Godlewski agrees to open records request changes after settlement shows La Follette used personal email for state business

Jul 11, 2024 | In The News


Secretary of State Sarah Godlewski agreed to tweaks in how her office handles open records requests after a lawsuit by a conservative group found records showing her predecessor used his personal email account to seek advice on the office budget.

The Institute for Reforming Government yesterday announced a settlement with Godlewski, who admitted no wrongdoing as part of the stipulation.

Godlewski initially told IRG her office found no responsive records to its request for emails ahead of La Follette’s abrupt resignation in March 2023 and her appointment to succeed him. But she later voluntarily turned over emails that La Follette sent from his personal account to her private address.

The only email Godlewski received while she was still secretary of state was a call for help from La Follette to get a plaque installed under the bust of “Fighting” Bob La Follette in the state Capitol. The others, which Godlewski received after she left the treasurer’s office, sought her advice on options to get additional staff approved for the office.

In his resignation letter, La Follette wrote he didn’t want to spend the ensuing 3.5 years trying to run the office without adequate resources and staffing needs.

None of the emails discussed Godlewski’s appointment to succeed La Follete after some Republicans had questioned whether there had been some prearranged deal that led to her getting the post.

“We requested these records as part of our goal to maintain vigorous oversight of state agencies, and we are pleased that this litigation has resulted in a policy change that will benefit all record requesters going forward,” said CJ Szafir, IRG president and CEO.

La Follette resigned in March 2023, four months after winning his 12th term. Dem Gov. Tony Evers quickly appointed Godlewski as his successor after she served one term as state treasurer before deciding to run unsuccessfully for the U.S. Senate in 2022.

The IRG filed an open records request seeking all records between March 17, 2022, and March 17, 2023, that included correspondence between La Follette and Evers, La Follette and Godlewski, and La Follette and any deputy secretary of state.

Godlewski didn’t initially respond to the request, and IRG filed suit seeking an order compelling her to turn over any records. A month later, her office informed IRG that it didn’t believe a response was required because it didn’t locate any records that met the request.

During the suit, Godlewski provided emails she received from La Follette through her personal email account. Those included messages dated Nov. 6, 2022, while Godlewski was still state treasurer; four dates in January 2023 after Godlewski left office; and three in March 2023.

According to the stipulation, the secretary of state’s office didn’t consider those emails to be subject to the state’s open records law and Godlewski voluntarily turned them over. The stipulation also states the office would’ve considered the emails to be subject to the Public Records Law had La Follette provided them over upon his retirement.

Under the stipulation, the secretary of state’s office agreed to respond to open records requests “as soon as practicable and without delay” even when no responsive records are found. The office also acknowledged that when private email accounts are used to conduct official business, they should be searched for responsive records.

Godlewski maintains that state law didn’t require her to provide a response to a records request when no responsive documents are found, and no party admitted liability or fault, meaning they will bear their own costs for the suit.

“The Office has and will continue to follow open records law,” Godlewski said in a statement.

La Follette didn’t immediately return an email from WisPolitics this afternoon.