bailey-Rihn shot back.

“What you’re telling me is Mr. Vos hired a contractor who should be under his control, and he’s just run amok and is flatly refusing to follow any of the court’s guidance or orders,” Bailey-Rihn said. “That leaves me to think that they’re hiding something.”

Bailey-Rihn told Stadler that she wanted a sworn affidavit from Gableman answering several questions about the records request from American Oversight, including who worked for Gableman from June 1, 2021 until Aug. 30, 2021, where they stored digital records, what attempts they took to produce those records, and which records had been destroyed.

“I’m really skeptical when I can’t get an answer from the person who has the answers,” Bailey-Rihn said.

While Gableman is named as a defendant in another open records lawsuit brought by American Oversight, he’s not named in two cases pending before Bailey-Rihn. Vos is, and in March, Bailey-Rihn found him in contempt of court for a “collective and abject disregard” of prior orders to produce documents under the state’s open records law.

Bailey-Rihn’s March ruling gave Vos a chance to “purge” that contempt by proving that they’ve searched for records in question. On Thursday, she again warned Stadler.

“I’m gonna give you one last crack at purging your contempt, and that’s getting an affidavit from Mr. Gableman,” Bailey-Rihn said. “Or I’m gonna start assessing monetary fines.”

Bailey-Rihn scheduled another hearing in the case for June 16.