MADISON — Wisconsin Corrections Secretary Ed Wall warned department employees that they could be fired for spreading “false or malicious information” about the department, an email obtained by The Associated Press shows.
The message, which was forwarded to the AP by an employee and verified by the Corrections Department as being authentic, was sent by Wall on Monday, the day before the state Senate approved his appointment to the post. He followed up with an email on Thursday telling workers he wants to treat the agency more like a family and “less like a bureaucratic coffee grinder.”
Department spokeswoman Jackie Guthrie said Wall places high value on communicating directly with employees and welcomes their feedback.
“It is his goal to ensure the staff stay focused on our mission of public safety for the people of Wisconsin and not be distracted with baseless rumors,” she said in a written statement.
Marty Beil, the head of the state employees union that represents about 1,900 of the department’s workers, said employees talking about whether they’re going to have a job or not is always a topic of conversation.
“It’s unfortunate that the secretary of a major department uses intimidation and threats in communicating with his employees,” Beil said. “You can’t run a modern state agency by iron fists and threats and intimidation.”
Wall wrote in the Monday email that he was disturbed by baseless rumors that the 10,000-employee agency may be opening a new prison or privatizing operations. He said those rumors are baseless and warned “people who are involved in spreading that rumor should stop immediately.”
“Fair warning to those involved in spreading false or malicious information about our department, it is a work rule violation, and it will be strictly enforced,” he wrote. “You leave us no other choice when the false information causes panic and degrades morale like these things do.”
He went on to say that employees should be careful about what email they send while at work.
“Improper use of email causes problems and has cost people their jobs. Please don’t be one of them,” Wall wrote. “If you wouldn’t want your note on the front page of the newspaper or in an employment hearing, then think twice about sending it because that’s where it may end up.”
Workers at the state’s prisons had been covered under union-negotiated contracts until January 2011 when those were replaced with rules written and put in place by Gov. Scott Walker’s administration. The ability of public unions to collectively bargain over workplace rules was eliminated under Walker’s proposal passed in 2011 that also required them to pay more for health insurance and pension benefits.
Walker’s spokesman Cullen Werwie response to the emails was simply to say that Walker had no plans to privatize prisons.
Whether Corrections employees would have a 1st Amendment right to talk about prison privatization, absent any workplace rules, depends on several factors, said Marquette University law professor Paul Secunda. Those factors include determining whether such comments affect the employer’s ability to run a productive workplace and whether the employee is speaking in his official capacity or as a citizen, he said.
“It’s extremely difficult for public employees to succeed in a 1st Amendment claim in this situation,” said Secunda, who has an expertise in labor law.
Michael Fox, who is also an attorney with experience in workplace discrimination and constitutional law, said he doesn’t see any problems with Wall’s email.
“It is worthy of applause that Mr. Wall is willing to set forth the Department’s position on the issues he addressed in writing and to urge people to get their facts straight,” Fox said in a written statement. “The danger is in any suggestion that those who would hold a different view or harbor public concerns which he does not share should be reluctant to express such a view because it differs from his.”
Secunda said receiving such a warning from the department head can be “very intimidating,” even given his stated goal to run the agency like a family.
“That strikes me as an autocratic father who basically has his own rules,” Secunda said. “When you follow him everything is hunky dory but when you cross him you face some sort of industrial corporal punishment.”
While Monday’s email was sent to address the privatization rumors, Wall’s Thursday message was in response to press reports about testimony he gave at a state Assembly committee hearing on operations of the department. At that hearing, Beil said workers feel unsafe at the prisons following seven assaults on guards since Christmas Eve.
Wall said in the email that Beil provided “exaggerated descriptions of physical trauma suffered by our staff.” He said he was concerned about staff being victimized again by bringing repeated attention to the assaults, or to glorify them and bring satisfaction to the offenders.
“But that doesn’t mean the assaults weren’t serious; it means that the resulting physical trauma may not have been as serious as described in these two cases,” Wall wrote.
Wall tried to reassure staff in the emails that he was taking the assaults seriously.
“Every Warden in the state knows that if we have a serious assault on a staff member that results in serious trauma, they are to call me and the Deputy Secretary directly and that we’re responding,” Wall wrote. “The message being that we need to treat this organization more like a family and less like a bureaucratic coffee grinder.”