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Thursday, June 13, 2024 | Back issues
Courthouse News Service Courthouse News Service

Wis. High Court Deals Blow to Whistle-Blower

(CN) - The Wisconsin Supreme Court shut down retaliation claims by an employee who questioned the cost of security for an official attending the Republican National Convention.

A Republican National Convention in St. Paul, Minn., had been around the corner in April 2008 when the Wisconsin Department of Justice held a meeting for bureau directors within its Division of Criminal Investigation, also known as DCI.

Acting DCI administrator Mike Mysewski mentioned plans at the meeting for the division to provide then-Attorney General J.B. Van Hollen with 24-hour security at the convention.

As the public integrity director for the division, Joell Schigur emailed Mysewski a few days later to voice concerns.

CC'ing two other DOJ employees on the email, Schigur warned that the use of state resources at the convention might violate state law. Myseeski responded that he did not see any chance of "political activity" in assigning an on-duty DCI agent to protect the attorney general at an event "certain groups have threatened to violently disrupt."

The emails occurred just as Schigur was finishing up a two-year probationary period in her new position as director.

Though Schigur had received seven positive evaluations in her two years as a director, the final evaluation she received that May, one month after her email about the RNC, described Schigur as "argumentative, disrespectful, suspicious of management and insubordinate."

One day after the department presented Schigur with that evaluation, it demoted her to special agent in-charge.

The Equal Rights Division of the Department of Workforce Development found that Schigur faced retaliation, but the Dane County Circuit Court reversed the decision.

After the Wisconsin Court of Appeals also ruled for the Department of Justice, the Wisconsin Supreme Court put the final nail in Schigur's case on Dec. 30.

The 3-2 decision hinged on whether Schigur's opinion about the legality of the DOJ's actions constituted a disclosure of "information" that whistle-blower laws protect.

"We conclude that an opinion alone, as to the lawfulness or appropriateness of government activity is not 'information' as that term is defined in (the law)," Justice Annette Kingsland Ziegler wrote for the majority.

Though Schigur argued that she should be protected because the DOJ believed that she was disclosing information, Ziegler called that argument "illogical."

"An employer would not retaliate against an employee 'because' the employer mistakenly believed that the employee would receive protection against retaliation," Ziegler wrote.

Justice Shirley Abrahamson joined a dissent by Justice Ann Walsh Bradley.

"Instead of applying the statutorily required liberal construction," Bradley wrote, "the majority defines the terms 'disclose' and 'information' narrowly so that Schigur's claims do not fall within the statute."

The dissent warned about the ramifications of the court's ruling.

"Not only will whistleblowers suffer retaliation without recourse," Bradley wrote, "but all of Wisconsin's citizens lose protection against government corruption."

Justice Rebecca Bradley, who was appointed on Oct. 9, was ineligible to participate in the ruling because she was not on the court during the case's Oct. 6 hearing.

Justice David Prosser did not participate either.

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