News Roundup: More Attacks on the Public’s Right to Know

In yet another effort by state officials to hide their actions from the public, this week North Carolina lawmakers sneaked into the state’s budget a provision that would be a devastating blow to access to public records.

  • On Wednesday, news reports emerged about a leaked draft of the budget that contained a paragraph providing lawmakers the discretion to destroy documents in their custody — including those that are currently considered public records.
  • The final budget released later that day went even further: It contains language allowing lawmakers or former lawmakers to assert legislative privilege “in all instances,” and thus avoid revealing “any document, supporting document, drafting request, or information request made or received by that legislator while a legislator.”
  • In other other words, lawmakers would have the power to shield their actions from public view — a measure that only benefits lawmakers who wish to conceal their work.

American Oversight issued a statement condemning the effort, and sent a letter — signed by more than 20 other organizations, including a number of national and North Carolina government accountability groups — urging leaders of the General Assembly to reject the anti-democratic maneuver. We also sent public records requests to state legislative leaders for communications containing key terms related to the measure.

  • This is just the latest effort by officials in states across the country to roll back access to government records. 
  • Last week, Arkansas Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders signed into law restrictions on the release of records related to her travel and security, having initially pushed for more exemptions to the state’s public records law. In the spring, a similar law was enacted in Florida to shield Gov. Ron DeSantis’ travel records.
  • Earlier this year, the Arizona Legislature implemented rule changes that instructed lawmakers to delete communications, thus allowing them to avoid releasing documents under the state’s public records law. Similar efforts in Washington state were reported in late February.

Which brings us to Wisconsin. On Wednesday, we filed a complaint with the Dane County district attorney alleging that a secret panel convened by Assembly Speaker Robin Vos is in violation of the state’s Open Meetings Law.

  • Vos has reportedly been considering whether to pursue impeachment proceedings against Janet Protasiewicz, a recently elected state supreme court justice, if she does not recuse herself from a redistricting-related case.
  • During a radio interview last week, Vos said he was “asking a panel of former members of the state supreme court to review and advise” on the potential effort, but he has refused to disclose the identities of all the members.
  • The Wisconsin Open Meetings Law requires that governmental bodies provide advance notice of every meeting and hold those meetings in open session unless specific exemptions apply. As the statute notes, American democracy “is dependent upon an informed electorate.” 
  • Read more about our complaint here and listen to the Milwaukee NPR station’s coverage of the complaint, including an interview with our executive director Heather Sawyer.

On the Records

New College of Florida’s Problematic Hiring Practices
Records obtained by American Oversight and reported on this week by Inside Higher Ed’s Josh Moody provide new details about the hiring and recruitment practices at New College of Florida, where Gov. DeSantis and allies have instituted controversial measures aimed at reshaping the public liberal arts college into a conservative institution.

  • Many of the school’s top new hires have no prior experience working in higher education — but they do have close ties to DeSantis allies or conservative politics. Records we obtained shed more light on the hiring of one high-level official in particular: Bruce Abramson, who was hired as the director of new students and graduate admissions.
  • The records include emails exchanged in March by Abramson and Robert Allen, a New College graduate who has claimed to be behind DeSantis’ overhaul of the school. 
  • Abramson first proposed a New College course on “propaganda defense,” but then followed up by suggesting that it would likely “be easier to bring people into administration than onto faculty.” 
  • Allen sent an email to interim college president Richard Corcoran (a former Republican state lawmaker and an ally to DeSantis) later that month recommending that Corcoran consider Abramson for a role, writing that Abramson was “keenly interested in institutional transformation.”
  • The records also show that in April, Allen recommended that Corcoran hire Bruce Gilley, a political science professor who in 2017 published a paper titled “The Case for Colonialism.” The records do not indicate whether Gilley was considered for hire.

Investigating Texas’ Election Integrity Unit
Records we previously obtained showed the Texas attorney general’s office spent more than 22,000 staff hours working on voter fraud cases in 2020 — yet it closed out only 16 minor cases. Records we recently obtained indicate that as of February 2023, the office was looking into three cases regarding the November 2022 election.

  • Other records we previously obtained showed that the office’s election integrity unit closed just three cases in 2021 and opened just seven new ones. The Houston Chronicle reported that Texas lawmakers still boosted the office’s budget.

Other Stories We’re Following

Election Denial and Threats to Democracy
  • ‘Where’s Celia?’ GOP activists target obscure Arizona elections official using public records (Votebeat)
  • Kari Lake appeals again, accuses Maricopa County of ‘engineered Election Day chaos’ (Arizona Mirror)
  • Voting machine companies use cybersecurity stress tests to take on conspiracy theorists (CNN)
  • One-third of states have an election denier overseeing elections (Mother Jones)
Voting Rights
  • Alabama unveils in-state voter database as an alternative to ERIC (Democracy Docket)
  • Pennsylvania rolls out automatic voter registration (NBC News)
  • ‘My vote was rejected’: Trial underway in Texas over new voting law (New York Times)
  • Republican states that left ERIC struggle to replace it (HuffPost)
  • Virginia announces new, post-ERIC voter data agreements (Virginia Public Media)
  • GOP bill would remove Wisconsin from ERIC voter data group (WisPolitics
In the States
  • A member of the secret panel studying Wisconsin Supreme Court justice’s impeachment backed her rival (Associated Press)
  • Wisconsin Republicans propose impeaching top elections official after disputed vote to fire her (Associated Press
  • Texas attorney general acquitted in historic impeachment trial (Washington Post
  • Extremists have turned Texas into a hotbed for hate, report finds (Texas Tribune)
  • How Florida became the center of the Republican universe (Vox)
National News
  • Uninvited and unaccountable: How CBP policed George Floyd protests (Intercept)
  • Biden administration announces $600M to produce Covid tests and will reopen website to order them (Associated Press
  • Rupert Murdoch stepping down as chairman from Fox, News Corp. (ABC News)
  • Clarence Thomas secretly participated in Koch Network donor events (ProPublica
LGBTQ and Reproductive Rights
  • Kansas will no longer change trans people’s birth certificates to reflect their gender identities (Associated Press)
  • Appeals court takes up transgender health coverage case likely headed to Supreme Court (Associated Press)
  • Indiana attorney general faces misconduct complaint over abortion doctor remarks (ABC News)
  • Why the Catholic Church gave $900K to fight Ohio’s abortion rights amendment (Cincinnati Enquirer)
  • Ohio Supreme Court orders tweak of abortion ballot language, most GOP words will remain (Cincinnati Enquirer)
  • As abortion services resume in Wisconsin, Senate committee considers bill to curb the practice (Wisconsin Public Radio)
  • Women with serious pregnancy complications sue over state abortion bans (Louisiana Illuminator)
  • Planned Parenthood sues to expand South Carolina abortion access under strict new ban (Associated Press)
Threats to Education
  • Book bans continue at record pace in 2023, American Library Association reports (Associated Press)
  • ​​Vos will try to block UW pay raises unless campuses eliminate DEI positions (Wisconsin Public Radio)
  • Virginia Dept. of Education approves AP African American History course after months-long review (WTOP)
  • Florida is the nation’s book banning leader, according to national free speech group (Tallahassee Democrat
  • Overhaul of Ohio’s K-12 education system is unconstitutional, new lawsuit says (Associated Press)
  • Alabama Public Library Service: It’s ‘essential’ parents determine suitability of books (News From The States)
  • Texas teacher fired for showing Anne Frank graphic novel to eighth-graders (The Guardian)
  • U.S. border agents are separating migrant children from their parents to avoid overcrowding, inspector finds (CBS News)
  • U.S. hopes to tackle migrant crisis with processing centers in Latin America (New York Times)
  • Federal agencies promised to tackle extremism. Years later, experts see efforts sputtering out (USA Today)
  • “An occupying force”: Florida troopers descend on Texas border communities (The Border Chronicle)
  • Whistleblowers say U.S. government’s poor oversight may have led to migrant kids’ working in unsafe and illegal jobs (NBC News)
  • Migrants’ DNA is fueling a massive expansion of the FBI’s genetic database (Mother Jones)  
Trump Administration Accountability
  • Trump wrote to-do lists for assistant on White House documents marked classified: Sources (ABC News
  • Both politically and legally, Trump’s classified docs defense weakens (Washington Post)
  • California lawmakers push for a court ruling on Trump’s eligibility (New York Times)
  • Former federal prosecutor who resigned from Trump-Russia probe says she left over concerns with Barr (Associated Press
Jan. 6 Investigations
  • Special counsel seeking gag order on Trump in election case (New York Times)
  • Jeffrey Clark, co-defendant of Donald Trump, asks to move Georgia trial to federal court. Here is why that matters (USA Today)
  • Former DOJ attorney acted under Trump’s direction, his lawyer says (Washington Post)
  • Georgia Trump electors at the heart of alleged ‘conspiracy’ (Atlanta Journal-Constitution)