The University of Wisconsin Madison Loses an Open Records Lawsuit

Kelly Meyerhofer:

A Dane County circuit judge recently ruled that UW-Madison broke the state’s public records and open meetings laws — violations that may cost the university more than $40,000.

UW-Madison’s School of Medicine and Public Health failed to turn over records relating to how a committee awarded millions of dollars from an endowment for public health projects, according to the ruling. The committee also failed to properly inform the public why it went behind closed doors in a 2016 meeting.

The judge also noted that “in this grant cycle alone” the committee funded two projects that were not as highly rated as others, and those two projects were associated with committee members.

The June 13 court order requires UW-Madison to pay back the plaintiff’s legal fees or to appeal. University officials said they had not received information on the fees and are still considering whether to appeal.

An attorney for the plaintiff, Christa Westerberg, said legal fees in the more than two years spent litigating the suit will be “north of $40,000.”

Westerberg, of the Madison law firm Pines Bach and co-vice president of the state’s Freedom of Information Council, said UW-Madison “aggressively litigated” the lawsuit in a way she had not seen before.

For UW-Madison, the stakes in the suit are high.

“This is a case about whether or not the university can protect the integrity of research and programs at UW-Madison by maintaining the confidentiality of reviewer comments,” UW-Madison spokesman John Lucas said.

Pines Bach attorneys say the university has until July 29 to file a notice to appeal.

The Ruling (PDF), via Chan Stroman:

In 1999, Blue Cross Blue Shield United of Wisconsin, Inc. (BCBS) petitioned the Office of Commissioner of Insurance (OCI) to permit it to convert from a non-profit corporation to a for-profit corporation. In order to convert to a for-profit corporation, BCBS had to compensate the state for the decades of tax-exempt status it enjoyed, and proposed to do so by giving stock to a foundation, which in tum would sell it and distribute the proceeds to the state’s two medical schools: the University of Wisconsin Medical School and the Medical College of Wisconsin. The funds would be used to promote public health initiatives. The OCI required modifications to establish accountability mechanisms for, and public participation in the governance of, the conversion funds. Among the accountability requirements was that each medical school must create a public and community health oversight and advisory committee to oversee the distribution of the public health-allocated percentage of conversion funds. The OCI required the committees to conduct themselves in accordance with standards consistent with the Wisconsin public meeting and public record laws.

The Oversight and Advisory Committee (OAC) is the University of Wisconsin School of Medicine and Public Health’s designated committee to distribute the 35% public health funds associated with the BCBS conversion. The OAC is one of two governance committees that administer the Wisconsin Partnership Program’s (WPP) five grant programs that seek to improve the health and well-being of Wisconsin residents. A different committee, the Partnership Education Research Committee (PERC), administers and oversees the research grants. Andrea Dearlove is the Senior Program Officer for WPP. With her staff and the OAC’s director Eileen Smith, she designed an awards program, known as the Community Impact Grant, to incorporate experience from previous WPP community academic grant programs as well as nationwide best practices to address complex public health issues.