MADISON, Wis. (AP) — If the person in Gov. Tony Evers’ staff who recorded a telephone meeting between the governor and Republican legislative leaders did so without approval, they could be guilty of a felony, the chief attorney for the Wisconsin Legislature’s Reference Bureau said in a memo Monday.
Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald and Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, both Republicans, were on the May 14 call with Evers, his chief of staff, Maggie Gau, and his legal counsel, Ryan Nilsestuen. Another Evers staff member who was listening to the call recorded it without Evers or the Republicans knowing.
Audio of the call was released last week to news outlets under the state’s open records law. Vos and Fitzgerald called recording the meeting without their knowledge unprecedented, unprofessional and unethical. They compared Evers to former President Richard Nixon, who famously made secret recordings in the White House.
Vos, Fitzgerald and Evers all said last week they did not know the call was being recorded. Evers said a member of his staff wanted help in taking notes and recorded the call. Nilsestuen said last week that one of the parties talking on the call consented to the recording but would not say who gave the approval. Evers has not released the name of the staff member involved or said what discipline the staffer might face.
Wisconsin law allows for telephone calls to be recorded as long as one of the parties involved knows about it. If anyone who was announced as participants on the call, including Gau or Nilsestuen, authorized the staff member to record it, the recording would be legal, said Rick Champagne, chief of the Legislative Reference Bureau, which drafts bills for lawmakers and provides legal advice.
Neither Gau, Nilsestuen nor Evers’ spokeswoman, Melissa Baldauff, immediately replied to messages Monday asking about who knew the call was being recorded.
“If the governor didn’t know that his staff was recording him, this is a bigger problem than he thinks,” Fitzgerald said in a statement. “The governor should be in control of his office – the buck stops with him. So if one of his staff committed a felony, he needs to hold that person accountable.”
Illegally recording a telephone call in Wisconsin is a Class H felony, punishable by up to a $10,000 fine and six years in prison.
“The governor needs to immediately make clear who from his office created the recording, who authorized it, and what disciplinary actions his staff is facing, “Fitzgerald said. ”After bipartisan condemnation of these actions, he also needs to assure legislators that no more recordings exist between our members and the governor or his staff.”
While Evers has not named the staff member involved, he has promised that no future meetings will be recorded. The May meeting was for Evers and Republican leaders to discuss next steps in fighting the coronavirus pandemic after the Wisconsin Supreme Court struck down Evers’ “safer at home” order.