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Wisconsin judge finds GOP election investigator in contempt, after refusing to testify on stand over open records

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Former Wisconsin Supreme Court Justice Michael Gableman, an investigator hired by Republicans to look into former President Donald Trump's 2020 loss in the battleground state, takes the stand and refuses to answer questions from Circuit Court Judge Frank Remington, Friday, June 10, 2022, at the Dane County Courthouse in Madison, Wis. Gableman was found in contempt after he berated the judge and refused to answer any questions on the witness stand. (Amber Arnold/Wisconsin State Journal via AP)

MADISON, Wis. (AP) — A Wisconsin judge on Friday found the investigator hired by Republicans to look into former President Donald Trump’s 2020 loss in the battleground state in contempt because of how his office responded to open records requests related to the probe.

The ruling against the office led by Michael Gableman, a former Wisconsin Supreme Court justice who briefly worked for Trump, came after Gableman berated the judge and refused to answer any questions on the witness stand. Gableman had not wanted to testify, but Dane County Circuit Judge Frank Remington ordered him to appear.

Remington did not immediately announce a penalty in court on Friday, saying he would provide that in a written decision.

Gableman was hired a year ago by Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, under pressure from Trump to investigate the former president’s loss to President Joe Biden by just under 21,000 votes in Wisconsin. The investigation has cost taxpayers about $900,000 so far.

Biden’s victory has survived two recounts, multiple lawsuits, a nonpartisan audit and a review by a conservative law firm. Only a couple of dozen people out of nearly 3.3 million voters have been charged with fraud, numbers on par with past elections.

Gableman has issued two interim reports, but his work has faced a barrage of bipartisan criticism and Vos put his work on hold this spring pending the outcome of lawsuits challenging his ability to subpoena elected officials and others who worked on elections.

American Oversight, a liberal watchdog group, filed three open records lawsuits against Gableman, Vos and the Wisconsin Assembly. The group has won a series of victories before Remington and another Dane County judge after Gableman and Vos failed to produce the requested records in a timely manner.

Gableman has argued that his staff member, Zakory Niemierowicz, was the legal custodian responsible for responding to American Oversight’s requests. Gableman’s attorneys had argued that because of that, Gableman’s testimony was not needed.

That prompted Remington on Wednesday to caution Niemierowicz that he may want to hire his own attorney if Gableman’s plan was to blame him for failing to comply with court orders.

An attorney for Gableman’s office tried to delay Friday’s hearing but Gableman was forced to take the stand. Gableman refused to answer questions from the attorney representing American Oversight and testily said Remington had “abandoned his role as a neutral magistrate and is acting as an advocate.”

Remington admonished Gableman and said he shouldn’t have to instruct the former state Supreme Court justice “on the behavior I expect of you as a witness on this stand.” Gableman then demanded a personal attorney and said he wouldn’t answer further questions.

“I’m not going to be railroaded,” he said.

Gableman has publicly released, and provided to American Oversight, hundreds of pages of documents related to the investigation. His attorneys have insisted that everything requested has been provided. Gableman has also said that he is exempt from retaining records and his office regularly destroys documents deemed “irrelevant or useless.”

That is contrary to an analysis by the nonpartisan Legislative Council that found deleting such records, even by a state contractor such as Gableman, violates Wisconsin law. Gableman’s attorney, James Bopp, has argued in court filings that the record retention law does not pertain to contractors.

Remington in April, and Dane County Circuit Judge Valerie Bailey-Rihn in May, both ordered Gableman to stop deleting records that may be responsive to American’s Oversight’s requests.

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