MADISON, Wis. — Open-records advocates claimed a victory on Oct. 12 after a state appeals court ordered the Department of Natural Resources to release an employee's disciplinary records.
The District 4 Court of Appeals said the records were not covered by an exemption of the state's open-records laws and therefore must be given to The Lakeland Times newspaper of Minocqua. The newspaper said the case was significant because it could have provided a blanket exemption for disciplinary records involving public employees if the court had accepted an argument put forward by the DNR and its employee, conservation warden Thomas Kroeplin.
The agency and warden claimed the records fell under a 2003 amendment to the state open-records law allowing agencies to withhold some personnel documents used in staff management. The court said that provision did not extend to disciplinary records.
"Not only is the public entitled to know about Kroeplin's actions, but, perhaps even more critically, there is a strong need for public oversight to ensure that the DNR's investigation was thoroughly conducted as well," Judge Paul Higginbotham wrote for the court.
A DNR spokeswoman referred questions about the case to the state Department of Justice. Mike Bauer, administrator of DOJ's Legal Services Division, did not return a call in time for this story.
The records detail an investigation into whether Kroeplin broke DNR rules when he asked a police dispatcher to trace a license plate to find out who owned a car parked at the home of his nephew's ex-girlfriend. The nephew, who had tried to obtain the information minutes earlier, was later arrested for allegedly planting drugs in his ex-girlfriend's car.
Kroeplin's action prompted a federal privacy lawsuit by the car's owner that the DNR paid $90,000 to settle. The Lakeland Times went to court to get the records after the DNR said it would release only a portion of them in response to an open-records request. The rest, the agency argued, fell under the exemption covering records such as employee evaluations and salary and bonus plans. Releasing them would damage Kroeplin's reputation and discourage employees from openly communicating with supervisors, DNR argued.
Kroeplin, meanwhile, filed suit to try to block the DNR from releasing any of the records. The two cases were consolidated, and the appeals court ruled in favor of the newspaper, saying neither Kroeplin nor the DNR offered legitimate reasons to withhold the information.
"When individuals become public employees, especially in a law enforcement capacity, they should expect closer public scrutiny, which includes the real possibility that disciplinary records may be released to the public," Higginbotham wrote in upholding a circuit court judge's decision.
Gregg Walker, general manager of The Lakeland Times, called the ruling a victory for open government. "It's a big win for the state of Wisconsin and its residents," Walker said. "If we lose, nobody will get discipline records for teachers, policemen, wardens — employees of the state across the board, which we have every right to know."Bob Dreps, a press lawyer who represented the newspaper, said the ruling marked the first time an appeals court had addressed the argument that disciplinary records were shielded under the 2003 amendment. The argument has been made in a few other cases recently, he said.
"It's a significant opinion," Dreps said. "The statutory argument would have made access to disciplinary records quite problematic."