In a new lawsuit, Midwest Environmental Advocates is alleging the head of Wisconsin’s Natural Resources Board is violating the state's public records law by withholding communications related to an open records request about his tenure on the board.
The nonprofit environmental law center filed a complaint Tuesday against the board, the board’s chair Fred Prehn and the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources in Dane County Circuit Court. Midwest Environmental Advocates is asking a judge to force Prehn to turn over all records regarding his refusal to step down in May after the expiration of his term.
In August, the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reported records show Prehn communicated with staff of Republican lawmakers and other conservatives about his decision to remain on the board.
The complaint details that Midwest Environmental Advocates obtained a text message sent by Prehn to fellow board member Bill Smith discussing his term as part of a separate record request.
"The context in which that record was created certainly suggests the potential existence of additional records we didn't receive," said Rob Lee, staff attorney for Midwest Environmental Advocates. "We didn't receive any text message records in response to our initial request to Dr. Prehn. It was only emails."
The complaint states Prehn sent the following text to Smith on April 26: "I’ve got to decide if I’m going to stay on until the next appointee is confirmed. (Gov. Tony) Evers notified me he’s not going to reappoint me I guess he thinks there’s some pretty big agenda items that I might not agree with LOL."
WPR reached out to the DNR and Prehn for comment, but had not heard back by the time of publication.
Midwest Environmental Advocates wants the court to compel Prehn, the DNR and the board to search for and produce all records related to its June records request.
Midwest Environmental Advocates filed its initial records request at the end of June to understand the motivations behind Prehn’s refusal to step down from the board. Lee said the state’s public records law ensures that the public has access to any communications about government functions, including text messages.
"Frederick Prehn’s emails clearly show that he has been communicating with lobbyists in Madison about his refusal to step down," said David Clausen, former chair of the NRB in a news release. "By withholding the full extent of his communications, he continues to do great damage to Wisconsin’s tradition of limiting the influence of politics in natural resources and conservation decision making."
Evers, a Democrat, appointed Sandra Naas and Sharon Adams on April 30. The two were named to the board to replace Prehn and board secretary Julie Anderson, who were appointed in 2015 by former Republican Gov. Scott Walker.
Anderson stepped down, but Prehn decided to remain on the board. In August, Wisconsin Attorney General Josh Kaul filed a lawsuit seeking to remove Prehn from the board. Currently, a majority of Walker-era appointees control the board.
Prehn has maintained that a 1960s-era Wisconsin Supreme Court ruling allows him to remain in his seat until the Republican-controlled Senate confirms Evers’ appointee. A Dane County judge ruled in Prehn’s favor, dismissing Kaul’s lawsuit. Kaul is appealing the court’s ruling.