Wisconsin Gov. Tony Evers’ office secretly recording a May 14 phone call with Republican leaders about the state’s response to Covid-19. Wisconsin law allows a recording with the consent of just one party on the call, but Evers’ staff claim to have taped the call without his knowledge, indicating a possible violation of the law.
The hour-long phone call between Evers, Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald, and Assembly Speaker Robin Vos came a day after the Wisconsin Supreme Court overturned Evers’ stay-at-home order. Fitzgerald and Vos brought the stay-at-home order to court after Evers extended it an additional month instead of lifting it on the original April deadline.
Melissa Baldauff, Evers’ spokeswoman, gave the recording to the Associated Press after an open records request. “The recording was intended for internal use only to inform detailed note taking and planning next steps,” she said in a statement. Evers did not know the call was recorded and has since instructed his office not to let it happen again, she added.
In Wisconsin, phone calls may be recorded as long as one party consents to it. State law allows an individual to “intercept a wire, electronic or oral communication where the person is a party to the communication or where one of the parties to the communication has given prior consent to the interception.” Since Evers “wasn’t aware that the conversation was recorded,” according to Baldauff, the recording appears to violate the state statute.
Fitzgerald and Vos have both issued statements condemning Evers’ actions. Fitzgerald called the incident “one of the most brazen examples of unethical, unprofessional conduct I have ever seen,” adding that the recordings were “Nixonesque.” Vos slammed the recording as “unprecedented” and “shameful,” accusing Evers of violating “a sense of trust, civility and integrity.”
Wisconsin Assembly Majority Leader Jim Steineke, on what appears to be his personal Twitter account, suggested that Evers may have had more knowledge of the recording than his staff admits. “If no one in the administration loses their job over this,” he suggested, “it’ll be a clear indication that this secretive taping was an order from the very top.”
Wisconsin has a troubled history when it comes to unwanted surveillance through government channels. In the “John Doe” affair of 2013, Wisconsin officials came under fire for using the legal system to investigate conservative supporters of then-Governor Scott Walker, to the extent of sending police raids to family homes.
More recently, Evers has been criticized for his last-minute executive order to postpone Wisconsin’s spring election this year to June 9 within a day of polls opening, causing widespread confusion throughout the state.
It is not yet clear whether Fitzgerald and Vos will file a legal complaint in response to the secret recording.