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Enforcing the Public Records Law

When Frederick Prehn, a member of the Wisconsin Natural Resources Board, refused to step down after his term expired, Midwest Environmental Advocates took legal action to compel full disclosure of communications related to his decision to hold over. As a result, we learned the full extent of his coordination with politicians and lobbyists to retain control of environmental policy in Wisconsin. Public pressure continued to mount until Prehn finally gave up his seat. Not long after, a court found that Prehn had arbitrarily delayed and denied access to public records with “no lawful reason to do so.” 

Case Summary

In October 2021, MEA filed a legal action in Dane County Circuit Court asking the Court to enforce Wisconsin’s Public Records Law by compelling Frederick Prehn, a member of the Wisconsin Natural Resources Board (NRB), to turn over text messages, emails, and all other communications related to his refusal to step down from the NRB after the expiration of his term. 

The initial complaint filed by MEA stems from the discovery that Prehn improperly withheld text messages in his response to a records request MEA filed the previous month. In response to MEA’s public records request, Prehn turned over emails revealing that he had communicated with staff of Republican legislators and lobbyists for special interest groups—including Wisconsin Manufacturers and Commerce—about staying on after the expiration of his term.

Through a separate public records request to another public official, MEA learned that, in addition to communicating by email, Prehn also communicated about his tenure on the board by text. By withholding the full extent of his communications, he has violated the law and has done great damage to Wisconsin’s tradition of limiting the influence of politics in natural resources and conservation decision making.

According to the terms of an agreement negotiated by MEA attorneys, forensic investigators searched Frederick Prehn’s cell phone and other digital devices for messages related to his refusal to step down. The search led to the discovery of dozens of relevant text messages that had been withheld—a clear violation of the Public Records Law.

In September 2022, MEA filed a motion for summary judgment in Dane County Circuit Court asking the court to find that Prehn violated the Wisconsin Public Records Law. While Prehn has insisted publicly that his decision to stay on was not politically motivated, the text messages uncovered by MEA reveal the true extent of his coordination with politicians and lobbyists about his decision to remain on the board. 

Public pressure continued to mount until Fred Prehn finally gave up his seat on the Natural Resources Board in December 2022, more than 18 months after his term expired. On February 14, 2023, a Dane County Circuit Court found that Prehn had indeed arbitrarily delayed and denied access to public records with “no lawful reason to do so”.

Why This Case Matters

Wisconsin’s Public Records Law entitles the public to the greatest possible information regarding the affairs of government and ensures that public officials conduct government business lawfully and with transparency. Our legal action was filed to hold Dr. Prehn accountable to the law, just like any other government official.

MEA Executive Director

Tony Wilkin Gibart

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