The attorney representing the Wisconsin State Senate in a civil rights lawsuit against Green Bay — alleging the city bugged its citizens — is asking the local district attorney to open a criminal investigation into the audio-surveillance practices.
“To our knowledge, those practices are unprecedented,” wrote attorney Ryan Walsh in a letter to Brown County District Attorney David Lasee. “We know of no other municipality in Wisconsin that has installed bugs in the hallways of the seat of government.”
Walsh earlier this month filed the lawsuit against the city and Green Bay Mayor Eric Genrich. The attorney represents the Senate, State Senator Andre Jacque (R-De Pere), Anthony Theisen, a former City Council member, and an unidentified female.
The lawsuit alleges the installation of the audio recording devices is a violation of the Wisconsin Electronic Surveillance Control Law.
The complaint, filed in Brown County Circuit Court, seeks an emergency temporary injunction and a court order requiring the defendants immediately disable the recording devices. It also would prohibit the defendants from accessing or disseminating any audio recordings obtained from devices installed in the building.
As The Wisconsin Daily Star first reported, Green Bay city officials 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.
“As our filings explain, and as Defendants admit, the City and the Mayor have been covertly recording private conversations held in the hallways of City Hall for over a year,” Walsh wrote in the letter to the district attorney.
Lasee could not be reached for comment.
The letter notes intentionally intercepting oral conversations when one has a “reasonable expectation of privacy” is a Class H felony, punishable by up to six years in prison, a $10,000 fine or both. It’s also a felony to “use or disseminate the contents of any intercepted communication when one knows or has reason to know that it was intercepted in violation” of the Electronic Surveillance Control Law.
Walsh asserts many — in not all — of those who had conversations surveilled reasonably expected they were private, and remain so.
“Those individuals also reasonably expected that the government was not listening in and recording them,” the letter states. “Making matters worse, the City and Mayor have treated their illegal surveillance tapes as public records and have disseminated unredacted, raw video and audio recordings to third parties, in further violation of the WESCL.”
The letter notes the Tennessee Attorney General’s office has recently opened a similar investigation in Nashville. As The Tennessee Star reported last week, listening devices have been installed in areas around the Nashville District Attorney’s office. DA officials insist 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.”
Jay Stanley, Senior Policy Analyst for the American Civil Liberties Union, wrote in a recent commentary that the surveillance microphones in Green Bay and Nashville are “a reminder of a country we don’t want to live in.”
“Does anybody want to live in a country where we have to constantly look around us wondering whether there’s a live mic picking up what we’re saying?” Stanley wrote.
The people who think installing audio-recording devices in Green Bay City Hall appear to be wagering the city’s legal bills — and perhaps their freedom — that their actions are legal.
City officials have not returned The Daily Star’s repeated requests for comment.
“We respectfully request that you, as the chief law-enforcement official in Brown County with investigative and prosecutorial authority, immediately open an investigation into the City’s and Mayor’s practices,” Walsh wrote in the letter to the Brown County DA.
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M.D. Kittle is the National Political Editor for The Star News Network.
Photo “Green Bay City Hall” by Royalbroil. CC BY-SA 2.5.