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3/13/2014 4:41:00 PM
Blogger sues Mercer School District
Dispute stems from backlash over school referendum

A Northwoods blogger has sued the Mercer School District over an email that officials claimed was tied to an alleged hacking incident. But now, a lawyer for the school says no such hacking ever occurred.

Richard Thiede, of the town of Oma, filed a lawsuit in Iron County Circuit Court late last month asking a judge to order that the district release an email school officials said was evidence in a criminal investigation that someone improperly accessed the district’s email system.

Thiede said he sought the email because it included a link to a blog post he wrote about a recent controversy over a school referendum. Some Mercer residents have claimed that school officials misled the public about the effect of a 2013 referendum on property taxes.

A lawyer for the school district, Mindy Dale, sent Thiede a letter in January calling the email “a very serious matter” and pointed out various provisions of the state’s criminal code about identity theft and accessing computers without authorization. Dale also referenced Thiede’s blog and, in the final paragraph of her letter, made claims about the law of defamation.

“Also, please know that while citizens are free to express their opinion about matters of public concern, false statements of a defamatory nature are unlawful,” Dale wrote. “If you have questions about any potential liability for statements posted under your control, you are advised to seek legal counsel.”

In response, Thiede wrote to Mercer School District Administrator Erik Torkelson denying any involvement in the email. Thiede also questioned the propriety of Dale’s letter.

“The letter continued with a ham-handed and legally inaccurate attempt to shut off our criticism of your handling of the recent property tax levy,” Thiede wrote.

In the same correspondence, Thiede asked that an original copy of the email be forwarded to him.

Thiede had not received a response to his request after waiting 13 days, the complaint states. So on Feb. 10, Thiede says he hand-delivered another written request for a copy of the email to the school.

On Feb. 18, Thiede went to Torkelson’s office and asked for an update on the request. Thiede was told the response would be forthcoming, and he received a letter from the district’s attorney that day denying his request, according to the complaint.

The denial letter cited two grounds for withholding the email, one of which claimed that the public interest was best served by nondisclosure because the email was part of an “ongoing criminal investigation.”

The Lakeland Times has been unable to verify the existence of any criminal investigation concerning the email at the time the denial letter was sent.

Thiede said he sought the email because he is a candidate for a seat on the Iron County Board of Supervisors, and he wanted to clear his name.

“If people are out there thinking that I had hacked an email, that doesn’t do real good for voting, does it?” Thiede said in an interview.

On Tuesday, the school district filed an answer to the complaint. Later that day, Thiede’s attorney, Anthony Stella, Jr. said Dale, the district’s lawyer, sent him a letter that included a copy of the email and an acknowledgement that no hacking occurred.

“[N]o breach of the School District’s computer system occurred and no confidential information was accessed or released,” the letter states.

Stella said that even though the district produced a copy of the email, he is still reviewing how the case should proceed. The lawsuit seeks an order declaring that the school district and Torkelson violated Wisconsin’s public records law.

“Our position is they never had a right to withhold it under the law,” Stella said.

Another unresolved issue concerns attorney’s fees. Under the public records law, plaintiffs who prevail in a public-records lawsuit have a right to recover attorney’s fees, which Thiede has asked for in the case.

A hearing is scheduled for March 28, according to online court records.

Mercer School District Administrator Erik Torkelson did not return a phone call from The Lakeland Times seeking comment as of press time. Mindy Dale, an attorney who represented the school, also did not return phone calls seeking comment. Attempts to reach Kelly Kohegyi, president of the Mercer School Board, were unsuccessful.

In the interest of full disclosure, Richard Thiede’s wife is the Mercer correspondent for The Lakeland Times. She had no role in the writing and editing of this story.

Jonathan Anderson may be reached at janderson@lakelandtimes.com.

Reader Comments

Posted: Friday, March 14, 2014
Article comment by: Richard Kemplin

An excellent job of reporting. This and an earlier article about Torkelson and school board ("Mercer residents claim school misled them about referendum" Jan. 14, 2014) represents just the tip of the iceberg in a massive case of abuse of power.

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