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Wisconsin GOP Leader Compares Evers To Nixon Over Recording

Gov. Tony Evers during a state health department media briefing.

Gov. Tony Evers' office recorded a telephone meeting he had with Republican legislative leaders last month, prompting the Senate majority leader on Wednesday to compare the Democratic governor to Richard Nixon in the latest fallout between the governor and lawmakers.

Wisconsin state law permits telephone conversations to be recorded as long as one person is aware. But Republicans who didn't know about the recording of the May 14 meeting blasted it as unethical and a breach of trust.

The meeting came after the Wisconsin Supreme Court struck down Evers’ stay-at-home order in reaction to the coronavirus pandemic. Republicans fought the order and in the meeting Evers and GOP leaders discussed the path forward.

Evers’ spokeswoman Melissa Baldauff provided The Associated Press with the recording under the state's open records law. She said staff made the recording to make sure any rule they drafted to deal with the coronavirus accurately reflected the conversation, and she said Evers didn't know about it.

“The recording was intended for internal use only to inform detailed note taking and planning next steps. This was not intended for release to the media or anyone else, however, we were obligated to comply with the open records law to release these records once they were requested," Baldauff said in a statement.

The governor “has since directed our staff that this will not happen again,” Baldauff said.

Bill Lueders, president of the Wisconsin Freedom of Information Council, said he can't recall any recordings of meetings governors have with lawmakers previously being released under a public records request or any governor making such a recording. Lueders has covered Wisconsin politics for a variety of publications since 1986.

“I do think that it maybe would be considered a violation of trust among other participants if they were recorded without their knowledge,” Lueders said. “There’s nothing illegal about it, but if you do it you’re creating a public record that anybody ought to be able to get for the asking.”

On the recording, Evers and GOP leaders skirmish over how best to move forward, disagreeing on such things as whether a statewide rule was needed to deal with the virus -- as Evers wanted -- or whether it could be left to local health officials. At one point, Evers noted the images of packed bars in the hours after the Supreme Court ruling, suggesting it would have been good if they had reopened in an orderly way with some restrictions. Fitzgerald challenged that, asking whether Evers had been to a Walmart or Home Depot on a weekend to see big crowds there.

The Republicans, who had a tenuous relationship with Evers to begin with, said the recording was an unprecedented violation of trust.

“In 26 years in the Legislature, this is one of the most brazen examples of unethical, unprofessional conduct I have ever seen," Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald said in a statement. “The governor has gone so far off the deep end, he’s making secret Nixonesque recordings from the East Wing of the Capitol. This conduct is totally unbecoming of our state’s top executive and opens up questions about what other recordings his administration may have.”

Vos called the decision to record the meeting “unprecedented and outside the norm."

“Governor Evers has dragged partisan politics to a new low in Wisconsin and damaged his reputation and the state’s, as well," Vos said.