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Lawsuit: MPS violating constitution by denying bus rides to religious school students

Wed, 03/22/2017 - 21:26

MILWAUKEE – All high school students in Milwaukee are equal, but some are more equal than others when it comes to bus transportation, according to a federal lawsuit filed Tuesday.

NO BUSES FOR ST. JOAN ANTIDA: Despite serving a citywide population of underprivileged children, students at the independent, private high school are being denied school bus transportation by Milwaukee Public Schools. A federal lawsuit filed Tuesday claims MPS is violating the constitution in its disparate treatment.

St. Joan Antida,  an all-girls Roman Catholic high school in Milwaukee, is suing Milwaukee Public Schools after the district refused to provide bus service to the school’s students. There are 70 students that should be receiving bus service from MPS, according to a release Wednesday from the Wisconsin Institute for Law & Liberty,  or WILL, the public interest law firm representing St. Joan Antida.

“We believe that because MPS is treating children at its high schools differently from children that attend private schools, they are in blatant violation of state law that requires those policies to be the same,” said WILL attorney CJ Szafir Wednesday.

State law requires public school districts to provide transportation for students attending private schools within the district. The exception is in districts that rely upon public transportation.

MPS does not provide bus transportation for most high school students unless they live more than two miles from public transportation. Instead, MPS requires high school students to use public transportation. However, students attending MPS citywide attendance high schools are provided bus service if they live more than two miles from the school itself.

St. Joan Antida is chartered by the Sisters of Charity of St. Joan Antida, is independent of the Milwaukee Catholic Archdiocese, and has a citywide attendance area. The school has an enrollment of 143 students with about 87 percent of those students in the free-or-reduced lunch program, according to a press release from WILL. More than 90 percent of the students are minorities. More than 90 percent of St. Joan Antida graduates continue their education in pursuing either a two-year or four-year degree.

“We are going to court to ensure that these children have their rights protected,” Szafir said in a press release. “It is a shame that it has come to this point but (MPS) Superintendent (Darienne) Driver and MPS have been playing fast and loose with the transportation laws for years.”

An email from MPS spokeswoman Denise Callaway said the district would not comment on pending litigation.

Paul Gessner, principal of St. Joan Antida, told Wisconsin Watchdog Wednesday the school first reached out to MPS for transportation in April 2015. After the private school was led to believe that as a citywide school their students would be eligible to apply for bus transportation, MPS told St. Joan Antida in January 2016 that only one student qualified for bus transportation.

“It’s a hardship for many of our families,” said Gessner. “Without transportation it definitely impacts the choice of school that parents can select. The very first thing that we get asked is, ‘Is there a bus?’”

St. Joan Antida also participates in the Milwaukee Parental Choice Program, the citywide private school voucher program. But Gessner said this isn’t about a voucher school taking money from public schools.

“If the law exists, and it’s supposed to benefit my students, then it’s really not public school money,” said Gessner. “It’s the money that belongs to educating kids and transporting kids.”

“There was an intent in creating that law. They just need to follow that law,” Gessner said.

SEE RELATED: State AG won’t represent Department of Public Instruction in Catholic school case

Jim Bender, President of School Choice Wisconsin, agreed that the issue is separate from school choice.

“All families in Milwaukee pay property taxes through home ownership or rent,” Bender said in a statement Wednesday. “State law is clear that all students, regardless of sector, are to be treated equally with transportation services.”

After the request for bus transportation was rejected by MPS, St. Joan Antida and WILL sent a letter to Driver asking the district to provide transportation or provide a written explanation of the reason for denial.

“They refused to follow the law so we were forced to go to federal court to ensure that the rights of the children of St. Joan Antida are protected,” Szafir said.

Szafir said the lawsuit was filed in federal court because the plaintiffs have a strong constitutional claim.

“We believe the constitutional guarantees of equal protection under the law are being violated by Milwaukee Public Schools where they discriminate against children who attend private and religious schools by denying them transportation,” Szafir said.

State Sen. Duey Stroebel, R-Saukville, issued a statement Wednesday afternoon saying, “It is a sad day when parents have to go to court to ensure their children have transportation to attend the school of their choice.”

“MPS should immediately heed SJA’s request to bus these students,” Strobel said. “After all, the students’ parents are property taxpayers in the district.”

James Wigderson reports for Wisconsin Watchdog. Contact him at jwigderson@watchdog.org and follow him on Twitter @jwigderson.

Attorney general’s office remains silent on John Doe leak probe

Wed, 03/22/2017 - 15:29
Part 386 of 385 in the series Wisconsin's Secret War

MADISON, Wis. – Three months after state Attorney General Brad Schimel said his Department of Justice opened an investigation of court-sealed John Doe documents leaked to a liberal British publication, the probe remains ongoing, according to a DOJ official.

INVESTIGATION ONGOING: A spokesman for Wisconsin Attorney General Brad Schimel says an investigation into leaked, court-sealed John Doe documents continues.

And agency representatives are maintaining their right to remain silent about where the investigation stands.

“We do not have any comment or update on the ongoing investigation into the John Doe leak,” DOJ spokesman Johnny Koremenos wrote in an email Wednesday morning to Wisconsin Watchdog.

“We will let you know when there is something to report to the public,” he added.

Sources have clammed up since late last month, when the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reported that the DOJ seized materials from the state Ethics Commission in early February as part of its probe.

The disclosure followed one week after the newspaper reported state Justice Department investigators reviewed documents in the clerk’s office of the state Supreme Court.

In September, The Guardian published some 1,300-plus pages of cherry-picked information as part a story that, again, fed on the “John Doe II” prosecutors’ theme of some kind of criminal coordination scheme perpetrated by Walker’s campaign and conservative allies.

As Wisconsin Watchdog has reported, the documents leaked to The Guardian strongly suggest that the prosecutors, investigators, or a source or sources very close to them illegally turned over the court-sealed records to the newspaper.

RELATED: More evidence points to prosecutors, investigators, as source of John Doe leaks 

There is a small universe of people who had access to the documents, and that universe is almost exclusively populated by prosecutors, investigators and court officials.

It is clear the documents were not filed in any court, sources say; none of the documents were stamped or marked as exhibits.

The records include handwritten notes on the motion of an unnamed movant (one of dozens of conservatives targeted in the probe), as well as an unsigned draft of an affidavit from John Doe special prosecutor Francis Schmitz.

“There is other actionable intelligence such as the time zone, date and exact time these documents were scanned and later revised and the make and model of the copier used to scan them,” one source told Wisconsin Watchdog.

“There is also evidence to suggest the perpetrator or perpetrators worked closely with outside interests to select the leaked documents,” the source said.

Milwaukee County District Attorney John Chisholm, the highly partisan Democrat who in 2012 launched the secret investigation into dozens of conservative groups and Walker’s campaign, has said he supports any effort to determine the source of John Doe leaks.

“The public release of this John Doe evidence without authorization is not merely a violation of the John Doe secrecy order; it is a crime under Wisconsin law,” Chisholm said last year in a statement.

It’s not publicly known what was seized at the Ethics Commission office. But, as Wisconsin Watchdog reported on Feb. 24,  if those “materials” were documents from the unconstitutional probe, former John Doe prosecutor Schmitz could have some questions to answer.

In November, Schmitz signed an affidavit concerning John Doe II evidence, noting that he had complied with a Supreme Court order demanding that he return documents and other items seized from John Doe targets and turn over evidentiary materials to the Supreme Court.

“To the best of my knowledge, I have received statements from all who have direct access to evidentiary materials as part of the prosecution team,” Schmitz wrote in the Nov. 2 affidavit. “In those statements, those individuals all state that they either turned over documents and electronic data and no longer possess same (or copies thereof), or never possessed documents and/or data (or copies thereof) obtained in the course of the investigation.”

The state Supreme Court in 2015 declared the campaign finance investigation unconstitutional and ordered it shut down. Schmitz’s position was deemed invalid from his entry as special prosecutor in 2013. He was given the wrap-up duties of making sure that illegally seized property was returned to its rightful owners, and that “evidence” or copies collected were surrendered from investigators and transferred to the custody of the court.

The now-defunct state Government Accountability Board (predecessor of the Ethics Commission), which assisted Milwaukee County prosecutors and Schmitz in the politically driven probe, should not have John Doe documents in its possession.

Edward Greim, attorney for some of the conservatives targeted in the probe, said that either Schmitz never obtained statements from everyone at the GAB who had access to the Doe documents, or “one or more staff failed to disclose that they had the documents.” Schmitz, as a special prosecutor with an office at the GAB, should have known everyone with access to John Doe materials and where those materials were, Greim said.

“Until we are able to see those statements, we cannot know whether the materials that are being taken from the GAB (Ethics Commission) are all the materials the GAB had,” Greim said.

“At the very least, it raises real questions about the care and safe-keeping of documents and compliance with these orders of the Supreme Court,” the attorney added.

Schmitz did not return a request for comment.

M.D. Kittle is bureau chief for Wisconsin Watchdog and First Amendment reporter for Watchdog.org. Contact him at mkittle@watchdog.org.

Appeals court tosses forced union dues lawsuit, next stop Supreme Court

Tue, 03/21/2017 - 22:40

As expected, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 7th Circuit has affirmed a lower court decision dismissing an Illinois lawsuit that right-to-work experts assert could be the next Friedrichs v. California Teachers Association.

HEADED TO HIGH COURT? The 7th Circuit Court of Appeals on Tuesday affirmed a lower court’s ruling tossing out a public sector right-to-work lawsuit against two unions. The decision was expected and welcome by the plaintiffs, who intend to seek review before the Supreme Court.

But the appeals court ruling means the case may soon be heading to the U.S. Supreme Court, where a restored conservative majority could put an end to compulsory union dues.

“The court’s ruling is no surprise but simply allows the next step forward in the journey to end forced unionism for public employees across the country,” said Mark Mix, president of the National Right to Work Foundation. “No one should be forced to pay union dues or fees just for the privilege of working for their own government and this decision means the case can now move up to the United States Supreme Court.”

The ruling comes nearly three weeks after the Chicago-based appeals court heard oral arguments in Janus v. AFSCME, which specifically deals with the First Amendment rights of public employees who wish to opt out of their unions, and the fairness of a union’s “monopoly” right to speak for individuals.

The Illinois employee plaintiffs are being represented, free of cost, by the Right to Work Foundation and the Illinois Policy Institute’s Liberty Justice Center, free-market organizations that oppose compulsory union dues and membership.

Under a 1977 Supreme Court decision, unions are not allowed to use membership fees to pay for “explicitly political” activities, but they can demand “fair share” fees connected to collective bargaining.

The lawsuit notes some 6,600 of the state’s 46,000-plus employees are forced to make so-called “fair share” payments to unions rather than pay union dues. Fair Share deductions are to go only to essential union representation activities, not political purposes.

The plaintiffs argue that everything a union does, not just overt political activity, involves government redress.

“They [unions] are in a unique position in between taxpayers and elected officials to help to determine how tax money is spent, how government sets priorities, how school districts are run, lots of things that involve ‘necessary government services,’” Mix told Wisconsin Watchdog earlier this month.

“So the notion that somehow their speech is elevated, no matter what it is … that speech is political by nature because it’s redressing the government,” he said.

Big labor’s latest win could ultimately end in defeat at the high court.

Lee Saunders, president of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees earlier said the lawsuit represents a “renewed effort by corporate and special interest groups to upend the longstanding rights of people who work in public service … to come together.”

“It would be shameful to see the Circuit Court of Appeals decide the case in favor of wealthy special interests and put the working families and communities at risk,” Saunders said in a statement.

AFSCME and the Teamsters are defendants in the lawsuit.

Some observers say Janus v. AFSCME is the “new Friedrichs case.”

Friedrichs v. California Teachers Association took on the broader issues of mandatory union dues, political speech and association. Following oral arguments in January 2016, it appeared clear that the U.S. Supreme Court would narrowly side with right-to-work advocates in updating the 1977 Abood v. Detroit Board of Education.

A few weeks later, conservative Justice Antonin Scalia died. Scalia had been a deciding vote against unions in previous similar cases. His passing resulted in a 4-4 tie, with the automatic affirmation of the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals upholding unions’ right to take fees. The famously liberal court made headlines recently for blocking President Donald Trump’s immigration ban executive order.

Seventh Circuit Judge Richard Posner, a member of the court’s three-member panel that affirmed the lower court ruling, wrote that Abood remains the guiding force that the appeals court was bound by.

“Of course, only the Supreme Court has the power, if it so chooses, to overrule Abood,” Posner wrote.

That’s what right-to-work advocates are betting on.

Town hall disruption crew now keeping out ‘uninvited’ guests

Tue, 03/21/2017 - 16:51

MADISON, Wis. – It appears the rowdy left-wing Indivisible crowd is going underground.

INDIVISIBLY INVISIBLE: The guidebook for a left-wing campaign to disrupt the conservative agenda. Now, it appears, the very loud “Stop Jim’ Sensenbrenner is going underground to plan its ‘resistance’ efforts.

Not at the town hall events of conservative congressional lawmakers, where these programmed activists have made disruption and disorder the tools of their political theater. But online, where the Democrat-led Indivisible campaign organizes town hall-crashing activities, among its other “Resist Trump” demonstrations.

Indivisible members targeting U.S. Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner, R-Menomonee Falls, are moving their once-public communications, hiding behind Facebook secrecy settings.

And it’s in these members-only digital spaces where they now appear to be planning their disruption campaigns against Wisconsin conservative leaders, including Republican Gov. Scott Walker, according to online communications obtained by Wisconsin Watchdog.

Wisconsin Indivisible organizers say they are setting up various Facebook groups for “internal communication and collaboration.”

“They will be invitation only and will not be visible to the uninvited on Facebook or any other Internet search,” A group Facebook post noted. Facebook calls these privacy settings ‘secret’ groups. Members will be able to post to discussions, upload project documents and files, collaboratively edit documents, create work group events and online conference calls.”

The “uninvited” would be anybody from the press and public, including the conservative lawmakers they’ve been targeting. The public would learn that this “grassroots” effort is really directed and led by national Democrats and billionaire donors who support a raft of liberal causes.

USA Today reported this week that the George Soros-backed Democracy Alliance is mulling over funding Indivisible’s anti-Trump campaigns. As previously reported, many of the founders of Indivisible and its Practical Guide for Resisting the Trump Agenda are former congressional Democrat aides with ties to liberal mega donor Soros’ groups.

The Stop Jim Work Groups, as the Wisconsin Indivisible chapter targeting Sensenbrenner likes to describe its committees, are establishing “dedicated work groups” to:

  • Coordinate and mobilize phone calls and letter writing timed to target key legislative and political issues.
  • Generate highly visible informed crowds wherever and whenever Sensenbrenner appears anywhere (including D.C.).
  • Coordinate efforts of all progressive groups in the district.
  • Maintain engagement online with action items, news alerts, education and the occasional humor.
  • Coordinate media coverage for all Stop Jim events in the district.

Just who will serve on the “well needed humor” committee for these hilarious liberals remains to be seen. But the Stop Jim committee devoted to pounding out calls, emails and other communications will “coordinate a targeted campaign of daily communications” to Sensenbrenner.

That includes:

Keeping up with the veteran congressman’s legislative schedule, “creating daily call postings on phone calls, emails and postcards,” and “pushing the daily call postings out to other resistance groups in the district who have agreed to subscribe to the service.”

The group also will be responsible for “learning the issues and Jim’s positions on them.” Critics of the left-wing movement have said knowing the issues and where Republican lawmakers stand hasn’t seemed to be an Indivisible prerequisite, based on previous town hall demonstrations.

The Action Event Work Group will be responsible for publicity on Facebook, Twitter and elsewhere, as well as “media notification” and “questions prep.” As Wisconsin Watchdog has reported, Indivisible groups are fond of giving their town hall participants canned questions about the repeal and replacement of Obamacare and other issues.

Then there is the Communication Work Group.

TOWN HALL TESTED: Despite the constant disruptions and uncivil behavior by some audience members, U.S. Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner, is among the congressional leaders in holding constituent town halls.

“This group will promote communication and coordination between all progressive groups in the district and nearby,” the Indivisible Facebook page states.

It’s interesting to note that Wisconsin conservative groups were victims of a lengthy “John Doe II” investigation based on prosecutors’ and bureaucrats’ theories of illegal coordination. Conservatives had their homes raided, their possessions seized, and their communications tapped into by government agents for communicating with like-minded individuals.

The Communication Work Group also will “encourage the formation of new Indivisible groups targeting” members of Congress and the state Legislature, as well as Walker.

Alerted to Indivisible’s plan, a Walker spokesman declined to comment.

RELATED: The left prepares ‘Indivisible’ playbook for Sensenbrenner town hall

As Wisconsin Watchdog reported earlier this month, the “Stop Jim” Indivisible movement has been particularly aggressive, turning up in large numbers at Sensenbrenner’s town hall events. The long-serving Republican has led the nation in such constituent sessions, despite the constant disruptions and uncivil behavior by activists.

At a recent town hall in West Allis, some Trump resisters were finally asked to leave the meeting after constantly interrupting conservative-leaning constituents who had the floor.

“You can only listen to lies for so long,” one woman is heard saying in a video from the event as she walks out the hall.

Sensenbrenner is heard urging participants that the rules of the town hall include “respecting people (who do not share) your opinion.” “He is entitled to his opinion, just like everybody else, without interruption,” the congressman said, referring to a man who was commenting at the meeting.

Joe Kraynick appears to be the leader of the Wauwatosa Indivisible group, among the more active and disruptive.

“Welcome to the resistance!” he said earlier in an online communication to fellow would-be liberal activists.

“Come prepared to take action and meet others who are working to resist Trump’s agenda,” Kraynick wrote.

Kraynick did not respond to a request for comment, but he laid out his ideas for sticking it to Sensenbrenner in closed group messages.

He offered some suggestions to activists on making things “rowdier.” Kraynick noted that the Indivisible activists haven’t “gone the full Chaffetz” with Sensenbrenner yet, referring to the raucous left-wing crowds U.S. Rep. Jason Chaffetz, R-Utah, confronted last month.

“It might not be quite time for that yet, but (Sensenbrenner) keeps avoiding answering certain questions,” the activist writes. “Reactions rattle him, he doesn’t like them. He tried at one point to move from Trump’s conflicts of interest to the Clinton Foundation, which earned an instant negative reaction, and he quickly dropped it and never came back to it.”

Sensenbrenner spokeswoman Nicole Tieman said she fails to see what groups like Indivisible are trying to accomplish “other than robbing their friends and neighbors of the opportunity to have their voices heard and problems addressed.”

“Constructive, civil discourse is a critical part of our democratic system, but what we’re seeing from Indivisible groups in our district and nationwide is neither constructive nor civil,” she said.

M.D. Kittle is bureau chief for Wisconsin Watchdog and First Amendment reporter for Watchdog.org. Contact him at mkittle@watchdog.org.

Memo comparing voucher and public school aid doesn’t tell whole story

Mon, 03/20/2017 - 17:27

WAUKESHA, Wis. – Democrats assert a Legislative Fiscal Bureau memo shows state aid to schools participating in one of Wisconsin’s three private school voucher programs will receive approximately $1,000 more in per-pupil funding than the average public school under Gov. Scott Walker’s proposed budget.

MISSING FROM THE MEMO: A memo from the state’s Legislative Fiscal Bureau requested by state Sen. Janet Bewley, D-Ashland, shows more state aid to voucher schools than public schools. But the memo does not take into account all state spending.

School choice supporters say that the memo is deceptive – again – because it doesn’t count all money going to public schools.

The memo to Sen. Janet Bewley, D-Ashland, prepared by the fiscal bureau, shows that voucher payments for a K-8 pupil would equal $7,540 in 2017-18 and $7,757 in 2018-19. Voucher payments for a student enrolled in grades 9-12 would equal $8,186 in 2017-18 and $8,403 in 2018-19.

State per-pupil aid under the governor’s proposed budget, based on 2017-18 enrollment figures, would be $6,703 on average.

The LFB is a nonpartisan agency responsible for fiscal analyses for the Wisconsin Legislature and its members.

“Even as property taxpayers and the families of more than 850 thousand public school students are promised more,” Bewley said in a press release accompanying the memo, “tax dollars are siphoned off to voucher schools and independent charters that get first place in line, take $1,000 to $1,700 more per student and too often force property taxpayers to make up the difference.”

“For the last three sessions Republicans have devised plans to slip more for voucher school lobbyists into the bill, and my guess is we can expect more of the same,” said Sen. Jon Erpenbach, D-Middleton, in the same press release. “This memo shows why families with students in public schools and property taxpayers should be very wary of GOP plans to widen this gap at the public’s expense.”

But the Democrats fail to note that the fiscal bureau memo does not include all funding for public schools, according to a coalition of supporters of Wisconsin’s voucher programs. 

“Funding for public K12 schools in Wisconsin contains many different streams including state equalized aid, local property taxes, state categorical aids and federal aids,” a statement by School Choice Wisconsin, the Wisconsin Federation for Children and the Wisconsin Institute for Law & Liberty asserts.“Funding for the Parental Choice Programs contain only one – direct state aid.” 

The voucher-supporting groups said the Democrats are trying to make it look like public schools have less money than schools in the voucher programs. But when state equalized aid and local property taxes are combined, the average per-student expenditure was $10,312 for 2016, according to the coalition’s statement. That does not include categorical aids and federal funding.  

“When compared in full, students in the Parental Choice Programs will receive thousands of dollars less per child than a student in a traditional public school,” the coalition states.

Walker’s budget proposal includes $648.9 million in new state aids for K-12 education. Of that, $509 million is allocated for a per-pupil funding increase for public schools, provided the school system can show employees are paying 12 percent of their healthcare premiums and 6 percent of their pension costs for the school districts to receive the extra dollars, as allowed under Act 10.

Enacted in 2011, Act 10 eliminated collective bargaining for public employee benefits. Since Walker signed the bill into law, the Madison-based MacIver Institute says Wisconsin taxpayers have saved over $5 billion.

This additional spending means a $200 per-pupil increase in 2017-18 and $204 increase in 2018-19 in categorical aid, which means it is not part of the state’s school aid equalization formula, but is included in the $6,703 total in the memo. The increase in public school per-pupil aid is roughly the same as the $217 per-pupil increase on average for the state’s voucher programs.

SEE RELATED: Report shows Democrats ignore key data in school funding debate

This is not the first time the Democrats have used a memo from the LFB with incomplete information to try to score political points.

In June, Bewley requested another memo from the LFB to try to show that state aid for schools is down since 2010, the year before Walker took office. That memo, too, did not include local property taxes, federal aid and additional state categorical aid, and included a one-time education spending cut that coincided with savings from the passage of Act 10.

In August, Bewley received another memo from the LFB which she claimed showed three-quarters of the state’s school districts are receiving less general aid than before the Republican governor took office in 2011. However, that memo did not include changes in enrollment, local property taxes and other forms of state aid.

In addition, the August memo did not include the cut in federal aid for education. Republicans produced their own memo at the time showing state aid to Wisconsin’s school districts is actually up since 2011.

James Wigderson reports for Wisconsin Watchdog. Contact him at jwigderson@watchdog.org and follow him on Twitter @jwigderson.

Does prosecutorial immunity trump justice in John Doe-related lawsuit?

Mon, 03/20/2017 - 17:16
Part 384 of 384 in the series Wisconsin's Secret War

MADISON, Wis. —  A Madison-based free-market think tank will appeal its lawsuit alleging prosecutors of Wisconsin’s unconstitutional John Doe II investigation illegally seized and held electronic communications.

SEIZED EMAILS: A federal judge ruled John Doe prosecutors acted properly in seizing electronic communications from a free-market think tank because a John Doe judge gave them permission to do so. But the John Doe judge is not a court in the usual sense, and the prosecutors violated federal law, argues the John K. MacIver Institute.

U.S. District Judge William Conley last week dismissed the John K. MacIver Institute’s lawsuit alleging that “John Doe ringleaders” violated the federal Stored Communications Act by seizing the organization’s digital records during the lengthy probe into dozens of right-of-center groups and other conservative individuals.

The Madison-based federal judge, an appointee of former President Barack Obama, ruled that investigators acted within the confines of the law in secretly obtaining search warrants from MacIver. Besides, the judge decided, prosecutors have qualified immunity against such federal lawsuits.

Ben Hurst, attorney for the conservative organization, told Wisconsin Watchdog last week on the Vicki McKenna Show that MacIver intends to seek review of Conley’s decision at the 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Chicago.

He said prosecutorial immunity does not apply in this case.

“And we also believe that, to the extent there is a question about qualified immunity, about whether there was reasonableness (with the prosecutors’ actions), we think it’s been clear under Wisconsin law for many decades that a John Doe judge is not a court and that a John Doe judge can’t issue the warrants that satisfy the requirements of federal law on Stored Communications,” Hurst said.

That’s what the controversy boils down to: Whether a John Doe judge has the authority to approve the kinds of warrants used by prosecutors to secretly tap into and seize the electronic communications of subjects or targets of their investigation.

The lawsuit alleges that Milwaukee County District Attorney John Chisholm, a Democrat, and his co-defendants violated the federal Stored Communications Act by “secretly requesting, obtaining, and cataloging millions of personal and politically sensitive emails, contact lists, calendar entries, and associated records from the MacIver Institute and dozens of similarly situated individuals and groups in an attempt to amass a staggering database of political intelligence.”

“Because of their secrecy, defendants denied us the opportunity to ask a court to review their seizures before the harm was done,” Brett Healy, president of the MacIver Institute, said in a statement in August. “Now, years after defendants unlawfully seized and cataloged millions of our sensitive documents, we ask the court to vindicate our rights under federal law.”

RELATED: Federal judge scolds John Doe prosecutors for ’emergency motion’

Chisholm’s secret probe has been described by critics as a partisan witch hunt. The sweeping dragnet, which spread its tentacles well beyond the Badger State’s borders, has raised some alarming First Amendment and Fourth Amendment questions.

Other defendants include Kevin Kennedy, former director of the now-defunct Government Accountability Board, John Doe special prosecutor Francis Schmitz and top investigators and prosecutors who worked the probe.

Hurst said the records seized are those of “association.”

“Federal law requires that if you want to seize those records you either have to give notice or you’ve got to go through certain procedural hurdles,” the attorney said. “You have to seek a real warrant from a real judge in an open court.”

“What resulted was, these seizures were done without anybody knowing about it, without any ability of any of the organizations that were targeted to step in the court and say, ‘Look we didn’t want our stuff stolen. You don’t have a good basis for having our stuff stolen.’ And instead they didn’t find out about it until years later when the Wisconsin Supreme Court finally put a stop to the John Doe investigation,” Hurst said.

The conservative-led state Supreme Court in July 2015 ruled that the politically driven probe was unconstitutional and ordered it shut down. It ordered that the illegally seized property be returned.

The court’s ruling seemed to matter little to Conley, the district court judge. He wrote that the electronic communications were obtained through a warrant issued by a “court of competent jurisdiction.” He rejected the plaintiffs’ argument that a judge in a Wisconsin John Doe proceeding is not a “competent” court.

Hurst said the ruling defies a longstanding proposition in Wisconsin that a “judge is a man and a court is an institution,” and the “court is open.”

A John Doe procedure is not open, but very closed. The process is not adversarial in the way that other court proceedings are. Witnesses, including targets of the probe, are compelled to answer questions with limited legal assistance. Under Wisconsin’s former John Doe law, reformed by the Republican-led Legislature following the political investigations, those involved in the investigations could face six months in jail and pay thousands of dollars in fines for breaking a gag order that 7th Circuit Court of Appeals Judge Frank Easterbrook once described as “screamingly unconstitutional.”

Conley noted a 2009 amendment to the Stored Communications Act that he argues expanded the definition of judges qualified to oversee the kinds of warrants sought in the John Doe investigation. The John Doe judge, Conley wrote, is a “neutral, independent judicial officer” allowed to issue warrants for electronic information “only upon a showing of probable cause.”

Chisholm and his partners, as another federal judge ruled in a related civil rights lawsuit, are protected from such lawsuits under qualified immunity.

Documents released in previous lawsuits challenging the probe show the John Doe prosecutors were clearly involved in a spying operation. One target told Wisconsin Watchdog in June 2015 the property seizures were akin to the tactics used by the National Security Agency’s domestic spying program.

“It was actually worse because (Milwaukee County prosecutors) were taking the body of emails and looking at actual data,” said the source, who asked not to be identified for fear of retribution from the prosecutors.

“The (documents) reveal just how far they went,” the source said. “These warrants reached well beyond what could be seen as real targets.”

All these years later, MacIver, like other conservative groups, remains in the dark about precisely what the prosecutors seized.

“One of the central purposes of the lawsuit is to get those things back and make an assessment of how much damage was done,” Hurst said.

M.D. Kittle is bureau chief for Wisconsin Watchdog and First Amendment reporter for Watchdog.org. Contact him at mkittle@watchdog.org.

Attorney: Should UW-La Crosse chancellor be fired for his conduct?

Mon, 03/20/2017 - 12:23

MADISON, Wis. – The University of La Crosse employee fired – and then reinstated – for her comments in support of President Donald Trump would like to return to work, her attorney says.

SPEECH BATTLE: UW-La Crosse Chancellor Joe Gow finds himself in a free speech battle after the university fired an employee who made comments in support of President Donald Trump.

“However, it appears that an employee would need a doctorate degree in order to understand the ‘workplace expectations’ in the university’s disciplinary guidelines,” Lee Fehr, attorney for UW-La Crosse dispatcher Kimberly Dearman, wrote in a letter sent Saturday to the University of Wisconsin System Board of Regents.

“The university’s implementation of the guidelines appears to breach the protections of the Constitution of the United States as to due process and freedom of speech,” Fehr wrote. “The implementation defies fairness and any common sense as the terms would be understood by an average lay person.”

More so, Dearman seeks an investigation into whether UW-La Crosse Chancellor Joe Gow should be held to the same standard as Dearman, whether he should lose his job for using “threatening or abusive language” or exhibiting “conduct unbecoming a university employee.”

It is clear Dearman’s attorney is after a settlement, a proposal that has been rejected by the UW System.

On March 13, the university fired Dearman after she made statements to a student employee about Trump’s temporary ban on immigrants from countries known to sponsor or countenance terrorism.

Two days later, after Fehr made the matter public, the university walked back its decision and moved to reinstate Dearman.

Fehr asserts Dearman was fired for making a political statement, just as Gow had made in his email critical of Trump’s immigration ban in late January.

Gow asserts Dearman’s comments were racist. But on the advice of a UW System attorney, UW-La Crosse quickly decided to reinstate the employee because “our people made a mistake” in only noting Dearman’s comments about Trump and immigrants in the termination letter.  Dearman, according to Gow, had “other performance issues” in her personnel file. He could not provide specifics.

“This racist statement was kind of the final act. This person is not a quality employee,” the chancellor said in an interview Thursday with Wisconsin Watchdog.

RELATED: UW-La Crosse chancellor defends employee firing, reinstatement

In his latest letter to the Board of Regents, Fehr includes the complaint filed by the university student employee, who had just begun her job at the dispatch center and was being trained by Dearman.

Dearman told the new employee that Gow deserved the backlash he was receiving from students and others about the email the chancellor had sent on Feb. 1. In it, Gow said he had “erred in not writing the original message more thoughtfully.”

In that message, sent two days before to thousands of students, faculty and staff, Gow wrote that he was “shocked and saddened by President Trump’s order prohibiting refugees and people from certain predominantly Muslim countries from entering the United States.”

The email added:

“At such an unsettling time, we are writing to reaffirm our University’s commitment to support our international students, faculty, and staff, and our commitment to the values of international collaboration and engagement. Our students, faculty, and staff from around the world are an integral part of our campus community, and play a crucial role in our educational mission. Likewise, we want to reaffirm our commitment to ensuring a safe and inclusive campus environment for all individuals, regardless of their national origin, citizenship/immigration status, ethnicity, race, religion, sexual orientation, ability and other significant aspects of individual and cultural identity.”

The student employee, according to the complaint, told Dearman, “Since you disagree with what (Gow) said originally, I assume you take the opposite stance in the political argument?”

Dearman said, yes, “and then continued on to say how we should respect our president and trust that he knows best,” the student noted in the complaint. “(Dearman) continued to say that people ‘who don’t belong here should leave’ and that Trump is trying to make the best of a bad situation and we as a country should support what he does.”

The student employee said she told Dearman that “most people were upset” with Trump’s executive order because the countries that “were banned weren’t places that terrorists were known to come from.”

Trump’s order attempted to keep out for 90 days travelers from Iran, Iraq, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria and Yemen, all with abysmal records fighting Islamic extremist terrorism or of outright support for it.

“After that, Kim seemed to agree, but then she went on for about five minutes about how immigrants don’t belong and then turned to look at me and said, “but no offense to you,'” the student employee — who is, according to Gow, of Asian descent — noted in her complaint. “(Dearman) then went on to say how she believe she wasn’t a racist, but she believes that all immigrants deserve to go back to where they were from.”

LEGAL BATTLES: While the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse has offered to reinstate an employee it fired, the legal battles appear to be far from over.

The student employee said she debated about what to do but ultimately decided to take the matter to a supervisor and not to human resources, “because I believe that Kim didn’t mean it as horribly as it sounded.”

“I didn’t want to cause a big problem, but I am glad that the incident is being handled and I hope that instead of being a punishment, it becomes more of a learning moment for Kim,” the student employee said.

But it became a punishment.

The Human Resource Department concluded that Dearman used “threatening or abusive language” and acted in a manner “unbecoming” a university employee.

Fehr, Dearman’s attorney, argues that the chancellor’s conduct was also less than becoming, and that he embarrassed the institution by his politically charged emails to the wider UW-La Crosse audience. He contends that Gow’s ultimate failure to recognize the due process rights of an employee fired without a hearing, too, was an embarrassment to the university.

The attorney in his letter to the Board of Regents points out that Dearman is a “low-level employee making a modest salary,” while Chancellor Gow makes roughly $220,000 per year, is “highly educated,” and his “job requires above-average decision-making skills and judgement.”

Fehr wrote that his client is “very apprehensive about returning after being fired for her response to (Gow’s) politically charged and retracted email.” Rather than return, the attorney suggested a “fair and equitable settlement.” He said the idea was rejected.

“I then offered the university a ‘specific number’ to resolve the issue,” Fehr wrote.  The UW System’s legal counsel responded that UW-La Crosse had instructed the attorney “to reject the offer and not to make a counter offer.”

“(Dearman) has no money in a client trust fund to fight the taxpayer-funded university,” Fehr wrote. “She proposes an alternate solution.”

Dearman wants the Board of Regents to investigate, to determine whether she violated the policies the university originally claimed she did. “If so, she desires to understand what makes her speech so offensive as to warrant termination,” Fehr wrote.

Dearman also wants the board to determine whether Gow violated the same employee codes through his conduct and language.

“If the Chancellor’s conduct is found to be in violation of the Guidelines, Ms. Dearman would request a finding as to whether his violations warrant termination as her alleged violations did,” Fehr wrote.

If the Regents find Dearman committed a more serious violation than the chancellor, Dearman will provide a written apology to the university, the attorney offered.

“If not, she would request a fair and equitable process to resolve her claims outside of the court system,” Fehr wrote.

M.D. Kittle is bureau chief for Wisconsin Watchdog and First Amendment reporter for Watchdog.org. Contact him at mkittle@watchdog.org.

Justice Department sued over records in school choice investigation

Fri, 03/17/2017 - 15:43

A Milwaukee-based public interest law firm is tired of waiting for the federal government to hand over records regarding a four-year investigation of school choice in Milwaukee.

SLOW GO: WILL deputy counsel Tom Kamenick says the Department of Justice has taken too long to comply with a records request under the Freedom of Information Act.

The Wisconsin Institute for Law & Liberty is suing the U.S. Department of Justice over its failure to comply with a Freedom of Information Act request made in January 2016 after an investigation into whether the Milwaukee Parental Choice Program violated federal disability law.

“The DOJ claimed that it was looking for evidence that the private schools in the choice program were discriminating against disabled students,” Tom Kamenick, WILL’s deputy counsel, said in an interview with Watchdog Thursday on the Vicky McKenna Show.

“But, of course, it is not really possible for them to discriminate against disabled students like the DOJ claimed because the voucher schools take their students on a lottery basis,” Kamenick said. “If there are more students applying for the voucher school than they have slots available, it’s a completely blind pick.”

The Justice Department launched its investigation in 2011 following a complaint from the American Civil Liberties Union, Disability Rights Wisconsin and two unnamed families.

In April 2013, the Justice Department sent a letter to the Department of Public Instruction demanding the state education agency do more to “enforce the federal statutory and regulatory requirements” under Title II of the Americans with Disabilities Act. Title II does not apply to private schools in a voucher program because they are not public entities. DPI told the Justice Department it had no power to act on the request under Wisconsin’s parental choice law.

The investigation ended quietly in December 2015 with a letter from the Justice Department to DPI saying no further action was necessary. 

Kamenick said the FOIA request aimed to find out why it took the Justice Department four years to realize there wasn’t any discrimination by the MPCP.

“So we’ve asked for internal communications and external communications, and any complaints that were filed, and anything else related to this investigation,” Kamenick said. “One of our suspicions is that they never found anything and never had any real complaints. They sat there hoping and eventually had to give up.”

RELATED: DOJ quietly concludes ‘overreach’ into Wisconsin parental choice program

Kamenick said that given the hostility of the Obama administration to voucher programs like the Milwaukee Parental Choice Program, that the investigation may have been a “fishing expedition” to find something to attack school choice in Milwaukee.

“Even if it wasn’t discrimination related,” Kamenick said, “they could use it as part of their political machine in attacking the sort of choice systems that have worked so well in Wisconsin and other states.”

WILL is not the only group that got ignored by the Justice Department. During the investigation, DOJ officials did not respond to requests from school choice advocates, Wisconsin Watchdog and  U.S. Sen. Ron Johnson, a Wisconsin Republican who chairs the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, for information about the probe.

“It was a stiff arm, a stonewall,” Johnson told Watchdog.org when asked to describe the DOJ response to his request in 2015.

RELATED: Justice Department ‘stonewalls’ senator over Wisconsin school choice investigation

In 2016, Johnson attempted to insert add a provision to a spending bill that would have prohibited the Justice Department from conducting similar Title II investigations into private schools participating in voucher programs, but was unsuccessful.

The Associated Press reported that the federal government spent $36.2 million defending the Obama administration in its last year on lawsuits challenging FOIA requests. The Justice Department was responsible for $12 million of that.

“We really have no idea about how it’s going to change under the new administration,” Kamenick said. “But what we do know is that the courts are out there to help enforce these laws against recalcitrant government agencies who are just slow-rolling people across the nation.”

James Wigderson reports for Wisconsin Watchdog. Contact him at jwigderson@watchdog.org and follow him on Twitter @jwigderson.

Duffy advises conservatives to ‘sheath their swords,’ pass Obamacare replacement

Fri, 03/17/2017 - 12:48

MADISON, Wis. — U.S. Rep. Sean Duffy says it’s time that moderate Republicans and conservatives “sheath their swords” and get behind legislation that will get rid of Obamacare.

The Wausau Republican said the internal battle between Republican leadership and fiscal hawks needs to end and congressional opponents need to roll up their sleeves and do what’s right.

GET TOGETHER: U.S. Rep. Sean Duffy, R-Wausau, says it’s time for battling Republicans to come together on a plan to replace Obamacare.

“Let’s start to work together to acknowledge that Obamacare is bad for America, bad for health care, it’s bad for our budget, it’s bad for Wisconsin, and it’s bad for American citizens who need coverage and it has to be replaced,” Duffy told Wisconsin Watchdog Thursday on the Mark Belling Show, on NewsTalk 1130 WISN in Milwaukee.

Without doubt, Duffy said, the American Health Care Act pushed by House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Janesville, can and should be improved. But that can be done through amendment, he said, something the congressman supports.

He dismisses criticism from some conservatives that the replacement plan is “Obamacare Lite” or “Obamacare 2.0.”

“The fact is that we’re repealing virtually all of the mandates that can be repealed within the structure of this bill, through reconciliation, with only 51 votes in the Senate and repealing all the taxes in Obamacare,” Duffy said.

The bill repeals the most significant portions of former President Barack Obama’s divisive 2010 law. It provides tax credits for health insurance, places limits on Medicaid spending, and reverses tax hikes on wealthy Americans — revenue drawn to prop up the Affordable Care Act, aka, Obamacare.

Conservatives in the House Freedom Caucus can’t stomach the wider advanced tax credits and some of the other measures in a bill they say doesn’t even live up to the legislation they last sent to Obama. Obama rejected that effort to repeal his namesake law.

On Friday, President Donald Trump sounded optimistic that a deal could be in the offing. He claimed conservative opponents of the bill have come to terms, thanks to unspecified “changes.”

“We are doing some incredible things,” Trump said during a meeting with a conservative Republican committee. “All of these nos, or potential nos, are all yeses. Every single person sitting in this room is now a yes.”

The president said he is “100 percent behind the bill.”

Fox News reported that GOP leaders are hoping to pass the proposal in the House next week, following narrow approval by the budget committee on Thursday.

U.S. Rep. Glenn Grothman, R-Glenbeulah, cast a vote to advance the American Health Care Act. He said he did so with the understanding that changes would be made before it comes to the House floor.

“Since the start of this Congress, Republicans’ first and foremost priority has been to repeal and replace Obamacare,” he said in a statement. “The American Health Care Act works towards providing relief for American families who have been saddled with skyrocketing health care costs.”

“I believe many of my concerns will be addressed by the time the AHCA reaches the House floor, and I am sure it will be a viable solution to ensure affordable and accessible health care coverage for Americans.”

Duffy defended the tax credit provision, asserting the bill would end the kind of restrictions in the Obamacare marketplaces that mandate “the kind of insurance you have to buy.”

“We’re walking away from that kind of government-mandated structure,” the congressman said. “Yeah, we’re helping some poor people buy insurance with a refundable tax credit, but we’re allowing them to go into the market and buy a plan that works for them and their family and the risks they face in their life. (We’re) giving freedom to choose to people.”

M.D. Kittle is bureau chief for Wisconsin Watchdog and First Amendment reporter for Watchdog.org. Contact him at mkittle@watchdog.org.

Baldwin paid nearly $90,000 to ‘political fixer’ during Tomah VA scandal

Fri, 03/17/2017 - 11:57

MADISON, Wis. – U.S. Sen. Tammy Baldwin’s campaign spent nearly $140,000 on legal advice from one of the left’s major “political fixers” since 2011, according to federal documents obtained by Wisconsin Watchdog.

LEGAL ADVICE: Sen. Tammy Baldwin’s campaign paid a Washington, D.C. law firm $87,000 in 2015. The firm, described as a ‘political fixer,’ assisted Baldwin during her troubles involving the Tomah VA Medical Center scandal.

The brunt of those legal fees – nearly $90,000 – were paid out in 2015, when the Madison Democrat was embroiled in a scandal involving the scandal-plagued Tomah Veterans Affairs Medical Center.

Baldwin’s campaign paid Washington, D.C. attorney Marc Elias $87,779 in 2015, according to filings with the Federal Election Commission. The campaign cut a check for $41,704 to the firm on March 27, 2015, during the thick of the scandal, and issued payment of $38,558 on May 21, 2015, according to campaign expenditures.  There were other smaller payments.

Elias, partner at international law firm Perkins Coie, LLP, served as general counsel for Hillary Clinton’s 2016 presidential campaign, and served in the same role for former Sen. John Kerry’s 2004 presidential campaign.

He is known inside and outside the Swamp as a “political fixer” for his adroit way of getting Democrats out of legal and public relations trouble.

In early 2015, Baldwin tapped Elias to deal with the fallout from revelations the senator and her office did nothing with an inspector general’s report that raised concerns about over-prescribing painkillers and other abuses at the Tomah VA Medical Center. Baldwin’s office failed to act after a whistleblower reportedly begged Baldwin’s office to do something.

In the wake of the scandal, Baldwin fired top aide Marquette Baylor, who headed up the senator’s Milwaukee office.

Baylor fired back, filing a complaint in April with the Senate Select Committee on Ethics. Baylor alleged Baldwin was involved in a cover-up. The senator offered her fired aide a severance package with a confidentiality agreement — hush money, as Republicans have described it.

The Ethics Committee eventually dismissed multiple complaints.

“After the public outcry, Senator Baldwin immediately sought to place the blame squarely on me,” Baylor stated in her complaint. “(Baldwin) instructed her Chief of Staff, Bill Murat, to fly to Milwaukee, fire me, and offer me a severance package that required me to stay quiet. Murat then moved into damage control, meeting with individuals in Wisconsin and telling them that the inaction was my fault.”

Damage control is precisely what Elias does.

In 2011, Politico named him to its list of 50 politicos to watch. The publication described the attorney as “quick-talking, Twitter-savvy.” Elias has represented a “veritable who’s who of Democratic power players, from Sens. Harry Reid and Chuck Schumer to the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee to a trio of new outside groups with close ties to party leaders that are angling to spend tens of millions of dollars on ads attacking Republicans in the 2012 elections — Majority PAC, House Majority PAC and American Bridge,” Politico wrote.

The attorney was among a team of lawyers assisting Democrats in their drive to overturn voter ID laws in presidential battleground states North Carolina, Ohio and Wisconsin.

FEC records show Baldwin’s campaign paid Elias’ firm $2,215 last year.

In 2012, when Baldwin beat former Republican Gov. Tommy Thompson in her first U.S. Senate run, the Democrat’s campaign spent $30,839 on legal expenses with Elias’ firm. In 2013, the bill was $14,337. The campaign spent $1,304 in 2011, and $2,299 in 2014, according to the federal documents.

Baldwin did not respond to Wisconsin Watchdog’s request for comment, sought on Thursday.

The Republican Party of Wisconsin, which this week launched an ad campaign attacking Baldwin on her Tomah VA record, criticized the senator for protecting the “status quo.” Republicans in Wisconsin and nationally see Baldwin’s seat as vulnerable in 2018.

“When Senator Baldwin had a chance to protect Wisconsin’s veterans, she protected the status quo instead and then called in a high-powered lawyer to clean up the mess,”Alec Zimmerman, spokesman for the Wisconsin GOP said in a statement. “She can get all the help she wants from Hillary Clinton’s scandal attorney and the liberal elites in Washington, but Wisconsinites have made it clear they’re fed up with insiders who have been part of the problem for decades.”

M.D. Kittle is bureau chief for Wisconsin Watchdog and First Amendment reporter for Watchdog.org. Contact him at mkittle@watchdog.org.

UW-La Crosse chancellor defends employee firing, reinstatement

Thu, 03/16/2017 - 23:20

MADISON, Wis. –What’s next for the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse employee who was fired after voicing her support for President Donald Trump’s immigration policies?

UW-La Crosse dispatcher Kimberly Dearman was reinstated late Wednesday after being fired earlier in the week.

RADIO DEBATE: UW-La Crosse Chancellor Joe Gow appeared on the Mark Belling Show on NewsTalk 1130 WISN Thursday. He defended his institution’s decision to fire and then reinstate an employee who expressed support for President Donald Trump’s immigration policy.

Dearman’s attorney, Lee Fehr, said his client has not decided what her next move will be. As of Thursday afternoon, Dearman had not decided whether she would return to her job.

“We feel the university has created a kind of hostile environment for her, especially now that we have heard that (UW-La Crosse) Chancellor (Joe) Gow has said she has made racist remarks and apparently is not a quality employee.”

Gow earlier in the day told Wisconsin Watchdog that Dearman was fired because she made “racist” comments to a fellow employee. According to Fehr’s letter to the University of Wisconsin System Board of Regents, “Dearman stated to a coworker that she felt Trump was put in a bad situation. She felt Trump was doing the correct thing by keeping terrorists out of the United States. She felt that those immigrants should go back where they came from.”

Dearman was commenting on emails critical of Trump’s policies that Gow in late January and early February sent to students, faculty and staff.

RELATED: UW-La Crosse backs down after firing employee for supporting Trump policy

Gow said the university, on the advice of a UW System attorney, decided to reinstate the employee because “our people made a mistake” in only noting Dearman’s comments about Trump and immigrants in the termination letter.  Dearman, according to Gow, had “other performance issues” in her personnel file. He could not provide specifics.

“This racist statement was kind of the final act. This person is not a quality employee,” the chancellor said.

Fehr said there is no lawsuit pending, that his client would like to “work things out” with the university.

“I think the University System itself has to answer a lot of questions about what these policies mean, because they are vague. Anybody can be fired for any reason, as was the case here, and, frankly, if we wouldn’t have brought it to your attention Ms. Dearman would be on the street.”

Gow and Fehr spoke to Wisconsin Watchdog Thursday on the Mark Belling show, on NewsTalk 1130 WISN in Milwaukee.

Listen to the entire interview here.

M.D. Kittle is bureau chief for Wisconsin Watchdog and First Amendment reporter for Watchdog.org. Contact him at mkittle@watchdog.org.

UW-La Crosse backs down after firing employee for supporting Trump policy

Thu, 03/16/2017 - 09:44

UPDATED 11:30 a.m. to include comments from UW-La Crosse chancellor Joe Gow

MADISON, Wis. — A University of Wisconsin-La Crosse employee fired for telling a co-worker that she supported President Donald Trump’s immigration policies could be back on the job soon, Wisconsin Watchdog has learned.

WRONGFUL TERMINATION? University of Wisconsin-La Crosse dispatcher Kimberly Dearman was fired for expressing her support for President Donald Trump’s immigration policies, according to her attorney.

Kimberly Dearman, a law enforcement dispatcher for the western Wisconsin university, was fired this week on multiple charges, including “conduct unbecoming a university employee,” according to her attorney, Lee Fehr.

“Late [Wednesday] UWL admitted they wrongfully terminated her position,” Fehr said in an email to Wisconsin Watchdog Thursday morning.

UW-La Crosse Chancellor Joe Gow tells Wisconsin Watchdog that the university, on advice from University of Wisconsin System legal staff, has offered Dearman her job back.  But the chancellor asserts that the employee was originally let go for making “racist comments.”

Ferh said his client is “considering options regarding employment.”

On Monday, Dearman was fired for a “comment she made in casual conversation to a coworker in response to Gow’s emails of January 30 and February 1, 2017,” Fehr wrote Tuesday in a letter to the University of Wisconsin System Board of Regents.

In the first email sent to thousands of students, faculty and staff, Gow wrote that he was “shocked and saddened by President Trump’s order prohibiting refugees and people from certain predominantly Muslim countries from entering the United States.”

The email added:

“At such an unsettling time, we are writing to reaffirm our University’s commitment to support our international students, faculty, and staff, and our commitment to the values of international collaboration and engagement. Our students, faculty, and staff from around the world are an integral part of our campus community, and play a crucial role in our educational mission. Likewise, we want to reaffirm our commitment to ensuring a safe and inclusive campus environment for all individuals, regardless of their national origin, citizenship/immigration status, ethnicity, race, religion, sexual orientation, ability and other significant aspects of individual and cultural identity.”

Gow also informed his readers that “except where required by law,” the university will not assist in “immigration enforcement or deportation of any individual, and [UWL police] do not inquire about or record immigration status when performing their duties.”

RELATED: UW-La Crosse chancellor ‘condemns’ Trump in letter to students

The letter did not sit well with many recipients. They complained. So did state Sen. Duey Stroebel, R-Saukville, who said multiple constituents were angered by the letter and forwarded it on to him.

“The email condemns our President for the policy he believes will keep Americans safe,” Stroebel said.

Stroebel represents Senate District 20 in southeast Wisconsin. UW-La Crosse is not in Stroebel’s district.

Dearman was one of the critics of Gow’s letter. She told a co-worker that she supported Trump’s position on immigration.

“In summary, Miss Dearman stated to a coworker that she felt Trump was put in a bad situation,” Fehr wrote in his letter to the Board of Regents. “She felt Trump was doing the correct thing by keeping terrorists out of the United States. She felt that those immigrants should go back where they came from.”

“She was terminated because of her political speech in support of President Trump.”

The university’s human resources department found that Dearman violated the institution’s policy, charging that Dearman used “threatening or abusive language” and exhibited “conduct unbecoming of a university employee,” according to the termination letter.

In an interview Wednesday with Wisconsin Watchdog on the Vicki McKenna Show, Fehr said it is his understanding that his client merely expressed her support for the president’s policy and did not use threatening language.

‘RED HERRING”: UW-La Crosse Chancellor Joe Gow says those who believe the firing of a university employee for expressing support for President Donald Trump’s policies are offering up a ‘red herring’ argument.

Gow asserts Dearman’s speech was not political, it was racist. He said university found the comment that, “those immigrants should go back to where they came from,” to be racist.

“That’s what precipitated this event,” the chancellor said. He added that the comment was made to a “student employee of Asian descent.” He said he did not know if the student employee is an immigrant.

And Dearman, according to Gow, had “other performance issues” in her personnel file. He could not provide specifics.

“This racist statement was kind of the final act. This person is not a quality employee,” the chancellor said.

Gow criticized Fehr for taking the matter to the media. He said he was not involved in the decision to fire Dearman, that it was the university’s HR director. He said the system attorney advised administration there there were “things deficient here and that we should honor (Dearman’s) request to be reinstated.”

“We offered her job back,” the chancellor said. “We have not received an answer on what she wants to do.”

A UW System official directed questions to UW-La Crosse.

 

Fehr noted the apparent speech double-standard on the UW-La Crosse campus.

“It appears to be the position of the University of Wisconsin that Chancellor Gow and other leaders can send out emails to initiate political discussions, but it is offensive and abusive for employees to have a casual workplace discussion about emails initiated by the University Wisconsin System through Chancellor Gow and his leadership team,” Fehr wrote.

Trump’s January order sparked a firestorm of protests and stranded travelers around the world. It sought to bar refugees from anywhere in the world from entering the United States for 120 days. Syrian refugees were prohibited indefinitely. It also attempted to keep out for 90 days travelers from the terrorism-sponsoring nations of Iran, Iraq, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria and Yemen.

The order was blocked last month by a federal appeals court. An updated order this week was blocked by another court.

In his letter, Fehr noted what he described as Gow’s “history of attempting to squash the protected speech of students and employees who do not share his political views.” In 2013, Gow’s email critical of a 9/11 memorial outraged conservatives.

“I’ve been informed that the 9/11 flag display on the UW-L campus has been constructed in the shape of a cross,” Gow wrote to students, faculty and staff. “Although I’m not sure what the students who put up the flags are attempting to convey with this particular design, I also would like to remind everyone that UW-L is a state and federally supported institution and as such we do not endorse any particular religion. The divesity [sic] of views we hold is one of the most basic strengths of our country – something the terrorists sought to attack on this day 12 years ago.”

It seems supporters of Donald Trump’s policies were not included in Gow’s diversity-of-views umbrella, according to Fehr.

“If political speech is offensive and abusive, when can the citizens of Wisconsin and employees of the University of Wisconsin expect chancellor Gow’s resignation or termination?” Fehr wrote to the regents. “Will the taxpayer-funded University of Wisconsin protect the average employee’s right to comment on the political email sent out by the leadership of the University of Wisconsin?”

Asked to comment, Gow said there’s an important distinction.

“My emails were not racist, her comments were,” the chancellor said. “No one has a right at our university to express racist views.”

M.D. Kittle is bureau chief for Wisconsin Watchdog and First Amendment reporter for Watchdog.org. Contact him at mkittle@watchdog.org.

Troubled Social Security Administration misses another deadline

Wed, 03/15/2017 - 13:00

MADISON, Wis. – As President Abraham Lincoln once said of an overly cautious general, the Social Security Administration has a terminal “case of the slows.”

Once again, the federal agency has asked for more time to comply with a Senate committee’s request.

MISSED AGAIN: The Social Security Administration, facing myriad allegations of misconduct, has once again failed to comply with a Senate committee’s deadline.

U.S. Sen. Ron Johnson, R-Oshkosh, had given SSA officials until 5 p.m. on Feb. 28 to provide documents related to allegations of widespread misconduct in the agency’s Office of Disability Adjudication and Review. Johnson is chairman of the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs committee, which last June opened an inquiry into allegations of corruption, due process violations and retaliation against whistleblowers.

A Senate insider says the SSA has asked for more time to do a “deeper review” of a report by the agency’s Office of the Inspector General. That report, posted at the OIG website, breaks down the major findings of the IG’s investigation in the Madison ODAR.

Investigators determined:

  • Hiring decisions were largely unchecked, leaving the management official (Hearing Office Director Laura Hodorowicz) free to populate the office with friends and family members of current employees, increasing perceptions of favoritism and diminishing both employee morale and focus on the agency’s mission.
  • Hiring practices, which often included the manipulation of vacancy announcements to achieve a desired end, likely violated merit system principles resulting in prohibited personnel practices.
  • No appointments violated Title 5 veterans preferences, though one stated end was to avoid hiring veterans.
  • Management officials’ time and attendance practices violated both law and regulation, and set a tone for the office that misconduct by certain employees would be tolerated, and in some instances, encouraged.
  • The presence of racist and sexist written comments in hearing notes was known to many employees and managers in the office for years and went unaddressed; however, the OIG did not find evidence of any systemic biases in written decisions involving protected groups.

Federal investigators examined sexual harassment and other misconduct allegations against Administrative Law Judge John Pleuss.

Pleuss in his notes to legal assistants described claimants as “attractive,” “innocent-looking,” “buxom.” In one case, he noted a “young, white (woman)”appearing before him “looks like a man.”

“Obese, young, white (female) skimpy black top,” he wrote of another claimant.

“Very black, African looking (female),” the judge wrote, and parenthetically he added,“(actually a gorilla-like appearance).”

Pleuss retired at the end of the year, still eligible for a pension and a suite of federal benefits.

RELATED: Read Wisconsin Watchdog’s series, Deadly Delays

The inspector general has yet to comment on the investigation. Full reports are not publicly available because they “contain sensitive confidential information,” OIG notes in its summary.

And the Social Security Administration has, as it repeatedly has done throughout the course of the committee inquiry, failed to honor a committee deadline.

The Senate insider says committee staff have been in touch with the SSA on a regular basis to “ensure they understand the seriousness of the (OIG’s) finding and will make sure they address the allegations.”

M.D. Kittle is bureau chief for Wisconsin Watchdog and First Amendment reporter for Watchdog.org. Contact him at mkittle@watchdog.org.

Bill aims to change Madison-centric state leases

Wed, 03/15/2017 - 12:02

MADISON, Wis. – In real estate the mantra is, “location, location, location.”

MADISON-MINDED: A bill working its way through the Legislature would require the DOA to look beyond Madison and Dane County when selecting leased property for state agencies.

So it goes for the state’s agency leasing program.

But when it comes to the Department of Administration, the government’s leasing agent, location is most often Madison, Madison, Madison.

A bill authored by state Rep. Joe Sanfelippo, R-West Allis, and Sen. David Craig, R-Town of Vernon, aims to change that singular point of view.

The measure would require the DOA to identify the “most appropriate and cost efficient locations to place an agency when securing or renewing a lease.”

Leasing agents would have to consider situating a state agency where it provides the most services, and identify multiple locations – at least two of which are outside Dane County.

“When considering leases to house state agency headquarters, the Department of Administration (DOA) currently restricts eligible property locations to a limited geographical area,” Sanfelippo wrote in a legislative memo. “This practice has created an artificial market for commercial real estate which is inflating the cost of lease rates and resulting in taxpayers paying unnecessarily high prices.”

DOA’s general policy, Sanfelippo said, is that the state agencies have to be located in Dane County, and primarily in the county seat and state capital, Madison.

“You see these buildings all right there around the Capitol, for the most part,” the lawmaker said in an interview Tuesday with Wisconsin Watchdog. “These landlords know (about the DOA policy) and they screw us 10 times from Sunday when it comes to these leases.”

The lawmakers say they’ve received “mixed signals” from DOA officials regarding state statutes on government leasing. Sanfelippo said the agents couldn’t provide anything specific and ultimately said that the Dane County-centric leasing philosophy is “unwritten policy.”

DOA spokesman Steve Michels said the agency is happy to look at any proposal that might save money and improve its services.

“We are aligned in our shared goal to deliver value to the taxpayers through a more efficient government,” he said.

RELATED: Bill would provide more oversight on costly state leases

The argument has long been that Madison is the seat of state government. The infrastructure is there and that’s where state government operations should remain. There is no bigger advocate of that position than the city of Madison, a ready benefactor of state centralization.

Keeping state agencies together in the same city or geographical area makes it much easier for departments to interact with the executive and the Legislature, proponents say.

Sanfelippo says those arguments no longer apply, particularly in the Digital Age.

“The vast majority of employees that work in these agencies do not interact on a daily basis with the Legislature, and most of the secretaries don’t. That pretty much goes out the window,” the legislator said. “In 1848, when we became a state, maybe that made sense back then, with communications and transportation primitive at the time. In 2017, you don’t have to be in one place. It doesn’t make sense anymore.”

It’s also not fair to citizens who live hours away from Madison, the bill’s authors assert. Some government services arguably are much better suited for other locations around the state.

The Department of Natural Resources’ forestry division is a case in point.

Gov. Scott Walker’s budget proposal calls for moving the division north. The 2017-19 budget plan requires the headquarters to relocate by early 2018 to an existing DNR building north of state Highway 29.

State Sen. Tom Tiffany told Wisconsin Public Radio last month that the move would do wonders for forestry division recruitment.

“They like to hunt. They like to fish. They like to be in rural Wisconsin, small town Wisconsin,” the Hazelhurst Republican said. “It was limiting the pool of people that would apply for some of those jobs. I think it’s really good to move the division headquarters to northern Wisconsin, and hopefully that will be accomplished here.”

The state lease location bill also would require the Department of Children and Families to develop a plan to move its headquarters to Milwaukee County. DCF would have to complete the plan in time for it to be included in the agency’s 2019-21 biennial budget request, according to the legislative memo.

DCF’s lease is up in the next couple of years, and the agency is planning a move, Sanfelippo said. Why not consider moving the agency to Milwaukee, where more than half of its customers live and where rents are often substantially cheaper, the lawmaker said.

CHANGE OF ATTITUDE: State Rep. Joe Sanfelippo, R-West Allis, said the state needs to think more like a business in negotiating leases for agency operations.

“Look at the private sector. When a business is looking at a headquarters, they look at, No. 1, what’s most economical and, No. 2, where their market is,” Sanfelippo said. “You want to locate close to your market.”

Walker vetoed a similar measure in the last budget, but Sanfelippo said he believes that was merely a matter of timing. Walker was busy on the presidential campaign trail at the time.

“I needed to do a better job of communicating with the Governor and his staff,” Sanfelippo said.

Michels said talking about agency office space in a “vacuum” doesn’t always account for the “diverse program needs of each agency and its stakeholders.”

“The spatial and geographic needs of the legislative service agencies, for example, are very different from the DNR forestry division,” the DOA spokesman said.

Leasing reform legislation seems en vogue right now.

Last week, State Rep. Rob Hutton, R-Brookfield, and Sen. Chris Kapenga, R-Delafield, introduced a bill to require DOA to conduct a cost-benefit analysis before signing a lease for government buildings.

And the bill would require the secretary of the Department of Administration to sign the contract. All leases totaling more than $500,000 must be submitted for a 14-day “passive review” by the Legislature’s Joint Committee on Finance.

As Wisconsin Watchdog first reported in December 2015, an extended lease on the state Department of Corrections headquarters at 3099 East Washington Ave. will cost taxpayers more than $51 million over a decade, between fiscal 2012 and fiscal 2021, according to a copy of the lease.

That’s more than three times the $14.38 million assessed value (2015) of the 14-acre property.

DOA has been working through its Madison Master plan, described by the Wisconsin State Journal as “a once-in-a-generation reshuffling of state offices involving thousands of workers. The plan is designed to trim the number of state building leases and, ultimately, save taxpayers money.

But it remains Madison-centric.

Sanfelippo said it’s time to change the attitude of the bureaucratic fiefdom. He knows that won’t be easy.

“These are their little kingdoms. They don’t like anybody telling them what to do,” the lawmaker said.

M.D. Kittle is bureau chief for Wisconsin Watchdog and First Amendment reporter for Watchdog.org. Contact him at mkittle@watchdog.org.

Report says Milwaukee defying state law regarding vacant school buildings

Tue, 03/14/2017 - 17:25

VACANT SCHOOLS: The city of Milwaukee is not complying with state law on selling vacant schools, according to a new report.

 

WAUKESHA, Wis. — A new report says the city of Milwaukee is defying state law by not putting sufficient effort into selling vacant school buildings.

The report, released Friday by the Wisconsin Institute for Law and Liberty (WILL), says Milwaukee is not in compliance with the state’s Surplus Property Law, which requires the city to sell unused Milwaukee Public Schools properties to education operators, private voucher schools and charter schools.

“Our report proves that the vacant school property problem that has plagued Milwaukee for so long remains unsolved,” CJ Szafir, vice president for policy at WILL, said in an interview.

“You have dwindling enrollment at Milwaukee Public Schools that has led to buildings that just sit empty, costing taxpayers money,” Szafir said. “These empty buildings over the course of the last decade have cost Milwaukee taxpayers well over $10.2 million.”

The Surplus Property Law was created in 2015. Prior to that, charter and voucher schools looking to start up or expand in Milwaukee found it impossible to purchase surplus MPS properties. Since the law went into effect, only one vacant building has been sold to a charter school.

“In many instances the city of Milwaukee is just blatantly ignoring provisions of the law,” Szafir said.

For example, the city of Milwaukee is supposed to list the vacant properties on their website as for sale. However, the city only lists five empty buildings, while WILL believes the number of properties for sale should be around 15.

In addition, the WILL report says Milwaukee allows MPS to hide vacant properties by saying they’re being used as “support buildings.”

“High performing charter and private schools can’t get access to the facilities they need to expand to take on more kids,” Szafir said. “Meanwhile, you have a Milwaukee Public School system with failing schools with a graduation rate below 60 percent.”

Szafir gave the example of Risen Savior, a Milwaukee Parental Choice Program (MPCP) school whose attendance has grown by 400 percent in the last decade. A vacant school, Fletcher, is a few blocks away.

“The city sat on their letter of interest for six months,” Szafir said. “And when they finally got around to entertaining Risen Savior, they came up with an appraisal of $1.4 million for a building that has sat empty.”

Because of the time delay and the cost, Risen Savior removed its application to purchase the vacant school.

To make the law stronger, the report by WILL suggests increasing the penalties for when the city loses a lawsuit over the refusal to sell surplus properties. State law could further clarify what counts as a surplus property so the city and Milwaukee would be forced to list them.

Milwaukee Alderman Jim Bohl, chairman of the Zoning, Neighborhoods & Development Committee, which controls the sale of the vacant school properties, said in a statement that several schools have expressed in purchasing the surplus property but did not follow through.

“I cannot say why for, but suspect that once some of the schools got into properties to assess condition and total costs to get the properties up to operational use, they may have determined the costs as prohibitive,” Bohl said.

Last year, two educational operators completed the process of purchasing a property, but one, Right Step, was denied the necessary zoning in order to operate the school. Bohl said he would not comment on the Board of Zoning Appeals’ decision.

RELATED: Zoning board stops vacant school building purchase by choice school

He also said that identifying the properties for sale was not the responsibility of the city, saying the Milwaukee Common Council’s responsibility is to identify educational operators eligible to purchase the properties and negotiate the price.

Szafir said Bohl was “flat out wrong in his interpretation of state law.”

“The city is responsible for putting the empty buildings on the website,” Szafir said. “They failed at that. They only listed five buildings. They’re supposed to list something closer to 15.”

State Rep. Dale Kooyenga, R-Brookfield, was one of the authors of the Surplus Property Law. Commenting on the report, Kooyenga said in a statement that the civil rights battles of the 1960s were about ensuring minority children could do better than attend “the status quo’s separate and unequal schools.”

“Today, government socialists abuse their power and disregard state law to prevent proven educational institutions the ability expand the mind and economic mobility of the poor,” Kooyenga said. “The buildings serve as an empty shrine to the left’s disregard for children and their embrace of the status quo.”

The other author of the law, state Sen. Alberta Darling, R-River Hills, said the problems listed in the report are unacceptable.

“MPS surely makes it as hard as possible to have so many hurdles to jump through,” Darling said. “One can’t wait and wait if they want to start a school and grow the revenues to get it done.”

However, Darling questioned at this point what can be done to force MPS and the city of Milwaukee to comply with state law.

RELATED: Voucher school wants to buy unused building; Milwaukee schools won’t sell

“I know there are those that want financial repercussions for not cooperating,” Darling said. “I don’t know how you do that. It’s really hard to have teeth in the legislation because the ball keeps bouncing in different directions.”

Darling said that the issue needs to be resolved because it’s not just a matter of taxpayers paying the costs of the vacant buildings; the unused properties are bad for the community.

“It’s not good for public safety in those neighborhoods to have vacant, empty buildings,” Darling said. “When you have activity, you have safer neighborhoods.

“You would think that the taxpayers would be considered. You would think that the safety of the neighborhoods would be considered. You’d think that MPS would want to get these buildings off their hands.”

RELATED: Study: Milwaukee voucher program a half-billion dollar winner

When asked for a comment on the WILL report, MPS Director of Communications Denise Callaway said the cover showed four schools that were actually occupied.

“Other factual errors include listing the ALBA/Carmen South facility at 55 percent capacity when it is actually at 99.6 percent capacity and erroneously reporting that Milwaukee Spanish Immersion School — which is an MPS school — is “leasing” its own second campus on 88th Street,” Callaway said. “No lease is necessary.”

Szafir said in response that the ALBA/Carmen South error was a typo. “I suppose if they are focusing on the cover, then it’s a pretty accurate report.” 

Embattled UW-P criminal justice professor: ‘I have been treated like a criminal’

Tue, 03/14/2017 - 16:02
Part 15 of 14 in the series 'Troubled' Campus

MADISON, Wis. – A whistleblower professor facing termination has filed a federal complaint alleging discrimination and retaliation against her by University of Wisconsin-Platteville administrators.

DISCRIMINATION CLAIMS: UW-Platteville Professor Sabina Burton claims a colleague falsely told fellow professors she had a mental illness and described her father, a German national, as a Nazi or Nazi sympathizer.

Associate criminal justice professor Sabina Burton in the complaint filed with the Equal Employment Opportunities Commission claims she has been the “target of vicious retaliation by both her fellow professors and the administration of the school.”

“She has suffered numerous adverse actions ranging from intimidation to attempts to block her career aspirations to threatened termination,” states the complaint. “These actions constitute retaliation against an individual who participated in protected activity, and stand as clear violations against EEOC guidelines.”

Meanwhile, a University of Wisconsin System investigation into allegations of misconduct brought by administrators against Burton appears to have concluded with a favorable finding for the administration.

Burton’s complaint, as her federal civil rights lawsuit pending before the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 7th Circuit, alleges the professor has paid a substantial price for intervening on behalf of a female student who, in the fall of 2012, confided that she felt sexually harassed by a male professor.

The male professor, Lorne Gibson, handed student Alexandra Zupec a note in his class. The note said, “Call me tonight!!!,” and included the professor’s private cellphone number.

Burton took the issue to Elizabeth Throop, who at the time was dean of liberal arts and education and has since been promoted to provost.

Throop at first voiced her concern about the serious nature and apparent inappropriateness of the note, according to emails obtained by Wisconsin Watchdog. She took issue with then-Criminal Justice Department Chairman Thomas Caywood’s claims that the note was part of a “secret experiment on social norms.”

Eventually, according to court documents, Throop backed up the male professor and Caywood. A faculty grievance committee ruled that Burton and the student were right. The committee didn’t buy the “experiment” explanation. It found that Gibson used “extremely poor judgment” in offering the note, and expressed doubt that Gibson was acting in an academic capacity.

“While the grievance committee was not paneled to determine a course of action related to this third party, his actions were so egregious that the committee felt compelled to provide this letter to your [sic] for review,” the committee wrote in an April 2013 letter to Chancellor Dennis Shields.

The committee accused Gibson of “slut-shaming” Zupec and that the professor “has serious liabilities and lacks even a fundamental understanding of structural sexism.”

University officials contend the original subjects of the harassment allegations are no longer with the university, so, problem solved.

Burton said Caywood, who has since resigned, Throop and other administrators – all the way up to Shields – have made her professional life a living hell.

RELATED: UW-Platteville whistleblower professor ordered to clean out office

In Wisconsin Watchdog’s investigative series, “Troubled Campus,” Burton claims administrators took away a grant, committee seats, and effectively stalled her professional career after she spoke out about the handling of the sexual harassment complaint. She claims she was physically threatened by then-Acting Criminal Justice Department Chairman Michael Dalecki, that she was defamed by an instructor, and saw her health rapidly deteriorate in a four-year campaign of harassment and retaliation.

Burton, who has filed previous EEOC complaints, says she is viewed as a “troublemaker” by administration and staff.

In July 2015, the EEOC issued Burton a right-to-sue letter related to her second EEOC complaint on retaliation and discrimination. The agency determined that grounds exist for a discrimination claim.

The latest EEOC complaint alleges that “Dalecki immediately began to retaliate against Dr. Burton.”

“On more than one occasion, Dr. Dalecki asked Dr. Burton to dismiss her EEOC complaint. When Dr. Burton made it clear that she was going to file a lawsuit, Dr. Dalecki asked Dr. Burton not to do so.” When Burton persisted, Dalecki told her to “get over it,” and said, “You can’t expect to file a lawsuit without consequences,” the complaint alleges.

Eight days after Burton filed another complaint, Throop sent Burton a “Letter of Direction,” claiming Burton had harassed and bullied other staff. The latest EEOC complaint asserts the administration’s charges are “either factually inaccurate” or involved incidents “based on protected activity on the part of Dr. Burton.”

The complaint also alleges Burton’s co-worker, Deb Rice, created a “hostile work environment” for Burton. Rice, according to the complaint, falsely told members of the Criminal Justice Department and at least one student that Burton suffers from a mental illness and is “prejudiced against East Germans.” Rice admitted to UW-P administration that she made the statements, “but no discipline … was ever undertaken,” according to the complaint.

During a 2013 school trip to Germany, Rice claimed that Burton seemed “detached” during a tour of a Nazi concentration camp, according to the complaint. “Deb Rice then made false allegations that Dr. Burton’s father (a German national) was a Nazi/Nazi sympathizer somehow/connected to Nazis.”

“These statements are outlandishly discriminatory,” making Burton feel marginalized in the workplace, the complaint states.

INITIATING DISMISSAL: UW-Platteville Chancellor Dennis Shields in January advised Burton that he was “initiating the dismissal process’ and opening an investigation into the criminal justice professor.

In January, Shields ordered Burton to clean out her office and prohibited her from being on campus while the investigation into complaints against the professor continued.

The investigation was announced a little over a month after Shields dismissed another complaint against Burton and a counter complaint by Rice, noting the “complaints do not warrant disciplinary action or further investigation.”

In that probe last fall, Shields hired a private investigator to question Burton at her home. Burton provided evidence showing the allegations made against her were false and told Wisconsin Watchdog the probe was a means to push out a vocal critic of Shields’ administration.

Shields, who has been criticized by faculty and students for his handling of other misconduct allegations, advised Burton in January that he was “initiating the dismissal process” based on a complaint filed by Throop and Melissa Gormley, interim dean of the College of Liberal Arts and Education. Shields informed Burton that if the allegations are true, they would warrant “Burton’s dismissal.”

Among other offenses, the administrators’ complaint alleges Burton behaved “unprofessionally,” including “involving students into your personal concerns.”

Burton denies the allegations, providing evidence refuting accusations regarding internal email communications, for instance.

UW-Platteville officials and representatives from the UW System have declined to comment on the personnel matters.

Petra Roter, senior special assistant to the vice president for Academic and Student Affairs for the University of Wisconsin System Administration, led the latest investigation into Burton.

Roter recently completed a report on her findings. The investigation included interviews with Burton and her accusers, who claim it was Burton who has caused a hostile environment in the department.

“Colleagues describe the threats and harassment as an attempt to undermine them professionally and to do damage to their reputation and careers, including calling some unethical and imply(ing) that (Burton) could adversely impact tenure and promotion processes and decisions,” Roter wrote.

Burton disputes many of the reports findings on the webpage she has used to document her allegations, the webpage that has landed her in hot water with administration.

Overall, Roter’s report suggests a Criminal Justice Department that has been in disarray for some time.

“All those interviewed in the Criminal Justice program noted the department environment was ‘chilling’ and ‘dysfunctional’ and interviews of all parties, including Dr. Burton, report that they felt threatened directly and indirectly,” the report states.  “Dr. Burton reports being cursed at, belittled, misrepresented and felt she was being retaliated by her colleagues.  All those interviewed described threatening and harassing emails and interactions.”

While her accusers complained about their interactions with Burton, “everyone interviewed agreed that Dr. Burton is an excellent teacher.” The professor has personnel records indicating her exemplary performance – even through the legal battles with the university.

Burton says she will not simply “get over it,” as the former acting department head suggested she do.

“I have been suspended. Had to clear my office under police presence. Been treated like a criminal, like a threat.” Burton wrote. “This is very destructive and demoralizing to me, especially considering my professional past and the field I am teaching in.”

M.D. Kittle is bureau chief for Wisconsin Watchdog and First Amendment reporter for Watchdog.org. Contact him at mkittle@watchdog.org.

The left prepares ‘Indivisible’ playbook for Sensenbrenner town hall

Mon, 03/13/2017 - 12:15

MADISON, Wis. — When U.S. Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner holds the latest in a long line of town hall meetings Monday evening in Wauwatosa, the usual suspects will most likely be in attendance.

The Menomonee Falls Republican has hosted more constituent events than just about any other member of Congress this town hall season, and he’s encountered his share of hostile — even uncivil — questioners.

PROGRAMMED HOSTILITY? U.S. Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner, R-Menomonee Falls, holds a town hall meeting with constituents last month. Sensenbrenner, like other Republicans, has been confronted by an organized movement of Trump and Republican majority opponents.

And that’s all part of the plan.

As Wisconsin Watchdog reported earlier this month, the angry, often belligerent crowds packing the town hall meetings of Republican members of Congress are part of the so-called Indivisible movement.

Smarting from the historic beating they took in an election that served as a repudiation of the big government policies of President Barack Obama, the Democratic Party and its wealthy liberal sugar daddies have laid out a very clear plan to take down President Donald Trump and the Republican majority in Congress.

There’s even a handbook, titled “Indivisible, A Practical Guide For Resisting The Trump Agenda.”

Indivisible was conjured up by former Democrat congressional staffers. In it, they “reveal best practices for making Congress listen.”

Joe Kraynick appears to be the leader of the Wauwatosa Indivisible group, among the more active and disruptive.

“Welcome to the resistance!” he says in recent online correspondence to fellow would-be liberal activists.

“Come prepared to take action and meet others who are working to resist Trump’s agenda,” Kraynick writes.

Kraynick did not return a request for comment, but he lays out his ideas for sticking it to Sensenbrenner in closed group messages.

Most recently, Kraynick bragged about the resistance’s turnout at Sensenbrenner’s town hall earlier this month in Elm Grove.

“Turnout, as we know, was huge. When Rebecca took her video, some people had already left, and there were STILL tons of people there. And the room itself was jam packed, with about 98 percent on our general side. So, that was awesome,” he wrote.

He offers some suggestions to activists on making things “rowdier.” Kraynick notes that the Indivisible activists haven’t “gone the full Chaffetz” with Sensenbrenner yet, referring to the raucous left-wing crowds U.S. Rep. Jason Chaffetz, R-Utah, confronted last month.

“It might not be quite time for that yet, but (Sensenbrenner) keeps avoiding answering certain questions,” the activist writes. “Reactions rattle him, he doesn’t like them. He tried at one point to move from Trump’s conflicts of interest to the Clinton Foundation, which earned an instant negative reaction, and he quickly dropped it and never came back to it.”

So much for the marketplace of ideas.

“He likes to bang his gavel and admonish everyone when they react. While we don’t want mindless chanting and abuse, in my opinion we should not be afraid to be supportive of good points questioners make and to put down obvious nonsense he uses to avoid answers. This is an issue that other Indivisible groups at his town halls are discussing. There is a lot of debate about how to best handle that aspect of it,” Kraynick writes.

The activist acknowledges Sensenbrenner, a 38-year veteran of Congress, has a busy town hall schedule, “which is great, but we don’t want to become PR props for him.”

“This is our chance to showcase that Republicans have no answers for the really thorny issues we have, that they are spineless when it comes to dealing with Trump, and that the things they wish to do, such as cutting taxes for rich people and ending regulation for, say, companies that pollute our water (for example), are really really bad for people. He works very hard to control the proceedings in his favor. These town halls should be for us to air our questions, grievances, etc., not a stunt for him,” Kraynick advises.

He adds that activist/constituents “don’t have to be jerks, but we don’t have to be nice, either. Tea Partiers weren’t nice in 2009 and 2010.”

The constituent outrage moments that have played out in Wisconsin and nationally before the cameras can be found in the Indivisible guide.

The success of it all is predicated on getting as much media attention as possible, and that means building partnerships with media outlets.

“It’s pretty easy for MoCs to ignore one or even a few dozen people. It is impossible to ignore a small group that’s also getting local media coverage viewed by thousands,” the guide notes. “This is also why videos, pictures, and stories of your actions are so important — local media loves this stuff.”

It encourages activists to “research on Google News what local reporters have written about your” members of Congress … and “build relationships” with those reporters.

Many of the questions that pop up at the town hall events, too, are preprogrammed.

Wisconsin Watchdog obtained a list of questions one of the Indivisible leaders was handing out to attendees at a Sensenbrenner town hall event over the weekend.

Under the heading, “No Piecemeal Promise,” one question attempts to hit the congressman on the GOP’s campaign to repeal and replace Obamacare.

“You promised in Pewaukee Library Feb. 11 not to support piecemeal repeal and replacement of Obamacare. Yous (sic)said it was too complicated to do that. The current trumpKare AHCA (American Health Care Act) bill is the first of three phases according to trump. It is a partial replacement using reconciliation? Will you stay true to the commitment you made a month ago and oppose the AHCA?”

It’s not clear whether Kraynick is being paid for his Indivisible activities in Wisconsin.

The creators of Indivisible (at least the Democrat activists out front) insist that every single person who worked on the guide and website is a “volunteer.”

“We’re doing this in our free time without coordination or support from our employers. Our only goal is to help the real leaders on the ground who are resisting Trump’s agenda on their home turf,” they say.

Many of the group members have ties to the liberal mega donor George Soros, according to the Washington Times.

Matthew Vadum, senior vice president at the Capital Research Center, told the Times that at least three of the group’s five principals have direct ties to organizations funded by Soros.

Despite the hostility and the, at times, uncivil behavior at the town halls, Sensenbrenner says they are critical events to connect with his constituents.

Sensenbrenner has held more than 520 town hall meetings since 2013, all of which have been in-person, Nicole Tieman, Sensenbrenner’s spokeswoman, told the Hill earlier this month.

M.D. Kittle is bureau chief for Wisconsin Watchdog and First Amendment reporter for Watchdog.org. Contact him at mkittle@watchdog.org.

Johnson brings back whistleblower protection bill as Sunshine Week opens

Mon, 03/13/2017 - 10:17
Part 46 of 46 in the series Tomah VA Scandal

MADISON, Wis. — U.S. Sen. Ron Johnson is re-introducing legislation aimed at protecting federal whistleblowers from the kind of retaliation that, sources say, proved fatal at the scandal-plagued Veterans Affairs Medical Center in Tomah.

‘IN MEMORY OF’: Sens. Ron Johnson, R-Wis., and Joni Ernst, R-Iowa, have reintroduced the Dr. Chris Kirkpatrick Whistleblower Protection Act. The bill, named after a Tomah VA whistleblower who took his life after being fired from the scandal-plagued hospital, aims to protect federal employees who step forward to report waste, fraud and abuse.

Johnson, R-Wis., and Sen. Joni Ernst, R-Iowa, last week announced they are bringing back the Dr. Chris Kirkpatrick Whistleblower Protection Act — just in time for National Sunshine Week.

The bill bears the name of the 38-year-old clinical psychologist who fatally shot himself in July 2009 after being fired from the Tomah VA facility. Kirkpatrick had questioned the medical center’s overprescription practices of opioids and other patient care concerns.

“Individuals who expose wrongdoing at VA medical facilities should be thanked and listened to, not silenced and subject to mistreatment,” Johnson said in a press release. “I’m pleased to partner with Sen. Ernst to ensure future whistleblowers like Dr. Kirkpatrick receive the support they deserve.”

The bill strengthens penalties for those who retaliate against whistleblowers, adds protections for probationary period employees and ensures federal employees have a greater knowledge of whistleblower protections, according to the senators.

Johnson is chairman of the Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs, which in May published a comprehensive report titled, “The Systemic Failures and Preventable Tragedies at the Tomah VA Medication Center.”  The 359-page report lays out a long list of misconduct, abuse and retaliation charges over several years, and nearly as many red flags that critics say, had they been heeded, could have saved lives.

As USA Today reported in April 2015, Kirkpatrick had complained about patients being too drugged to treat. Other whistleblowers reported being retaliated against for raising similar concerns.

The story published a few months after the Center for Investigative Reporting broke the news about the opioid prescription problem at Tomah that claimed the life of a 35-year-old Marine veteran.

RELATED: Tomah VA Medical Center’s ‘Candy Man’ stripped of license

At a committee hearing in September 2015, Kirkpatrick’s brother, Sean, testified about the retaliation his brother faced after bringing allegations of wrongdoing to the attention of Tomah VAMC administrators.

The senators say their bill implements a number of suggestions Sean Kirkpatrick made at the hearing to improve whistleblower protections throughout the VA.

“This commonsense legislation would help to safeguard whistleblowers who speak up about corruption and mistreatment in our VA system, and take additional steps to hold retaliators responsible,” said Ernst, a combat veteran. “Efforts to fix the VA must be protected, not punished, as we work to improve access to timely and quality care for our nation’s veterans.”

The Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee approved the Dr. Chris Kirkpatrick Whistleblower Protection Act unanimously in May. However, Sen. Harry Reid, D-Nev., effectively killed it as one of the Senate minority leader’s many parting shots against GOP legislation before retiring.

“What happened to Chris is outrageous,” Sean Kirpatrick told USA Today in April 2015. “My hope and family’s hope is that people will take action so this doesn’t happen to anyone else.”

M.D. Kittle is bureau chief for Wisconsin Watchdog and First Amendment reporter for Watchdog.org. Contact him at mkittle@watchdog.org.

Speaker Paul Ryan turns pitchman for GOP plan to nix Obamacare

Fri, 03/10/2017 - 17:52

MADISON, Wis. – Speaker Paul Ryan has arguably become congress’ biggest salesman, playing pitchman for his party’s plan to repeal and replace Obamacare with a series of tax credits and health savings accounts that, Ryan asserts, will release the full power of the free market.

SALES PITCH: Speaker Paul Ryan on Thursday lays out the House Republican plan to repeal and replace Obamacare.

The Janesville Republican gave an audio version of his sales pitch Friday on the Vicki McKenna Show, on NewsTalk 1130 WISN in Milwaukee. He did so a day after providing a PowerPoint presentation on the Republican plan, rolling out a series of explanatory slides to those in attendance and the wider C-SPAN and cable news network audiences.

Ryan told McKenna that the American Health Care Act, as House Republicans are billing the Obamacare replacement plan, is part of three-act congressional play aimed at straightening out what conservatives (and anyone who has experienced skyrocketing premiums under the Affordable Care Act) assert is the health care insurance mess the Obama administration left behind.

“No.1 is the American Health Care Act, which is repealing the Obamacare spending, the Obamacare taxing, the Obamacare mandates, and replacing with Republican health care policy that has been longstanding conservative policy for decades – risk pools, health care savings accounts, tax credits for people in individual markets, which equalizes the tax treatment of health care to go buy what they want in a free market,” Ryan said.

The next step, according to the speaker, is to lean on Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price to use the power Obmacare granted the federal agency: enormous discretion. Ryan said Price can move to deregulate the marketplace and then “turn it back to the states so the states take over regulating health insurance like it was before Obamacare.”

Democrats have railed that the plan Ryan is pushing will rob the working poor of their new-found health insurance under the government-led Obamacare and a return to broader free-market control will send premiums soaring once more.

Ryan said competition, not burdensome government regulation and control, will save American health care from collapsing.

At the same time, Act 3 is all about a suite of conservative legislation that will empower associations and individuals to determine their own health care needs, Ryan said. And House leadership plans to take these “popular” bills to the Senate and the Senate Democrats the GOP is targeting in 2018.

“Let the Wisconsin farmer buy her insurance through the National Farm Bureau. Let the small business person buy insurance through the National Federation of Independent Business, and use the bulk buying power of millions of small business owners,” the speaker said.

Republicans also are taking another crack at tort reform, placing caps on the kinds of malpractice lawsuit judgments, they say, have financially crippled the health care industry and, consequently, health care consumers.

Ryan isn’t trying to make converts of Obamacare apostles. His pitch is to those in his party concerned about the generous advanced tax credits and other big-ticket spending proposals in the repeal-and-replace plan.

He’ll have to persuade the GOP’s standard bearer, President Donald Trump, too.

“But the group that Ryan really wanted to reach was much smaller: the Republican lawmakers—mostly conservatives—who are balking at the leadership’s bill and who will ultimately determine in the next few weeks whether it advances,” Russell Berman of The Atlantic wrote.

“To those members, Ryan’s most important message came at the end, and it boiled down to just a couple of sentences that have nothing to do with health-care policy. ‘This is the closest we will ever get to repealing and replacing Obamacare,” Ryan said. “It really comes down to a binary choice.’”

“It’s now or never, and it’s this or nothing,” Berman wrote.

Listen to Vicki McKenna’s interview with Speaker Paul Ryan here.

M.D. Kittle is bureau chief for Wisconsin Watchdog and First Amendment reporter for Watchdog.org. Contact him at mkittle@watchdog.org.

Assembly passes state treasurer amendment, issue goes to voters

Fri, 03/10/2017 - 11:47

The Wisconsin Assembly voted 68-31 on Thursday to amend the state constitution to eliminate the position of treasurer. The amendment now goes to a referendum in April 2018.

For an amendment to be successful, it has to pass each chamber of the state Legislature in consecutive sessions and then be approved by the voters.

ONE STEP CLOSER: State Treasurer Matt Adamczyk is one step closer to keeping his campaign promise of eliminating his office, thanks to the state Assembly on Thursday.

“It is my belief that the Office of State Treasurer in the State of Wisconsin is outdated, not needed and a waste of taxpayer money,” state Treasurer Matt Adamczyk said in a statement after the vote. “For this reason, I ran and was elected on the platform of eliminating the treasurer’s office.”

Adamczyk thanked state Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald, R-Juneau, and Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, R-Rochester, for bringing up the amendment.

The Assembly author of the amendment, Rep. Michael Schraa, R-Oshkosh, said in a statement after the vote that almost all of the duties traditionally assigned to a state treasurer are now done by the state Department of Revenue and the Department of Administration.

“This amendment is in line with our efforts to make Wisconsin government more streamlined and efficient,” Schraa said. “Since the main duties of the treasurer are now fulfilled by state agencies, it only makes sense to eliminate the unnecessary expense of this office.”

Because the legislature has reduced the state treasurer’s responsibilities over time, the sole remaining duty of the office is to serve on the Board of Commissioners of Public Lands, along with the state attorney general and the secretary of state. The board administers a public trust fund that distributes the interest earned to public schools. That seat on the board would be given to the lieutenant governor if the amendment is passed.

Assembly Democrats objected to that change, saying it put too much power in the hands of the governor’s office. They proposed an amendment to put the superintendent for the Department of Public Instruction on the board instead.

“We think to put this much power with this much money into one administration is not the way we should be handling our business,” said Rep. Christine Sinicki, D-Milwaukee.

RELATED: Amendment to eliminate state treasurer moves to Assembly

“We’re passing that money over to DOA under the auspices of the governor, and therefore we lose control of those funds,” said Rep. Gary Hebl, D-Sun Prairie. “We are getting rid of an elected official and turning over those funds to an appointed official. Bad, bad idea.”

Technically that is incorrect. In Wisconsin, the lieutenant governor is chosen separately in the partisan primary election, then runs on a single ticket with the same-party gubernatorial candidate in the November election.

“The last time I checked, the lieutenant governor is an elected position, I believe,” said state Rep. Tyler August, R-Lake Geneva. “So replacing one partisan official with another partisan official doesn’t cause any great harm.”

The amendment was defeated, 64-35.

James Wigderson reports for Wisconsin Watchdog. Contact him at jwigderson@watchdog.org and follow him on Twitter @jwigderson.

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