News media groups sue Assembly and chief clerk over denial of sexual harassment records

News media groups sue Assembly and chief clerk over denial of sexual harassment records

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Four news organizations, including the Wisconsin State Journal, filed a lawsuit Wednesday demanding that the state Assembly and its chief clerk release records related to a substantiated sexual harassment complaint filed last year against a state legislator.

In addition to the State Journal, plaintiffs in the lawsuit include The Associated Press, The Capital Times, the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel and Jonathan Anderson, a University of Minnesota doctoral candidate who researches public and press access to government-held information.

The lawsuit alleges Assembly Chief Clerk Patrick Fuller and the state Assembly violated Wisconsin’s open records law by denying requests for records related to the investigation of a sexual harassment complaint against state Rep. Staush Gruszynski, D-Green Bay. The lawsuit states there was no valid basis for the denial of the records.

According to the lawsuit, the news organizations and Anderson requested a copy of the complaint and other documents involving the investigation against Gruszynski, who admitted making inappropriate comments to a female staffer at a bar in October. Details of the incident have not been made public.

In December, a statement by Assembly Democratic leaders called for Gruszynski’s resignation. Gruszynski is serving his first term in the Assembly. He was stripped of his committee assignments.

“As public officials and leaders of our caucus, we are committed to preventing and stopping incidents of harassment whenever they may occur in the Legislature,” the statement read. “It’s our job to create a culture of accountability and to ensure members and legislative employees are held to a high standard of conduct. Rep. Gruszynski failed to meet these standards with his actions.”

Gruszynski apologized, calling his conduct “unprofessional and completely unacceptable.”

In an email Wednesday, Gruszynski said he took the complaint seriously and apologized, and he followed all of the recommendations given to him by the Legislative Human Resources Office, which handles employment matters for the state Assembly and Senate.

“It has been explained to me that these documents have not been released to protect the identity of the individual that was involved that evening,” Gruszynski wrote. “I have not been given a copy of the formal complaint” that was requested by media, “though I did make that request to Human Resources.”

Gruszynski said his focus now is on helping constituents during the coronavirus pandemic.

Gillian Drummond, spokeswoman for Attorney General Josh Kaul, said the AG’s office has no comment on the lawsuit.

Messages left Wednesday for Fuller, Assembly Speaker Robin Vos and Assembly Minority Leader Gordon Hintz had not been not returned.

According to the lawsuit, on Dec. 19 and Dec. 20 reporters from each of the news organizations, along with Anderson, filed requests with Fuller under Wisconsin’s open records law seeking a copy of the complaint against Gruszynski and other documents. Fuller is custodian of the Assembly’s records.

Fuller responded to the requests with a document explaining that the Legislature had applied a balancing test as set under state law and “determined that the public interest in treating employee internal complaints as confidentially as possible and respecting the privacy and dignity of the complainant/witness outweighed any public interest in disclosing” the complaint and other documents.

The response was written by Amanda Jorgenson, the Legislature’s human resources manager, the lawsuit states.

“The only information provided in the response was a paragraph indicating that a complaint was filed, an investigation determined that the allegations were substantiated and the remedial actions that were required as a result,” the lawsuit states. “No records were provided.”

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