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AG Brad Schimel: Sex harassment complaints should be secret

Wisconsin Attorney General Brad Schimel

MADISON — Republican Attorney General Brad Schimel says he agrees with legislative leaders that sexual harassment complaints against lawmakers and their staff should be kept secret.

Republican and Democratic leaders in the Senate and Assembly last week agreed that complaints will remain confidential out of respect for the privacy of the victims and those they have accused.

Schimel has long touted himself as a champion of Wisconsin’s open records law. But he told The Associated Press during a year-end interview that the legislative leaders have struck the right balance.

He said there’s a strong argument for releasing the records so the public can see them and hold government officials accountable. On the other hand, victims typically report incidents with great reluctance and expect confidentiality.

“We can’t break that confidentiality,” Schimel said. “These are adults who made a decision, often based on the understanding that what they report was going to be confidential.”

He said victims should decide whether to make their stories public.

Asked why the Legislature can’t release even redacted versions of the complaints, Schimel said redacted documents could still reveal the victim’s identity.

Bill Lueders, president of the Wisconsin Freedom of Information Council, said redacted complaints would give the public a general sense of how they were handled or mishandled without identifying the people involved.

He added that the media typically protects the identities of sexual misconduct and sexual assault victims and that he hasn’t seen anything that indicates people who file complaints expect the documents will be “suppressed.”

“It is just as likely that they hope something will be done about it, even if that means the complaints become known,” Lueders said in an email. “We have an absolute right to know what complaints have been filed and whether they were properly investigated.”

The state Justice Department released a brief summary Tuesday showing six sexual harassment complaints have been filed within the agency since Schimel took office in January 2015.

Three were filed in 2015. Two led to the resignations of Consumer Protection Supervisor John Knappmiller and Special Agent Brad Montgomery.

According to a pre-disciplinary letter DOJ human resources officials sent to Knappmiller, he made repeated phone calls to a female subordinate after hours, showed up uninvited at her home, positioned his groin near her face in her office, touched her without consent and threatened her job.

The law firm that represented Knappmiller during the disciplinary proceedings didn’t immediately respond to an email sent Tuesday seeking comment. DOJ spokesman Johnny Koremenos said the agency was still weighing which records regarding Montgomery could be released. No listing could be found for Montgomery and it wasn’t immediately clear whether he had an attorney.

One complaint was filed in 2016. It was unsubstantiated but led to reassigning an unnamed employee. Koremenos said the agency would not release any information on the case because it was unsubstantiated.

Two complaints were filed in 2017. One was unsubstantiated. The other was referred to another agency. It involved Eau Claire County Sheriff’s Capt. Dan Bresina. WEAU-TV reported in April that he allegedly provided a DOJ employee with his personal phone number, texted her, hovered around her and followed her around. The sheriff’s department ended up reprimanding him, revoking his appointment as undersheriff and transferring him from field services captain to jail captain.

Bresina didn’t immediately reply to an email from The AP seeking comment Tuesday.

Two women have accused Democratic state Rep. Josh Zepnick of drunkenly trying to kiss them in 2011 and 2015. The women have requested anonymity and neither filed a formal complaint. Zepnick has said he doesn’t remember the incidents but hasn’t denied they took place.

The women’s accusations have prompted Assembly Democratic Minority Leader Gordon Hintz to kick Zepnick off all the committees he serves on and call for his resignation. Zepnick has so far refused to step down.