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GOP lawmakers' attorney agrees to confidentiality deal

Posted at 3:35 PM, Aug 29, 2019
and last updated 2019-08-29 18:19:52-04

BEAVER DAM (AP) — Faced with a tight deadline, the Republican co-chairs of the Wisconsin Legislature's budget committee hired an attorney Thursday to sign a confidentiality agreement requested by Democratic Attorney General Josh Kaul to end a stalemate over lawsuit settlements.

But it wasn't clear whether the move would be sufficient for Kaul. He said only that he was reviewing the agreement.

"We will continue attempting to reach agreement on this issue, as we began attempting to do more than six months ago," Kaul said.

Republicans passed a law in December's lame-duck legislative session that gives the Legislature's GOP-controlled budget committee the power to approve settlements that Kaul's office reaches on lawsuits. There are at least 15 pending lawsuits that could net the state millions of dollars in settlements that are in limbo as Kaul and lawmakers squabble over how to proceed.

Kaul met behind closed doors with the committee Tuesday and asked lawmakers to sign confidentiality agreements so they could discuss the lawsuits. The lawmakers refused, despite a warning from Kaul's Department of Justice that the state must act by Friday on a "very urgent matter of tremendous importance to the state."

On Thursday afternoon, less than 24 hours before the deadline, the Republican co-chairs of the committee said they had hired an attorney who signed the confidentiality agreement.

"This action should resolve the Attorney General's confidentiality concerns, and he should send over all of the relevant settlement information for review," committee co-chairs Sen. Alberta Darling and Rep. John Nygren said in a statement. "The Committee stands ready to review and approve any settlements that are in the state's interest."

They also said that Kaul's demand for confidentiality agreements to be signed was "an obvious effort to undermine the law by delaying the committee's work."

Kaul said that reviewing confidential information and keeping that information private "is part and parcel of the review of settlements."

The confidentiality agreement signed by the attorney hired at $290 an hour, Andy Phillips from the Milwaukee law firm of Von Briesen, said it applies to all members of the committee, both Republicans and Democrats. They would not be allowed to discuss any terms of the lawsuit settlement, should Kaul agree to turn over the documents to the committee.

Sen. Jon Erpenbach, a Democratic committee member, said he was never consulted about the hiring of the attorney and didn't know about it until Republicans announced it in a press release.

"This lawyer does not represent Jon Erpenbach because Jon Erpenbach had no input," Erpenbach said.

He and other Democrats put out a statement calling the GOP move to hire an attorney without consulting Democrats "political game playing."

Speaking to reporters earlier Thursday, Democratic Gov. Tony Evers said he wished the Legislature would repeal the law requiring committee approval of lawsuit settlements saying the disagreement over confidentiality agreements shows it isn't workable.

"If I was a state representative, I wouldn't sign that thing because you're responsible for openness and transparency," Evers said of the confidentiality agreements. "That should be left to the attorney general."

Evers said Republicans who stand in the way of Kaul settling lawsuits on behalf of the state need to figure out a resolution so Wisconsin does not lose millions of dollars.

"We need to have adults come to the table and figure it out," Evers said following an economic development announcement in Beaver Dam.