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Political games played by both sides over August emails

by John Halverson

October 18, 2012

Political games played by both sides over August emails

One of the quotes I recall during my hippie days was one from Thomas Mann.

"Everything is politics," he said.

During those heady days of the "movement" in the '60s, it meant that everything you do and everything that happens is a political statement.

Now it's more aptly used to describe what politicians and political groups do at a time when the electorate most deserves honesty and clarity.

It you want to get disheartened, take a look at the recently announced lawsuit against five GOP lawmakers.

Two partisan groups, Common Cause and the Center for Media Democracy, asked Rep. Tyler August of Lake Geneva and other Republican lawmakers to release emails involving the American Legislative Exchange Council, a partisan group on the other end of the political spectrum.

Both sides appear to be playing a political game.

Common Cause and the Center for Media Democracy have every right to ask for the emails. Emails lawmakers write on their office accounts and emails regarding public policy written on their personal accounts are public record. It's the law.

According to the lawsuit, correspondence about ALEC in a private email account is still subject to a public records request, because it is "indisputably related to official government business. Wisconsin legislators are members of ALEC only by virtue of their status as a state legislator, and they correspond with ALEC in their official capacity as Wisconsin legislators."

The reaction of the legislators was interesting. They were quite willing to say they had no contacts with ALEC on their office computers, but wouldn't give a direct answer as to whether or not they had any on their personal computers.

August's spokesman told me: "Our statement is that we've complied with the open records request and that there would be no further comment."

They clearly haven't complied. They haven't even said yes or no. They know they haven't, and it seems to me that they're simply stringing out the issue in court until after the November election.

The lawmakers, who are up for re-election, probably figure any damage that might come from being sued doesn't compare to the damage that might be done if they tell the truth about their ties to ALEC — a group that writes draft legislation for conservative causes.

Why else would they answer the way they did? Because they have a problem with the groups asking for the emails? If that's the case, why did they have such a quick answer to the question regarding their office computers but stonewalled when it came to their personal computers?

Do they have a problem with the law that requires them to respond to the open records request? Doesn't matter. Of all people, law-and-order politicians should be the last ones to support only the laws they agree with.

The logical conclusion is that they're stonewalling about the emails because they have something to hide.

Finally, if they're embarrassed by their affiliation with ALEC, maybe they shouldn't belong.

But their accusers aren't lily white either. A good case can be made that they have their own partisan agendas.

Why did they file the lawsuit so close to the election?

I asked Brendan Fischer, staff counsel for Media and Democracy. He said the group does similar checks all year. So has he done the same investigation of liberal groups? He indicated that he wasn't aware of any liberal groups that operated with the secrecy of ALEC and that ALEC had a special problem because it wines and dines politicians to further its cause — something the wined-and-dined politicians probably don't want known.

Fischer said his group only wants "transparency."

Fair enough.

But how about a little transparency about themselves?

They claim to be non-partisan — and much of the media have labeled them "watchdog groups."

Yet both groups have been termed liberal by the Washington Post and the New York Times.

Take a look at the websites of Common Cause and the Center for Media and Democracy and ask yourself how they can pass themselves off as nonpartisan.

The Center for Media and Democracy site is a virtual billboard of anti-ALEC rhetoric. They even have a sister site called alecexposed.

The Common Cause chairman is the brilliant Robert Reich, an outspoken critic of the Republican agenda. Common Cause's CEO was a long-time Democratic congressman. Interestingly, though, his past party affiliation isn't noted in his Common Cause bio. How's that for transparency?

Granted, they may still lay claim to objectivity. I know reporters and partisans who can put aside their political perspectives when they're doing their jobs. But it's hard. People tend to take on the views of those they rub shoulders with. And if these groups are going to claim August and the others are lying by omission, aren't they doing the same thing?

Finally, you have to ask yourself: Why is the media so quick to label ALEC a conservative group and not label these groups liberal?

In the interest of disclosure, the Regional News was guilty, too. I wrote the story in last week's paper about the lawsuit. I took most of the raw facts from other newspapers. Later, I was prompted to do more research by a much less experienced reporter. I did and discovered enough for me to question the nonpartisan labels used by Common Cause and the Center for Media and Democracy. If you're going to call ALEC conservative, you should call the other groups liberal or not label them at all.

Bottom line?

Both the accused and the accusers get failing grades in this test.

August and the others ought to do what's legally required of them and fess up about their emails.

The groups accusing them ought to take a look in the mirror and decide if their political histories support their claims of neutrality.

But of course neither group will do those things. They're locked into partisan politics — not full disclosure.

Halverson is editor and general manager of the Regional News