By Alan Hovorka, FOR THE BADGER PROJECT
A Natural Resources Board member who refused to vacate his seat when his term expired did so to keep the board under Republican control, according to newly released text messages from his cell phone. The texts also show he received support from prominent state politicians as Republicans in the legislature blocked board appointments from Democratic Gov. Tony Evers.
The text messages of Fred Prehn, a Wausau dentist and gun store owner, came to light in new court filings in an ongoing open records lawsuit in Dane County Circuit Court between Prehn and the Midwest Environmental Advocates, an environmental group.
“I’m stepping down because my term has ended as chairman. I can’t run more than three years in a row,” Prehn wrote in one text message. “But still remain as board member and I will effectively guarantee a conservative gets to have the chairmanship.”
The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel first reported on the text messages. They show that Prehn went back and forth about his decision to remain on the board ahead of his term expiring in May 2021. Prehn’s texts also indicate he intends to remain on the board at least until the November election, the newspaper reported.
In an email to The Badger Project on Tuesday, Prehn wrote “The fact that i sought out discussions with my friends seems inconsequential from today’s true stories. Inflation, border crisis, food prices, fuel prices, crime in the big cities.”
Ed Miller, a UW-Stevens Point political science professor emeritus, said the text messages confirm what was apparent from the fight over Prehn’s seat: his refusal to vacate the position was rooted in partisan gamesmanship.
In July, Prehn told The Badger Project in an email that “for purely political reasons, this Attorney General and Governor decided to pursue this action against me.”
Evers and Attorney General Josh Kaul sued to have Prehn removed from the board after his term expired, but the right-leaning majority on the Wisconsin State Supreme Court ruled earlier this summer that the governor could not remove him without cause, citing a 1964 decision by the court. That ruling opened the door for other Republican appointees to refuse to vacate their position once their term expired, experts say. Several already have.
The terms of state boards are staggered with the intention that an incoming governor from an opposing party cannot immediately remake its membership with their preferred appointees.
But since Wisconsin voters elected Evers in 2018, the GOP-controlled legislature has refused to confirm many of his appointees, including the one who would replace Prehn. This has allowed Republicans to maintain control of the DNR board, and could allow them to hold or flip other boards to their control sooner, especially if they win the governor’s seat this fall, experts say. A Republican governor’s nominees are almost certain to be approved by the state Senate, which is controlled by Republicans now and highly unlikely to be retaken by Democrats this year. This is due to the fact that all state legislators must run in district maps drawn by Republicans that maximize their electoral advantage.
The Wisconsin Supreme Court’s ruling essentially allows Prehn to disregard the length of his 6-year term and stay on the board indefinitely, as long as the state Senate does not confirm his replacement, Justice Rebecca Dallet wrote in her dissent.
Fred Clark, executive director of the conservation group Wisconsin’s Green Fire, said in an email to The Badger Project that the messages show a direct connection between Prehn’s decision to stay on the board and advice from Republican lawmakers, former Gov. Scott Walker and former Lt. Gov. Rebecca Kleefisch.
“It also makes clear that the Wisconsin Natural Resources board has stopped working as a representative body governing conservation programs and is now held hostage by an illegitimate minority controlled by special interests – exactly what the framers of the laws governing our current DNR were trying to protect against,” Clark wrote. “It’s long past time for reform.”
In his email Tuesday, Prehn said he ”never sought direct Communication with State legislators. I have corrected the statement on that numerous times but they keep printing it. but what do you expect from the out-of-control media.”
But in an April 2021 message to a former DNR employee, he writes that he was communicating with state senators.
“Laugh my ass off. There’s no way even to put me back on but senators are asking me to stay put because there (sic) not gonna confirm anyone,” Prehn wrote before his term expired. “So I might stick around for a while. See what shakes out I’ll be like a turd in water up there. Boy is it changing.”
The messages also show he considered stepping down when his term expired before columns critical of his decision were published in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.
“Too bad I was going to step down on Wednesday afternoon but now I’m in a really stick around and make your life hell for a while,” Prehn wrote in one message.
The new records contained an exchange with Walker, who appointed Prehn to the board. Walker encouraged him to remain on the board to counter Democratic appointees. He also shared information with prominent Wisconsin Republicans after his term expired in May 2021, including U.S. Rep. Tomy Tiffany and Wisconsin Senate Majority Leader Devin LeMahieu.
“I am a conservative and a voice for the sportsman. and damn proud of it,” Prehn wrote in his email to The Bagder Project on Tuesday.
“No apologies here,” he added.
The Badger Project is a nonpartisan, citizen-supported journalism nonprofit in Wisconsin.
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