Legislators and hired attorneys claim they should not be required to pay for a forensic examination of state computers that allegedly showed thousands of files on legislative redistricting were deleted, according to court documents filed Thursday.
When the Republican-controlled Legislature redrew voting districts in 2011, immigrant rights group Voces de la Frontera and some Democrats sued, leading to a federal court decision that two Milwaukee Assembly districts should be redrawn. However, after the ruling, the plaintiffs identified documents that the state allegedly withheld from them.
In February, judges allowed the groups to forensically examine computers, and the groups have asked the state and the law firm Michael Best and Friedrich, which worked with the state to redraw the districts, to pay for the examination.
However, according to a brief filed on behalf of Michael Best, the firm should not be held accountable for allegedly deleting the files on state computers because it had no control of them.
“Michael Best merely set up an office to accommodate the individuals who were using these computers in connection with their work on the redistricting effort on behalf of the Legislature,” the brief said.
In a separate brief, the Senate, Assembly and the Wisconsin Legislative Technology Services Bureau said they should not pay because the investigation has not finished and the plaintiffs are seeking payment without an opportunity for a response from the Legislature. They argued federal court rules prohibit this.
They added that the court declarations of John Evans, who the Legislature hired to investigate the computers, and Tad Ottman, a legislative aide to Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald, R-Juneau, show the plaintiffs “grossly exaggerated their claims” and misled the court into thinking it should continue the forensic analysis.
According to Evans’ declaration, he found no evidence suggesting a software program that can clear hard drives was used to delete redistricting documents and that the program was last used July 25, 2012. The program was installed on one of the computers that the plaintiffs said had hundreds of files deleted on it.
On July 25, Ottman deleted hundreds of redistricting files on a different computer, according to his declaration. He said he deleted the files because the computer had been moved from the Michael Best offices into a Capitol room serving as an office space for interns but also accessible to the general public.
Ottman also said he installed the cleaning program on his computer and that he could not explain why an additional external hard drive containing the redistricting files became corrupted, which he said only served as back up. Plaintiffs have said this is further evidence that they need to continue the investigation.
The plaintiffs have said the deletions occurred at a suspicious time, when the Democrats gained a majority in the Senate after winning a recall election.
Common Cause in Wisconsin Executive Director Jay Heck said that the redistricting court cases have cost the state $2 million. He added it was disgraceful that state employees created maps on public computers in a private office.
“It’s like something out of a bad spy novel,” Heck said. “And the bigger problem is that this is not what state government should be doing.”
Republican legislative leaders did not return requests for comment.