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A secret recording between the governor and GOP leaders leads to negative fallout for both sides

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Updated: 6:31 p.m. on June 11, 2020

MADISON/MILWAUKEE, Wis. (CBS 58) – A phone call between Governor Tony Evers, Assembly Speaker Robin Vos and Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald was recorded by Evers’ staff without any of their knowledge and has sparked criticism over the governor’s trustworthiness and over comments made by Vos that put blame on immigrants for a COVID-19 hotspot.

“I did not know about it,” Evers said in a media briefing Thursday. “A staffer wanted help taking notes and that’s why that staffer did that.”

The recording of the phone call made its way to the media on Wednesday and CBS 58 obtained the recording through an open records request.

Republicans, including Vos and Fitzgerald, sharply criticized the practice with the assembly speaker calling it “shameful” and Fitzgerald comparing it to actions by former President Richard Nixon. Both agreed it eroded trust of the already fraught relationship between the two sides. The issue also sparked bipartisan calls for the staffer responsible for the recording to be fired, but Evers told reporters he would not discuss personnel actions in public.

Evers’ chief legal counsel maintained the recording was legal because of the state’s one-party consent law which allowed for Vos and Fitzgerald to not give consent so long as an Evers’ staff member was aware of the recording at the time and consented.

The call occurred on May 14, the day after the state Supreme Court blocked the Evers administration’s Safer at Home order. The three leaders were discussing how to proceed with the state’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic following the decision.

Vos expressed outrage over what he viewed as malicious intent for recording the call.

“The only reason I can hear that they did that is that they wanted to catch us saying something and release it to the media later,” Vos said in an interview on The Steve Scaffidi Show on 620 WTMJ-AM radio.

The issue proved thorny for Republicans too as Vos faced backlash over comments he made during the call regarding immigrants and COVID-19 in his region of the state.

“I know the reason [for a COVID-19 outbreak], at least in my region, is because of a large immigrant population where it’s a difference in culture where people are living much closer and working much closer.”

Forward Latino – a nonpartisan Latino advocacy organization – and other groups called the statement incorrect and problematic.

“We’re demanding that speaker Vos apologize for his comments,” Darryl Morin, the president of Forward Latino said in a news conference Thursday.

Morin said many in the immigrant community are essential workers and have no choice but to continue working during the pandemic, often in environments that require contact with other people.

“And not just in meatpacking plants and in hospitals, and in assisted living facilities, but they are also working in the healthcare field putting their lives at risk to protect ours,” Morin told CBS 58.

According to the health department that covers Speaker Vos’s region, Racine County has the third highest number of positive COVID-19 cases in the state.

But as a percentage of the population, 74% were not Hispanic or Latino, only 23% were.

Speakers at the press conference called Vos’s comments divisive.

“He is the representative for our general area,” Tamerin Hayward from the Racine Interfaith Coalition said. “And he is saying things that I don’t think are intentionally racist, but perhaps unconsciously racist.”

Dr. Ryan Westergaard, the Department of Health Services’ Chief Medical Officer, said in a media briefing Thursday that, “immigration status, race or ethnicity have no biologic role in somebody’s risk of acquiring infection.”

CBS 58 reached out to speaker Vos’s office. A spokeswoman for his office said he was not available for an interview but sent the following statement:

“Speaker Vos has been very concerned about the COVID-19 outbreaks in his area. A few days before the secretly recorded call, he was briefed by local hospital officials about the spike in cases. As a result, he has been in frequent communications with local officials including the county executive about the response.”

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Posted: 4:54 a.m. on June 11, 2020

MADISON, Wis. (CBS 58) – In a phone meeting that was recorded without his knowledge, Assembly Speaker Robin Vos (R – Rochester) said a “difference in culture” was a reason for a high number of COVID-19 cases in his region of the state, comments that a Latino advocacy group says puts blame on immigrants.

The comments were made public following the release of an audio recording of a May 14 phone meeting between Governor Tony Evers, Speaker Vos and Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald (R – Juneau). CBS 58 obtained the recording through an open records request. The secrecy of the recording was called “shameful” by Vos and “Nixonian” by Fitzgerald.

The phone conversation occurred the day after the state Supreme Court ruled to block the Evers administration’s Safer at Home order. The leaders were discussing how to move forward with the state’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic following the ruling.

During one part of the conversation. Vos discussed with Evers and his staff about how best to manage regional issues tied to the virus and how it may require the cooperation of local leaders.

At one point, Vos said, “I know the reason [for COVID-19 outbreaks], at least in my region, is because of a large immigrant population, where it’s just a difference in culture where people are living much closer and working much closer.”

However, public health experts have cited the high number of essential workers in the immigrant community for higher and disproportionate cases of COVID-19, not cultural differences.

On Thursday, Forward Latino – a nonprofit, nonpartisan advocacy group – will hold a news conference to directly address the comments made by the Republican from Rochester.

From Vos' spokeswoman Kit Beyer:

“Speaker Vos has been very concerned about the COVID-19 outbreaks in his area. A few days before the secretly recorded call, he was briefed by local hospital officials about the spike in cases. As a result, he has been in frequent communications with local officials including the county executive about the response.”
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