Friday, May 21, 2010

The Fairytale Of A New Jensen Trial

Not that it matters, but I found myself standing pretty much alone in condemning the Wisconsin Supreme Court's decision to allow the Scott Jensen case to move to his home county. Jensen's attorneys, of course, were of the opinion that the matter was very well decided by the high court. The prosecutor who handled Jensen's first trial was circumspect, but then he would have been rid of the whole business in any case as he's soon to become an appeals court judge. Others, from newspaper editorialists to good government advocates, are resting assured that a new trial in Waukesha County will turn out exactly the same as the first one in Dane County.

Not to worry, they say. Jensen essentially admitted to stealing from the taxpayers and hinged his defense on the claim that everyone else in the Legislature was doing it too. Nothing has changed about the facts in the case. The new prosecutor will have all the evidence and all the transcripts of Jensen's testimony and that of the numerous witnesses. Surely jurors from Waukesha will judge those facts no differently than their counterparts from Dane County.

There's a big problem with this package of assumptions, and it has nothing to do with any possible differences between the jury pools in Waukesha and Dane counties. The problem is assuming there will be a new trial. The chance of that happening is waaaay far south of slim.

Think about it. If you are Scott Jensen, do you want a new trial? Hell no. You were convicted once, and do you really want to roll the dice with your everybody-was-doing-it defense one more time? Come on, if you are Scott Jensen you have two goals and only two goals. To avoid another felony conviction and to avoid time behind bars.

Now think about it some more. The Waukesha County district attorney already has said publicly that this case will overwhelm his office and even comically remarked that he's not even sure his office has the space to house all the boxes of documents contained in the court file. You don't have to read between those lines much to see that he wants no part of going to trial.

This is a plea deal waiting to happen. The only question is whether the new prosecutor will hold out for a felony conviction and meaningful punishment. You can bet Jensen will be angling to plead down to a misdemeanor and nothing more than, oh say, a few weeks of home confinement and maybe a fine.

Scott Jensen and his stable of attorneys have gamed the legal system brilliantly. They took a shot at acquittal and lost. After being convicted and sentenced to 15 months in prison, Jensen had his legal team scour the trial record in search of a technicality and they found one in the form of a jury instruction that was deemed faulty by an appeals court that overturned the former speaker's conviction.

Now after more than seven and a half years of legal maneuvering, Jensen is headed back to his home turf, where he will encounter a prosecutor who by his own admission will need months to come up to speed on this soap opera and who has made no secret of the fact that he'd rather not have any additions to his already-too-heavy caseload. Jensen has to like his bargaining position.

The state Supreme Court treated Scott Jensen in a way that no citizen of Wisconsin who is not a well-connected politician could hope to be treated. And in so doing, the court has put him in the driver's seat.

Thursday, May 20, 2010

Supreme Court Rewards Jensen For Gaming The Legal System

The state Supreme Court ruled this morning that former Assembly Speaker Scott Jensen should be re-tried for criminal misconduct in public office in his home county of Waukesha, not in Dane County where the offenses are alleged to have occurred.

Disagreeing with a circuit court and a state appeals court that both denied Jensen's request for a change of venue for his retrial, the high court retroactively applied a state law creating a home court advantage for Wisconsin politicians that was not on the books when Jensen was criminally charged over seven and a half years ago or when he was convicted in 2006 and sentenced to 15 months in prison and banned from the Capitol for five years.

After his conviction, Jensen's lawyers were able to find a loophole and get his conviction overturned on a technicality. And Jensen's friends in the Legislature wrote a new law in 2007 giving state politicians a privilege no other citizen in Wisconsin possesses, namely the ability to be tried in your home county instead of where crimes are alleged to have been committed. The circuit court and the appeals court both saw through this. The Supreme Court fell for it.

In ruling as they did, the members of the high court have rewarded the former speaker for gaming the criminal justice system for over seven and a half years and have sent the general public a powerful message. Wisconsin has two systems of justice, one for well-connected and powerful people like Scott Jensen and another for everyone else. All but a handful of citizens in this state cannot under any circumstances expect to be treated as Jensen is being treated if they are accused of breaking the law.

The circuit court got it right. The appeals court got it right. The Supreme Court got it horribly wrong. Regardless of whatever fine points of law members of the high court felt they were upholding, the end result is a continuing miscarriage of justice. And the reduction of the high-minded principle of equal justice under the law to a laughable farce.

Friday, May 14, 2010

Another Week, Another Outside Group In The Governor's Race

A week after a Democratic smear group launched ads slamming the two GOP candidates for governor, an out-of-state pro-business group is sponsoring two television ads lauding Republican candidate Scott Walker.

The 30-second ads by the Michigan-based American Justice Partnership mostly show film clips of Walker saying he will create jobs by lowering taxes and easing regulations on business.

American Justice Partnership is a coalition of corporations, foundations and business trade organizations affiliated with the National Association of Manufacturers which spends millions of dollars to support mostly Republican candidates in federal campaigns. American Justice Partnership's website says it was created by Home Depot co-founder Bernie Marcus and former Michigan Republican Governor John Engler to promote state level efforts to control damage awards and make it more difficult to sue businesses in court.

The group's ads come a week before the Republican Party state convention in Milwaukee where delegates will vote on whether to endorse the contested primary between Walker and Mark Neumann, who has said he will not seek the party's endorsement.

The group claims its state partner is Wisconsin Manufacturers & Commerce and counts among its state successes the elections of Wisconsin Supreme Court Justices Annette Ziegler in 2007 and Michael Gableman in 2008 and state Attorney General J.B. Van Hollen in 2006.

The Democracy Campaign has estimated WMC spent about $6.5 million on nasty broadcast advertising, mailings and other outside electioneering activities to support Ziegler, Gableman and Van Hollen.

Friday, May 07, 2010

Shadow Group Launches First Nasty TV Ad In 2010 Governor's Race

A secretive Democratic electioneering group launched the first television ad of the 2010 Wisconsin governor's race criticizing Republican candidates Scott Walker and Mark Neumann for their positions on state tax policy.

The Greater Wisconsin Political Fund, which is connected with the Greater Wisconsin Committee, refuses to say how much it is spending on its phony issue ad and where the ad is running. The unregulated group, which has spent an estimated $8.2 million to back mostly Democratic candidates in general election and spring races since 2006, is among several so-called issue ad groups that support Democratic and Republican candidates with negative mailings, broadcast ads and other activities at election time.

The ad criticizes Neumann and Walker for saying they would repeal recent tax policy changes that increased income taxes for people earning $300,000 or more a year and a corporate tax known as combined reporting which increases taxes on large businesses by taking into account their out-of-state operations.

The ad shows pictures of Neumann and Walker along with a picture of former President George W. Bush and former Vice President Dick Cheney and tells listeners "not to make the same mistake again."

Repealing the income and corporate tax changes would put bigger financial burdens on the middle class and working families, the ad says.

Wednesday, May 05, 2010

They Love Us, They Really Really Love Us

Numerous candidates for statewide office and the legislature in every election try to hoodwink the public into believing the exorbitant amount of special interest cash they accept shows they are popular among voters.

There have already been claims like that by the two Republican candidates for governor - Scott Walker and Mark Neumann - about their fundraising for the last six months of 2009.

Walker's campaign raised $1.8 million in the last half of 2009, including $1.74 million in individual contributions. Walker says 74 percent of the donations were $50 or less.

Neumann's campaign raised $1.32 million, nearly all of it in individual contributions. Neumann says 93 percent of the donations were $250 or less.

But that's not an accurate description of where they got most of their money. While a large amount of their donations were relatively small, most of their campaign cash came from big contributions.

Walker's campaign received $811,898 in contributions ranging from $500 to $10,000. It represents 47 percent of his $1.74 million in individual contributions in the last six months of 2009.

Excluding Neumann's $1.09 million contribution to his own campaign, he really raised $234,461 from individual donors. Of that $178,850, or 76 percent, came from $500-plus contributions.

Democratic candidate for governor Tom Barrett boasted about how quickly he raised $811,867 in the last few months of 2009. Even though he didn't try to characterize most of it as coming from small donors, he fares the worst of the three. The campaign raised $655,788 in individual contributions and 78 percent, or $514,460, came from $500-plus contributions.

Tuesday, May 04, 2010

The Legislature's Invisible Hand

Longer ago than seems possible, I served in the Peace Corps. I returned to the U.S. in 1991 after two years in the West African country of Mali realizing what pretty much every Peace Corps volunteer I've ever met realized. That you get far more from the experience than you give. That's not what surprised me most about my time overseas, though. Living in a different culture revealed how thoroughly American I am. That's the thing that blindsided me.

I was astonished by how much of my own culture was invisible to me. That is, until I went to a place where none of my culture's unwritten rules applied. Only in a foreign land did the countless ways American culture guides my actions and shapes my behavior and my outlook on life become visibly apparent.

My western ways determined what I found most trying about living in one of the most physically harsh and materially impoverished places on Earth. It wasn't the extreme heat (up to 120 degrees in the hot season, low 100s and humid in the rainy season and high 80s and low 90s in the day with overnight lows in the 60s in the "cold season"). Not the language, which was a bear for me to learn because the same word had multiple meanings depending on subtle changes in tone my ear could not discern. It wasn't the absence of electricity, running water or flush toilets that was most difficult to cope with. Eating exclusively with my hands took some getting used to, but it ended up feeling like second nature. So did living without TV. Periodic bouts with malaria were no picnic and dysentery was a drag. All the boils from chronic staph infections seemed alarming at first. After awhile tending them became part of the routine.

Nope, the hardest thing by a longshot was the utter lack of privacy and personal space. I always thought a desire for some privacy was human nature. In Mali, I discovered it is cultural. A Malian friend of mine told me that people who want to be left alone are either mean or crazy. Or American, I thought but never told him.

Reading the editorial in Sunday's Milwaukee Journal Sentinel about Wisconsin's political culture caused me to reflect back on my time in Mali. The newspaper described a "culture in which politics takes precedence over policy, money is king, leadership too centralized and re-election is everything." Such an assessment stands in sharp contrast to what you hear when our state's politicians take inventory of themselves. They congratulate each other for their high-minded devotion to public service. Most of them don't see what the Journal Sentinel sees. Once assimilated into the culture, they grow blind to how the hand steers them.

A few short years ago, six of the most powerful state legislators in Wisconsin were paraded into courtrooms and were convicted of one form or other of criminal misconduct in public office. Charges ranged from bid rigging and accepting kickbacks to extortion and what the state's attorneys characterized as "theft from the public." That theft involved the systematic use of state offices, state equipment and state employees for personal political gain.

One of the legislators went to prison. Others did some jail time. One got a guilty verdict and 15-month prison sentence overturned on a technicality and awaits a new trial. The thing that never ceased to amaze me was how none of the six could seem to see that they had done anything wrong. Neither could an astonishly large percentage of their colleagues in the Legislature. To this day, most of them don't see what prosecutors and judges saw. They are blind to the hand that steers them.

My how Wisconsin has changed. Back in 1978, the face of scandal here was a state senator by the name of Henry Dorman, criminally charged with making a few personal calls on a state telephone. The charge was eventually dismissed in court, but not by the voters. Dorman was defeated in a primary election that fall, ending his 14-year career. News accounts at the time emphasized that Dorman had been tainted by the "scandal." His unauthorized phone calls were more than the citizenry could bear, an unacceptable raid on the public treasury. The hand steered them to throw the "bum" out.

The tale of Henry Dorman is a measure of what Wisconsin's political culture once was. The standards imposed by that culture have slowly but surely been lowered over the years. We now have a culture in which politics trumps policy, money is king, leaders are all-powerful and re-election is everything. Some of our modern lawmakers have become lawbreakers, but the real scandal in our state is what is perfectly legal and totally within today's cultural norms.