An Attorney representing the Wisconsin State Senate sent a letter this week to Green Bay Mayor Eric Genrich demanding he immediately disable the audio recording devices planted in city hall. The letter also demands the city destroy all illegally obtained audio recordings.
“This surveillance activity is not only disturbing. It is unlawful,” writes Ryan J. Walsh, the attorney representing the lawmakers.
The demand letter asks Genrich to provide “adequate assurances” by 5 p.m. today that all audio surveillance in City Hall has ceased. All “illicitly obtained recordings” must be destroyed by 3 p.m. Friday, Walsh insists.
“If these deadlines are not met, we will be forced to move a court for an immediate order ending this unlawful conduct,” the letter states.
As The Wisconsin Daily Star first reported, Green Bay city officials have installed at least three audio recording devices in City Hall — without notifying the City Council or the public.
Records obtained by The Daily Star show the audio equipment was installed last year — two devices on the second floor outside the council chamber and the mayor’s office, and one on the first floor outside the clerk’s office.
Genrich and the city’s legal department have defended the use of the listening devices, asserting they were installed after city staff were involved in threatening interactions with citizens. They claim use of the monitoring equipment is legal because they are located in public spaces. The mayor has said the city would not remove the devices.
Genrich did not return a call seeking comment.
“I think it’s pretty customary to have the kind of surveillance systems that we have here,” Genrich told Green Bay’s FOX 11 last week.
The demand letter attempts to disabuse city officials of the notion that there is no expectation of privacy in a public building.
“These hallway bugs are placed in areas where members of the public—attorneys and their clients, constituents discussing political issues, journalists conducting off-the-record conversations, and our colleagues in the Senate, to name just a few groups—retreat to discuss matters discreetly,” the letter states.
More so, the letter notes, the public was not informed of the surveillance equipment when it was installed and that the Green Bay city government has not been informing those entering City Hall about the audio surveillance.
“No sign anywhere had warned that audio recording devices are deployed throughout City Hall. Nevertheless, members of the public have been subject to its audio surveillance,” the warning letter states.
The city, in fact, is in “clear violation” of the Wisconsin Electronic Surveillance Control Law, which makes it a Class H felony to intentionally intercept oral conversations, Walsh asserts. He details the statute and the implications in the warning letter.
Jay Stanley, a senior policy analyst for the American Civil Liberties Union in Washington D.C., told Fox 11 the lack of notice is very concerning.
“To have a recording device that people might not be aware of, at such a location, is a serious threat to privacy and completely unjustified,” he said.
Stanley said Green Bay’s installation of audio recording devices in City Hall is the first he’s heard of such a practice.
As The Tennessee Star reported last week, listening devices have been installed in areas around the Nashville District Attorney’s office. DA officials insisted the devices — capable of picking up conversations of employees and visitors without prior warning — are a necessary part of office security. The District Attorney’s office added that “there is no reasonable expectation of privacy for conversations in public places.”
East Providence, RI, also took public heat — including criticism from the ACLU – after it installed similar recording devices in its city clerk’s office. In that case, the city did at least put up signs notifying the public of the recording equipment.
Green Bay city officials have admitted that the conversations picked up at City Hall are being monitored by Green Bay Police.
Some are concerned that Genrich, a highly partisan Democrat, is monitoring his political enemies.
The mayor was a central figure in the Zuckerbucks controversy in which Wisconsin’s five largest cities took in millions of dollars in so-called “safe election” grants from liberal groups funded by Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg. An investigation by Wisconsin Spotlight showed the 2020 grant funding from the Chicago-based Center for Tech and Civic Life (CTCL) came with long-time Democratic Party operatives and liberal activists intricately involved in the administration of the 2020 presidential election in Milwaukee, Madison, Kenosha, Racine, and Green Bay.
In Green Bay, an operative was found to have the keys to the room holding the boxes of absentee ballots and had offered to work with elections officials to “cure” or correct absentee ballots with missing information. Green Bay’s city clerk at the time resigned, citing election integrity concerns about the activists and mayor’s office.
CTCL handed out hundreds of millions of dollars in Zuckerberg funded grants, with the brunt of the money going to Democrat-led cities in battleground 2020 states.
Green Bay’s City Clerk Celestine Jeffreys, who was Genrich’s top aide at the time of the 2020 election scandal, has had what many describe as a confrontational relationship with Republican Party election observers. She has been accused of locking out observers from monitoring ballot counts.
City Council Member Chris Wery is looking to open an investigation into the audio-recording scandal.
“It is reprehensible, unethical and almost certainly illegal that the Mayor has persisted in spying on private conversations at City Hall in clear violation of state statute,” said Sen. Andre Jacque (R-De Pere), one of two Green Bay-area lawmakers who have demanded the city stop its recording practices.
Jacque worked at City Hall for several years and says he knows firsthand the kind of sensitive information shared there — under the expectation of privacy.
“Whether mere incompetence or sheer premeditated malevolence by Mayor Genrich and his legal department brought things to this point, this needs to end now.”
Read the letter:
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M.D. Kittle is the National Political Editor for The Star News Network.
Photo “Eric Genrich” by Eric Genrich.