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The Club for Growth, a national conservative anti-tax group, released an attack ad against Republican U.S. Senate hopeful state Sen. Leah Vukmir. The video states that Vukmir:
"Claimed the open records law didn't apply to her, got sued, lost and cost taxpayers $15,000 in legal fees."
Vukmir on Aug. 14, 2018, emerged as the winner in the Republican U.S. Senate primary against Kevin Nicholson and will face Democrat Tammy Baldwin in the November election.
There’s no doubt that Vukmir was sued in 2013. But does the ad really capture the whole story?
Turns out, much of what the CFG claims in the ad launched in July is easily backed up by evidence in the 2013 case.
Vukmir’s 2013 lawsuit
The Center for Media and Democracy (CMD) sued Vukmir in 2013 for violating an open records request.
At the time, Vukmir was second vice-chairwoman of the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC). The conservative nonprofit is comprised of state legislators and members of the private sector.
The CMD filed a request for records after an ALEC conference in Oklahoma City in May 2013. It resulted in the release of nine documents, but the CMD suspected there were more.
The CMD, a progressive watchdog organization based in Madison, was no stranger to requesting records from ALEC. They run a website called ALEC Exposed that targets the organization and its pro-corporation values.
And Brendan Fischer, former lawyer for the CMD, said ALEC had been difficult with releasing records in the past. But one of the main reasons the CMD filed the lawsuit was due to a disclaimer that ALEC put at the bottom of their documents.
The disclaimer stated: "Because this is an internal ALEC document, ALEC believes that it is not subject to disclosure under any state Freedom of Information or Public Records Act."
Fischer said this made it difficult to believe they only had nine documents from the meeting.
The assumption proved correct during the settlement when both parties agreed to have Vukmir’s emails searched by an independent party in the presence of a staffer from the center.
The independent party found a "significant number" of documents in Vukmir’s email. Later, Vukmir’s team released a statement, blaming the record mishap on technical difficulties.
But did she resist by saying that the open records laws did not apply to her?
Vukmir filed a motion in Dane County Circuit Court on Sept. 11, 2013, claiming she was immune from lawsuit while she held office.
What Vukmir got wrong was that state law only specifies an exemption during the legislative session. She then tried to claim that the session included the entire term of a sitting legislator.
The lawsuit, if Vukmir won, would have allowed all lawmakers to ignore the open records law, according to a report published in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.
But in the end, the case was settled before trial. Vukmir handed over the missing documents. Her legal team racked up $15,000 in fees, which was paid for by the state.
Jess Ward, Vukmir’s campaign manager, did not address the case directly but said it is "nothing more than an attempt by Leah’s opponents to attack her stellar record of saving taxpayers billions."
The campaign ad
The claim about Vukmir’s lawsuit is the second made in the CFG Action video, after the statement that Vukmir sought leniency for a fellow lawmaker convicted of sexual assault. We rated that claim Mostly True.
The group is backing conservatives in seven states during upcoming primaries but have spoken against Vukmir’s campaign. They openly endorsed Nicholson, Vukmir’s challenger in the U.S. senate race against incumbent Baldwin.
The cost of the case may not be the most out-of-the-ordinary part. It is standard practice for a politician to have their legal fees paid for by the state.
But in Vukmir’s case, challenging open records laws could have changed the way all legislators respond to records requests. If she had won, legislators would be able to ignore open records law.
So, Vukmir did claim the open records laws did not apply to her. She was sued. And she did rack up $15,000 in legal fees.
We rate this claim as True.
Milwaukee Journal Sentinel archives, "State to pay $15,000 in settlement of suit against Vukmir," March 28, 2014
Milwaukee Journal Sentinel archives, "Vukmir releases records related to ALEC work," April 4, 2014
Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, "Senate candidate Leah Vukmir racked up legal bills for taxpayers"
Aug. 3, 2018
Milwaukee Journal Sentinel archives, "Sen. Leah Vukmir tries to sidestep open records suit," Sept. 12, 2014
Phone call with Patrick Marley, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reporter, August 8, 2018
Phone call with Brendan Fischer, former lawyer for the Center for Media and Democracy in 2014 case, Aug. 9, 2018
Email exchange with Mattias Gugel, spokesperson for Vukmir’s campaign, Aug. 14, 2018
Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, "Leah Vukmir defeats Kevin Nicholson for GOP nomination for U.S. Senate and will meet Tammy Baldwin in November," August 15, 2018.
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