Will Dane County sheriff get ‘John Doe’ treatment for Bradley ad?

M.D. Kittle
Posted: Mar 26, 2015 8:50 AM
Will Dane County sheriff get ‘John Doe’ treatment for Bradley ad?

By M.D. Kittle | Wisconsin Reporter

MADISON, Wis. — If you’re waiting for a lengthy John Doe investigation into Dane County Sheriff David Mahoney following his appearance in Wisconsin Supreme Court Justice Ann Walsh Bradley’s campaign ad, well, don’t hold your breath.

While it appears Mahoney may have run afoul of a county ethics law, the Democrat and former police union boss has been down this campaign ad trail before — with nary a wrist slap.

In Walsh ad, Mahoney is decked out in his uniform, with gun and badge, standing and chatting with Bradley next to what appears to be a county squad car.

The ad attempts to drive home the point that Bradley, a member of the court’s liberal wing running against Rock County Circuit Court Judge James Daley, a conservative, has plenty of backup from the state’s sheriffs.

DAVE AND ANN: This photo of Dane County Sheriff Dave Mahoney and Supreme Court Justice Ann Walsh Bradley appears on Bradley’s campaign Facebook page. Is it a breach of Dane County ethics laws?

And Mahoney — again in uniform and this time unquestionably positioned next to a sheriff’s vehicle — appears in a photo shaking hands with the justice. You’ll find that picture still up on Bradley’s campaign Facebook page.

Madison resident Robert Hall filed a complaint earlier this month with Dane County Clerk Scott McDonell alleging that Mahoney violated the county’s general ordinances on impermissible use of public office. The ordinance prohibits the use of county-owned vehicles and uniforms, among other things, for political activity.

The ethics code states that “no county official or county employee shall use or attempt to use his or her public office or employment to influence or gain unlawful: benefits, advantages or privileges, personally or for others.”

Mahoney did not return calls seeking comment Thursday. Nor did McDonell.

Bradley’s campaign did not respond to requests for comment.

In his complaint, Hall writes that the ethics ordinances were established to “ensure no county official or employee may seek or gain financial gain from public office or service.”

“It is further to protect county taxpayers from officials and employees use of taxpayer-funded assets or funds for personal or political gain,” the complaint states.

“It is gravely concerning that our sheriff prioritizes the use of county property for the benefit of a political campaign over his duty to provide for and administer the county’s public safety. While the use of this property in this way is alone unethical, it is further troubling that the county’s chief law enforcement official would remove the public protection asset from service for any purpose, particularly the purpose he chose: campaigning.”

This isn’t Mahoney’s first time at this political rodeo.

The sheriff in 2009 made a cameo in a campaign ad for Chief Justice Shirley Abrahamson.

Mahoney, who endorsed Abrahamson as he has endorsed Bradley, proclaims that the left-leaning chief justice is “law enforcement’s ally.” In another ad, Mahoney, driving in what appears to be a squad car, asserts Abrahamson is “protecting Wisconsin families.”

There were no ethics charges filed against the sheriff at that time.

Wisconsin constitutional law expert Rick Esenberg said the first problem with Mahoney’s ad for the chief justice was his claim about Abrahamson.

“First, a judge isn’t supposed to be a law enforcement’s ally; they are supposed to be a judge,” said Esenberg, president and founder of the Milwaukee-based Wisconsin Institute for Law & Liberty, a public interest law firm. “He can’t make a campaign commercial involving himself in a political race, particularly given the aggressive use of the felony conduct in public office made by some prosecutors in the past.”

Yes, some prosecutors — as in the prosecutors driving politically charged John Doe investigations into conservatives — have used the misconduct in public office charge as a preferred prosecutorial weapon. 

Kelly Rindfleisch, for instance, a former aide to Gov. Scott Walker when Walker was Milwaukee County executive, could begin a six-month jail sentence as soon as next week on a charge of misconduct in public office for answering campaign-related emails on the government clock. Another Walker aide, Darlene Wink, was sentenced to probation on a misdemeanor conviction for political activity in the executive’s office.

Milwaukee County District Attorney John Chisholm, John Doe special prosecutor Fran Schmitz and their prosecution pals have spent thousands of hours and untold taxpayer money investigating conservative groups and Walker’s campaign in secret probes.

But liberal groups involved in similar activities have repeatedly escaped the John Doe shadow.

Michael Lutz, who worked for a time in Chisholm’s office and blew the whistle on what he described as a highly partisan DA’s office and Chisholm’s vendetta against Walker, said he was told by the district attorney in 2011 he could not speak on behalf of conservative Supreme Court Justice David Prosser in a campaign ad. Why? That would be political in a “nonpartisan” office.

Chisholm, a Democrat, however, had no problem recently singing the praises of Ann Walsh Bradley at a Milwaukee fundraiser for the incumbent justice.

If past is prologue, Democrat Mahoney has nothing to worry about in a county that arguably is one of the most liberal in Wisconsin.

Esenberg said the latest campaign ad for Bradley raises questions whether Mahoney should be using a patrol car to “advance somebody’s political campaign.”

“If you use your authority to commandeer a patrol car and use it to endorse a campaign, you’ve basically done what people in the (early 2000s) Caucus Scandal were accused of doing: political work on state time,” the attorney said. “It’s amazing to me that he would do that.”