Attorneys hired by Sauk County’s insurance provider pushed government officials to appeal a judge’s ruling in a public records lawsuit, a move the county’s own in-house legal counsel advised against.
That detail was revealed in a prepared statement that Sauk County Board Chairman Peter Vedro of Baraboo read to fellow supervisors Tuesday night updating them on settlement negotiations with the Baraboo News Republic.
His comments — and the discussion that followed — suggested an unusual situation in which government officials who wanted to turn over documents a judge deemed public were dissuaded from doing so by their insurance company.
The newspaper filed suit in November 2017 after the government denied access to records involving the death of a town of Bear Creek man on property the county deemed hazardous and the hiring and firing of the county’s top administrator.
On Dec. 14, a judge ruled in the newspaper’s favor on five of six disputed matters and ordered the county to turn over records.
One week later, on Dec. 21, attorneys hired by the county’s insurance provider, Wisconsin County Mutual Insurance Corp., organized a phone conference with Vedro and county administrative officials to discuss a “plan to file an immediate appeal,” Vedro said.
During the conference, the county’s in-house attorney, Sauk County Corporation Counsel Daniel Olson, advised against appealing the judge’s ruling.
“While acknowledging corporation counsel’s objection to the proposed appeal, the insurance company legal team decided to move forward with the appeal at the end of the discussion,” Vedro said.
The board’s chairman said he ultimately agreed to the appeal with the understanding that it would buy additional time to negotiate a settlement with the newspaper, and could be withdrawn at any time.
Although the insurance company agreed that the county should begin settlement discussions, its attorneys, Lori Lubinsky and Danielle Baudhuin of the Madison firm Axley Brynelson, filed for appeal on Dec. 28.
Despite the filing, Vedro said, negotiations with the newspaper began Jan. 8 have been productive. He expects to bring a settlement before the board’s Executive and Legislative Committee next month. If the committee approves the agreement, it would then go before the full board.
Olson told the board Tuesday his objections to filing an appeal were based on the strength of the county’s case as well as “strategic issues.”
He also said concerns have been expressed “about certain provisions in our insurance policy regarding the insurance company’s authority to control litigation.” Olson said it was the general consensus of the insurance company’s legal team that the appeal would go forward.
Wisconsin County Mutual Insurance Corp. is not a party to the lawsuit, but is funding the county’s legal defense. The provider represents about 75 percent of Wisconsin’s counties and is managed by the Wisconsin Counties Association.
Lubinsky and Baudhuin represent the interests of both the insurance company and the county in the lawsuit.
If a negotiated settlement requires the county to pay all or part of the newspaper’s legal expenses, it’s not clear whether the loss would be covered by the insurance company.
“It is too soon in the process to answer that question,” Sauk County Administrative Coordinator Alene Kleczek Bolin said in an email Wednesday. “Prior to bringing the settlement to the County Board for approval, we should have an answer.”