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Thursday, December 16, 2010

Analysis: Law Firm Mishandled Investigation - Signs Of Conspiracy Abound

Oh what a tangled web we weave, when first we practice to deceive! --Sir Walter Scott, Scottish author & novelist (1771 - 1832)
The latest episode in the ongoing smear campaign against the Rock County coroner began when an employee of the coroner’s office conveniently filed a letter of complaint against the incumbent coroner and then proceeded to feed the Beloit Daily News a story meant to publicize the unsubstantiated claims and discredit the incumbent coroner Jenifer Keach just days before the primary in September. The frivolous charges leveled in the complaint played well enough with anti-coroner operatives on the county board for the county to launch an investigation into the coroner’s office.
JG Excerpt:
The county hired Nowlan & Mouat law firm to investigate after Deputy Coroner Michelle Walworth made allegations against Keach and Smit in a Aug. 30 letter
The 127 page report, released by request to the Wisconsin State Journal and Janesville Gazette, has been guesstimated to cost county taxpayers at least $17,300.

Newspapers Regurgitate Flawed Report

Now, according to the most recent regurgitated media report, the investigating law firm has concluded that the coroner and her chief deputy may have violated a state statute meant to prohibit her from participating in or attending a meeting held by office staff and/or prohibit her deputy from handling political material regarding the county's medical examiner appointee referendum - maybe, perhaps, not sure, possibly...umm, we just don't know.
BDN Excerpt: (November 26, 2010)
A county-commissioned investigation has found Rock County Coroner Jenifer Keach may have violated state law by using her position to rally support against appointing a medical examiner.
Although they wrote she "may have" violated state law throughout much of the report, the BDN painted a picture of far more certainty despite failing to prove how she "used her position" to any effect.

The focus of the investigation centered on an incident that occurred after a staff meeting, where a letter of support was alleged passed around by an unconfirmed person to the employees. The letter was meant to rally a unified group position on the referendum. Although the referendum was considered non-binding, it should be reasonable to think that because the livelihoods of all of the office employees were hanging in the balance, that a letter or position statement would seem very appropriate and expected, even in a public employee/government setting.

The question to ask is: Was this alleged activity, given all the circumstances, in violation of state statutes governing public officials? The answer you'll find below is clearly NO.

Analysis Finds Evidence Law Firm Ignored State Statutes
BDN Excerpt: (Nov. 26, 2010)
According to investigation documents acquired by the Beloit Daily News, Nowlan & Mouat, LLP, concluded Keach may have breached Wis. Stat. 19.59(1)(c)2 by “using her position as coroner to assist in the production of a substantial indirect benefit to herself” by attempting to persuade staff members to vote against the medical examiner referendum.
Again she "may have" breached....however, immediately following Wis. Stat. 19.59 (1)(c) is the next letter in the alphabet - paragraph (d), it states...
Wisconsin State Statutes Excerpt:
Paragraph (d)
...Paragraph (c) does not prohibit a local public official from taking any action concerning the lawful payment of salaries or employee benefits or reimbursement of actual and necessary expenses, or prohibit a local public official from taking official action with respect to any proposal to modify a county or municipal ordinance.
Whoa!! I'd say the so-called medical examiner referendum constituted a proposal to dismantle an elective county office in its entirety and replace it with a new set of by-laws, salaries and benefits. A modification is putting it mildly.

I'm not an attorney, but I'd say paragraph (d) clearly nullifies paragraph (c) in this situation. The coroner or any other county office holder is NOT PROHIBITED from engaging in any "official" (by official I would gather they mean to use her official position to achieve a desired effect, within the law of course) activity with respect to any county board proposal to modify a county ordinance. I would also assume that whether the coroner or her office staff was in favor of the referendum or opposed it, is of no consequence to the coroner's activities.

A little off topic here, but I'd also say that it is very reasonable to interpret the referendum's results as the exact impetus the county board was looking for to justify dismantling ALL elective county offices. But with paragraph (d), there is absolutely no excuse for the rest of the county's elective office holders to remain silent or inactive while they operate under the veiled threat of lies and public humiliation from the county board, and hopelessly watch their offices and careers come crashing down. The point is, if they can't or won't speak up and defend the democratic process that put them in office - maybe they never deserved to be elected there in the first place.

This is not a fight to defend Coroner Keach, her job performance, management style or personality - she won that battle when county residents re-elected her. However, she should not be standing alone in the battle to defend elective county office. That's what this is about - it's about democracy. Where are the rest of the county office holders?

But it now becomes rather obvious that the law firm's failure to take Wis. Stat. 19.59(1)(d) into consideration in their findings was either a major gaffe OR the statute was deliberately ignored to not seek the truth, but to support the basis of a hidden directive to find "substantial evidence" for county operatives to use against the coroner. It's either one or the other. Yet, if it was an oversight, shouldn't the law firm offer an apology or a retraction?

What is equally disturbing is the fact that the Beloit Daily News article, loaded with the typical half-truths and vacant projections including the unchallenged gaffe of omission by the investigating law firm, was consistent with nearly five years of negative spin shaped into yet another hit job on the Rock County coroner by the local media. As pointed out in the posting by Richard Costerisan, the WSJ at least had the conscience to rephrase the title of their article.

County Leaks Report To Newspaper
WSJ Excerpt:
The county released the investigative report and responses by Smit and Keach's attorney Monday at the request of the Wisconsin State Journal and the Janesville Gazette.
It's interesting that the WSJ and Gazette needed to issue a formal request for the documents, when three weeks earlier somebody within the chain of the county investigation gave the Beloit Daily News the error filled $17,000 report - under the table.
BDN Excerpt: (Nov. 26, 2010)
When asked what type of punishment Keach and Smit may be subject to, County Administrator Craig Knutson said the Daily News would have to file a Freedom of Information Act request, for the documents the Daily News already possesses, in order to be given any information on the next step in the investigative process.
Punishment? Say what? How about offering an apology to Keach and Smit ... with sugar on top! When will that be forthcoming? In addition, the most damaging revelation from the passage above came when the county administrator confirmed the suspicion of a conspiracy when he acknowledged that the newspaper had information in their possession apparently acquired without a formal FOIA request - in other words - leaked information.

Is anybody at least concerned that a newspaper received a county tax-payer paid investigative report without going through the formal request channels? Shouldn't that ring alarm bells somewhere? After Knutsons' observation, did the county initiate an internal investigation to ferret out the mole or moles within their midst? Apparently not. If this is how they build public trust between the people and the government in Rock County - we're in big trouble.

Another interesting side note to this latest publishing spectacle is the Janesville Gazette's sudden but likely temporary hiatus from the massive smear campaign while the Beloit Daily News and the WSJ pick up nearly exactly where they (Gazette) left off. Up until recently, the Gazette has been the sole sponsor-of-smear against the county coroner and has taken plenty of heat for their politically motivated attacks. Is this the way friends help pull the load for friends in the newspaper industry?

The people of Rock County should be sick of the misrepresentation of facts and the hubris from the local media, particularly those who turned a blind eye all this time, in what has grown from a personally motivated political attack carried out by a handful of misguided and misinformed political pawns into a full-blown misinformation media circus conspiracy designed to defraud county voters out of their right to elect their own coroner and by extension to eventually wrest control of all county offices away from the ballot box. Am I the only independent observer of this entire fiasco who thinks there's something seriously wrong going on between our local media and government? This has been allowed to go far beyond partisan politics in my view - this is because somebody hates, and they hate real bad.
"The county has wasted a lot of time and money on these frivolous, politically motivated complaints when they should be addressing real problems, like people losing their homes because they don't have jobs." -- Rock County Coroner Jenifer Keach

Related Documents:

Response: Coroner Keach's augmentation and challenges to key findings in report. (Google Docs)

Response: Deputy Coroner Louis Smit's Statement of Position regarding investigation. (Google Docs)

Additional perspective posted by the coroner's father, Richard Costerisan -- No Evidence, But it's Still a Hanging


Richard Costerisan said...

Thank you Lou for publishing my article and for writing this one. You got it all right! Anyone that wants to know about the political conspiracy in Rock County being perpetuated by some of our esteemed county board members and the news media need look no further. The motive is getting control of the county at the expense of its citizens and elected officials. Yes, you are the only one printing the truth. It must be a lonely spot but a good place to be. Thanks for being there for all of us. For the past five years the real story has been this conspiracy. But how do you get the press to cover it when they are part of it? Isn't it funny that it took revealing $17,300 was spent friviously to satisfy the political agenda of our county board chairman before it got the attention of our newspapers? Now they want to look like the good guys, concerned about all that waste. Remember, the county chairman is spending your money, not his. He doesn't pay property taxes because he rents. Think about the level of coercion at the county court house when this kind of activity goes on for five years and nobody says, enough! I've heard that anyone who crosses the "Gang of Five" on the county board will suffer dearly. One elected county official stated, "I crossed them once and I'll never do it again. They never forget and they'll make you pay." Are these the kind of people we want running our county? I also strongly agree with you related to the absence of our other elected county leaders. Do they think they won't be next? As our elected officials, they should be speaking out against this conspiracy and supporting democracy. Thanks for pointing out their failings. Lastly, keep in mind that Jenifer Keach has not been found to have committed any of the numerous transgressions leveled at her during her term as our coroner. The reason for this is because they were all frabricated and politically motivated. She had employees who wanted her job or were personal friends with someone who did. They were allowed to create havoc in the coroner's office or run against the coroner in elections to satisfy the political agenda of some county board members and the news media. Through it all, Jenifer has always taken the high road and always served the people of Rock County with the highest integrity. The citizens owe her a debt of gratitude for being there for them. Thanks.

Lou Kaye said...

I'm not really big into conspiracies or conspiracy theories, but after watching this unfold beginning with Gov. Doyle's appointment in 2005, I'm convinced now. I'm convinced some of the complainants were either duped by talk from county/partisan operatives into being their heroes while others were emotionally overly sensitive and ignorant of the law. I'm convinced that when the county board says it's not personal with the coroner - they're lying. There's so much sausage ground out in this conspiracy that few people would believe they would put this much effort into what really is a lower level political office. Governor or senator maybe - but coroner? If they eventually strip the office away from the ballot box under the guise of more control and added efficiencies, county residents should insist on those same qualities for the rest of the county elective offices. Why have one "good" office and leave four others administratively bad.

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