Top Republicans on a committee with oversight authority over the state Department of Justice abruptly canceled a meeting on Wednesday to consider a number of lawsuits the department claimed were stalled due to committee inaction.
The cancellation, following a week of squabbling between Republicans on the Joint Finance Committee and Democratic Attorney General Josh Kaul, indicates officials have made little progress toward establishing a procedure to approve settlements under laws increasing the Legislature's involvement in DOJ business.
Under Republican laws passed during a lame-duck session in December — or after former Republican Gov. Scott Walker lost his re-election bid but before Democratic Gov. Tony Evers took office — Kaul is required to seek the budget committee’s approval to reach settlement agreements in certain cases.
Kaul in a statement slammed Republicans for the lack of progress and called on them to repeal parts of the lame-duck laws if they are unable to guarantee confidentiality in reviewing lawsuits.
"The extraordinary session legislation has proven to be an unmitigated disaster," Kaul said. "Republicans in the legislature gave themselves power over certain case resolutions last December, and JFC needs to take on the responsibility that comes with that authority."
The budget committee's co-chairs, Rep. John Nygren, R-Marinette, and Sen. Alberta Darling, R-River Hills, said they cancelled the meeting because the DOJ did not provide them with enough information on the lawsuits.
"Making an educated decision without all the information is irresponsible," Nygren said. "So we’re going to again ask for it and hope that he can get it to us so we can meet on these settlements."
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Before the meeting was cancelled, the DOJ publicly rejected the committee's Plan B for guaranteeing confidentiality when discussing and approving lawsuits.
Kaul wanted each committee member to sign a confidentiality agreement, but all members objected. As a compromise, Republicans proposed hiring a taxpayer-funded attorney to sign a confidentiality agreement binding each member of the committee.
The plan was met by stiff opposition from committee Democrats, and a nonpartisan state agency said it likely wouldn't commit individual committee members to secrecy.
After a meeting with the budget committee's attorney, Andrew Phillips, Wednesday morning, the DOJ rejected the plan.
"There is no basis to believe that the current arrangement binds members and we do not believe it is sufficient," a DOJ spokeswoman said.
The committee was slated to take up seven minor lawsuits needing DOJ approval. More than a dozen lawsuits, some of which could award the state millions of dollars, are essentially on hold until officials can determine a process for approving them.
It's unclear when lawmakers will find a remedy in order to approve the settlements.
"I think there is a path forward here without secrecy agreements," Nygren said. "The ball's kind of in his court at this point in time."