An attorney for the Wisconsin State Senate is warning Green Bay city officials not to destroy documents related to its use of audio recording devices at city hall. He said a lawsuit is coming.
Ryan Walsh, with the Eimer Stahl law firm, sent a letter to Green Bay Mayor Eric Genrich late Friday after city officials all but ignored a warning letter demanding they remove the three recording devices.
Since the city appears “committed to its course of conduct,” the Senate is issuing a litigation hold notifying city officials of their obligations under federal and state law to “take reasonable steps to preserve and retain all documents, materials, and other tangible evidence, including any electronically stored information (“ESI”), possibly relevant to an impending suit,” Walsh advised.
“In connection with my February 13 letter and today’s letter, my client, the Wisconsin State Senate (“Senate”), is preparing to file one or more state- and/or federal-court lawsuits (“prospective Actions” or “Actions”) that will name your client and possibly others as Defendants,” Walsh wrote.
The actions relate broadly to the audio surveillance program at Green Bay City Hall, including the mayor’s decisions to implement and carry out the program, as well as roles played by any other city personnel in the secret recordings.
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 Senate’s demand letter sent last week and the latest letter alerting the city to the pending lawsuit note the “hallway bugs” are placed in areas where members of the public, including attorneys and their clients, retreat to discuss matters discreetly. They do indeed, under the law, have an expectation of privacy in these spaces, Walsh advises.
In its response to the Senate’s demand the city remove the devices and provide assurances it has destroyed all recordings by 5 p.m. last Friday, Green Bay’s Chief of Operations Joseph Faulds issued a statement asserting the city will continue its audio surveillance, but it will provide notice about the recording devices.
“In the interest of transparency, the City will be taking steps to provide notice at City facilities with similar security systems,” Faulds wrote.
That won’t suffice, Walsh says.
“Although your letter does not respond to any of the legal issues raised in my February 13 letter or even attempt to explain how the City’s audio surveillance is lawful, we understand from your response that the City does not intend to cease its unlawful practice,” the attorney wrote. “We are perplexed at the City’s willingness to use taxpayer money to defend spying on its taxpayers.”
Green Bay City Council member Chris Wery (pictured above, foreground), who first raised concerns about the recording devices, tells The Wisconsin Daily Star his committee will be delving into exactly why the bugs were installed and why the city council was not informed.
“It is sad they kept existence of the spying devices from the city council and public,” he said in an email. “I still believe that there need to be some repercussions for putting in place these spying devices by a government without telling the public. The mayor and his staff act like they can do no wrong and answer to nobody.
On his Facebook page, Wery posted an illustration of Uncle Sam listening in on an electronic device with a satellite on either shoulder. “Who Says the Government Doesn’t Listen to the People,” the meme states.
The alderman wrote that there will be more tests to the Fourth Amendment as technology grows, but it’s important Americans hold the line against such intrusions.
“Since when is a conversation in a hallway between two people, without anyone in sight, considered open to spying and taping by the government? Never!” Wery wrote. “What a great way to bully the public into obedience and fear of their own word perhaps misspoken or out of context now ripe for search and replay. Our city hall shall not become a place of darting eyes and hushed tones for fear of Big Brother.”
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M.D. Kittle is the National Political Editor for The Star News Network.
Photo “Chris Wery” by Green Bay City Council and “Mayor Eric Genrich” is by Eric Genrich.