In The News
Conspiracy nuts greet every corruption probe
By Dominique Paul Noth
Editor, Labor Press
Posted February 10, 2012
Master of the stonewall. Serially close-mouthed. All those describe Milwaukee County District Attorney John Chisholm who has successfully blocked media leaks out of his prosecutions, let pass without comment misleading remarks by such targets of inquiry as Gov. Scott Walker and generally held his fire in the face of partisan onslaughts. He just pursues evidence and goes to court, as responsible reporters unhappily concede.
But the hot chatter surrounding his cases ignite Water Street. pubs, phone calls and particularly wherever you tweet or play politics on the Internet, making accuracy tough and balance near impossible. Seasoned journalists can still work the edges and produce thoughtful reports but they are falsely accused of using leakers inside Chisholm’s office. (Would it were so.)
Wild swinging speculations are particularly appealing when they come from the unknowing and the wishful thinking. That inflates what the DA is pursuing and paradoxically conflates his dissimilar John Doe probes into tentacles of the same giant squid, like a Jules Verne fantasy run amuck.
Normally Scott Walker, Johnny Thomas, Spencer Coggs and the man in the moon shouldn’t even be in the same constellation, but those warped Internet telescopes put them there and require reports like this to correct things.
All this chatter may be giving a pass to the only probable giant squid – the Walker investigation. Despite right-wing disclaimers, and despite responsible caution, that probe is clearly circling in on an orchestrated, sophisticated system of corrupt power dealing and unlawful fund-raising conducted by multiple hires and cronies of Walker, not just as county executive but leading into his campaign for governor and who knows how long afterward. Reporters have already noticed how the current games in Madison bear disturbing echoes to the secretive Walker machinery at the Milwaukee Courthouse.
The frustrated left keeps pressing the DA to reveal a smoking gun in time to influence the recall, seizing on how members of his team have worked on various corruption probes. Truth be told, that is more about limited manpower and the nature of expertise in the DA’s office. Chisholm is simply working at his own pace and for his own purposes, though many commentators would like it to be all about their politics. .
The Thomas probe was clearly more a “what was he thinking?” expose of a solidarity bungler. On Feb. 8 in a court appearance, County Board Supervisor Thomas reminded the world that he is innocent until proven guilty and denied all charges, saying there was a different story to be told than the damning (if fascinating) narrative in the John Doe criminal indictment. But the tale is sure worth recounting – it has created a widespread courthouse joke: “Don’t ever take a meeting at Dunkin’ Donuts!”
There, with investigators watching and at the behest of the DA’s office, the new county director of administrative services, Patrick Farley, wore a wire as Thomas munched goodies and mumbled about well-heeled Illinois contractors who always ran over costs (even though they had legitimately submitted the low bid). Later, he took $500 in cash that he assumed was a campaign gift from the Illinois company, according to reports, swore Farley to secrecy and only then put the bid in question on the agenda of his finance committee, which allowed it to proceed to a timely vote,
At that point, Dec. 12, Thomas was quietly arrested and led the DA to the marked money at his home.
Some pundits instantly fabricated that the case against Thomas was concocted by Chris Abele, Walker’s heir as county exec who had hired Farley and given him permission to talk with the DA. Well, hardly. Abele routinely approved one administrator working with another county official, the DA and knew nothing more until the John Doe details came out in February. Only then did Abele stop backing Thomas for city comptroller and call for his resignation from County Board power positions, which has now happened.
Thomas, in fact, continued to enjoy the support of Democratic Party leaders (but not the Milwaukee Area Labor Council, which refused to endorse him -- another pointed difference with Democratic establishment decisions). He rather bizarrely continued to collect nomination signatures and participate in candidate events after his first secret arrest, only withdrawing in February. In effect the field is left to his opponent, the current assistant city comptroller, Marty Matson.
All of which demonstrates that Chisholm knows how to keep everyone’s mouth shut when he wants to. But the Internet was still abuzz over why Thomas would behave so naively. Supporters insist it is a sign of his innocence. Others see it as belief in how his own low-level invisibility was small potatoes compared to the bigger game under investigation. It is a weird view to expect the public to put a payday price on corruption – $500 a pittance not to be bothered with compared to the thousands involved in other cases. But has the concept of personal integrity fallen that far?
As an aside, Farley surely knows the John Doe ropes. His friends include DA aides since he once was one. He also worked for Gov. Doyle and was caught up in the Travelgate probe when Bush’s US attorney convicted Georgia Thompson, only Steve Biskupic got slapped down for prosecutorial excess by a federal appeals court that exonerated Thompson, Doyle and company.
A further aside. The only rough connection to the Walker incident is that the prosecutor who tried to get Thompson and interviewed Farley back then – Biskupic – is one of the three expert grand jury criminal lawyers Walker has hired to defend him in the John Doe probe. (Ah, the wheels within wheels that fuel the Internet!)
This report mentions Coggs reluctantly since Chisholm was not involved, it was the state Equal Rights Division that routinely fielded the campaign corruption complaint and the media was caught in a conundrum when that story got the same size headlines as the John Doe cases. Which is quite absurd.
In fact, the accusation against Coggs was quickly refuted, dismissed a day after it was reported. Everyone knew from the start that it stemmed from an employee fired in downsizing who had also had a soured romantic affair with a longtime Coggs aide (who has now resigned, probably in embarrassment).
Given the known background story and the source, veteran reporters wondered why this ever got play in the first place. But Coggs is a state senator who once ran for lieutenant governor and is now one of four candidates for city treasurer in the Feb. 21 primary. He is certainly an ambitious figure from a known political family with strong roots in the African American community, but in 20 years of covering him I had never heard a breath of scandal, nor had his neighbors or even his opponents.
An angry politically savvy Coggs went on the attack, saying on talk radio that the timing of the stories combined with the Thomas coverage, whether inadvertent, smelled of suppressing the black votes and indirectly benefited those defending Walker who see corruption in every black candidates running.
I question the respected Coggs ever linking in the public’s mind his case with l’affaire Thomas, because I think the voters can make the distinction.
But I also sympathize with Coggs’ anger. Corruption is a nasty word. How do you ever un-ring this bell?
But let’s unring another fabrication making the rounds from the right wing, apparently determined to deflect attention from Walker, from the secret legal deals in Madison around redistricting and make it seem that Milwaukee (not Madison) is the seat of corruption. It does feel like they are pounding on this with jackboots. Their leaders are now saying that it was careless fiscal rules in Milwaukee that allowed the Thomas case to happen and that they “fixed things” by imposing a new independently elected county comptroller to take over after April 3.
That’s balderdash, even to those who support the new position. The leading candidate for the job, the current appointed county comptroller, Scott Manske, agrees that nothing in the regulation can impose integrity on those willing to be corrupted. That was true when Walker was in charge and is true from Madison to Sheboygan.
Milwaukee county already has a scrupulous fiscal process, Manske noted, requiring every bid over $50,000 to be approved by the full County Board after moving through the appropriate committee, such as finance. The Thomas case if it is proven was a criminal act to goose campaign contributions outside an already tough procedure.
All of this is a reminder that corruption always claws back to the character and integrity of those the pubic elects and whether the elected officials, despite glib words and noble statements, are truly guarding the henhouse rather than finding ways to steal the eggs. The real issue is abuse of power, and it does seem the very wildness of the Internet speculation serves as a distraction from the patient, rigorous step by step process and devices the prosecutors must employ. The public may be eager for exposure, but the path is shrewd and steady.