Are County Buses Unsafe?

Are County Buses Unsafe?

David Umhoefer is a good reporter. Heck, he won a Pulitzer. For years, he covered county government for the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel and did a very good job. But his Politifact column last week on Milwaukee County Executive Chris Abele and Sheriff David Clarke is a botched job that misleads readers. Worse, it seems to be part of a pattern of the paper going easy on the outspoken sheriff. By now, we all know how Politifact works: Under a photo of some politician, the “truth-o-meter” tells us if they are lying, telling the truth or some shade in between. This…

David Umhoefer is a good reporter. Heck, he won a Pulitzer. For years, he covered county government for the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel and did a very good job. But his Politifact column last week on Milwaukee County Executive Chris Abele and Sheriff David Clarke is a botched job that misleads readers. Worse, it seems to be part of a pattern of the paper going easy on the outspoken sheriff.

By now, we all know how Politifact works: Under a photo of some politician, the “truth-o-meter” tells us if they are lying, telling the truth or some shade in between. This time it’s a mug shot of Abele, and his claim that county buses are as safe as ever is slapped down as “mostly false.”

That’s all casual readers (who are unlikely to read the entire column) will see, and that is quite helpful to Clarke. He’s been at war with Abele over cuts to the sheriff’s budget, declaring that Abele is “responsible for the decimation of public safety.” The JS column tells that Abele is essentially a liar, thereby buttressing Clarke’s claims.

Which is quite misleading. When you read the column you learn that Clarke claimed there was a five-year rise in incidents on the buses but offered no data to back up his claim. So why wasn’t Clarke chosen as poster boy for a Politifact? The column, after all, quotes Milwaukee County Transit System officials that the buses provide 44 million passenger trips per year with very few incidents. That suggests the buses are pretty darn safe. In fact, the column tells us “there’s no dramatic swing up [in crime] as Clarke’s rhetoric implied.” So why wasn’t the column about Clarke? Isn’t it important for people to know the buses are safe and to stop the sheriff from yelling fire in a crowded theater?

Instead the newspaper singles out this statement by Abele: “If the sheriff has given you the impression that transit is less safe than it was a year ago or the year before that, than he’s giving the wrong impression.”

Clearly a less sweeping claim than Clarke’s. If the goal is to expose liars, why not go after the bigger liar? 

But actually, it’s not at all clear that Abele is lying. The column tells us, for starters, that police were called on bus-related incidents about 5 percent less in 2011 than 2010. It also shows the number of assaults on drivers was essentially flat in 2010 and 2011.That supports Abele’s contention that buses are not less safe than one year ago.

Ah, but the column shows that assaults and verbal altercations against passengers rose in 2010 and again in 2011, and “we think Clarke’s critique focuses mainly on these kinds of serious incidents.”

We think? Isn’t Politifact supposed to be an exercise in fact-finding? Instead, the paper attempts to read Clarke’s mind and then punish Abele for reading the sheriff’s mind the wrong way.

I can’t read Abele’s mind, but I could imagine he might be referring to Clarke’s statement on the Real Milwaukee show a while back to this effect: “We looked back from 2005 all the way up to the present. In 2006 there was a slight decrease in incidents on Milwaukee County Buses. Every year since then it has steadily gone up.”

In fact, as Abele has contended, and the JS column proves, the number of bus incidents went down in 2011.

But there is more evidence – compiled by the Milwaukee County Transit System – disproving Clarke’s statement. Its figures show the Sheriff’s Department responded to 164 incidents in 2009, 181 in 2010 and 152 (through Dec. 20) in 2011. Again, this shows incidents went down in 2011. No, this is not all incidents (as police respond to most of them), but it is directly relevant to the real issue here, whether Milwaukee will be less safe if the sheriff’s budget is cut. In fact, the deputy sheriffs typically handle just 1 to 5 percent of incidents on the bus, Transit System figures show, so a cut in Clarke’s budget is likely to have little impact on passenger safety. How about a Politifact on this? Or just a news story?

Or consider this statistic: The Transit System’s periodic surveys of customers show a pretty steady increase in those who feel “much safer,” from 19.5 percent in October 2009 to 21.8 percent in October 2010 to 25.3 percent in October 2011. Why wasn’t this information included?

All told, there is little evidence buses have gotten less safe, and even if they were, the Sheriff’s Department does little to patrol such crime. That strikes me as far more relevant – and factual – information for readers.

Ultimately, however, this is not an issue that can be reduced to a Politifact gotcha story on either official. Crime statistics are useless at this point in deciding whether the Sheriff’s Department has been harmed by budget cuts. The cuts went into effect a few months ago, and there hasn’t been enough time to measure the impact on crime (or to analyze how effectively Clarke has mobilized his reduced resources).

If Umhoefer were still covering the county, he would have done a well-reported article on this dispute that would have presented both sides of the dispute. For that matter, the current county reporter, Steve Schultze, could do a solid job of reporting this issue, if editors wanted this.

But they apparently didn’t. Senior Editor Greg Borowski, who serves as editor of Politifact, says he made the decision that “the statement made by Abele held the most interest for readers. … What was unique here is that they both cited the same point as support, and both used it to come to incorrect conclusions. Thus, we felt two items would be repetitive. But we did include some background so readers could have some perspective on the point Clarke was arguing.”

But only one official was slammed for drawing an incorrect conclusion: the one who was far closer to the truth.

Gableman’s Tortured Defense

As the Journal Sentinel has ably reported, Supreme Court Justice Michael Gableman received legal services at no charge from the well-connected law firm, Michael Best & Friedrich, and then voted on nine cases before the Supreme Court involving the law firm. Gableman has declined to discuss this with reporters, but his current lawyer, Viet Dinh, claims the legal help was not free but was done on a “contingency” basis.

That’s nonsense. It is typically personal injury lawyers who take cases on a contingency basis, with the understanding they will collect a big percentage of the jury’s award. If they lose, they get nothing, which is why they garner big fees when they win. But this was not a personal injury case, and there was no jury involved that might award a big payout.

In short, Michael Best had no prospect of getting more than a typical pay day for its work, so no incentive to work for nothing. In fact, it faced the opposite situation. The work it did was worth anywhere from “tens of thousands” to more than $100,000, according to experts quoted in the JS story. Yet the firm was not likely to collect more than $5,000 under the law, as the story noted. The legislature could have voted to pay the firm more, but at the time of the case, both houses of the legislature were controlled by Democrats, so Michael Best knew it had no prospect of making more than $5,000. In fact, the firm never collected a nickel.

And that’s just for the case against Gableman that went before the state Judicial Commission. Michael Best also represented Gableman in a case filed against him with the Office of Lawyer Regulation and declined to disclose to the JS or Milwaukee Magazine if Gableman paid anything for this. There’s been no estimate of what such representation by a silk-stocking firm like Michael Best would cost, but it’s likely to have been an additional tens of thousands. If ever there was a judge who has been bought and paid for by a law firm, it is Gableman.

So why not add more conflicts? Gableman was also represented on the Judicial Commission case by James Bopp, a nationally known attorney who has represented Republicans and conservatives on many notable cases. Neither Bopp nor Gableman have disclosed whether Bopp is being paid for his services.

Then there is Gableman’s current attorney Viet Dinh, an even more prominent national attorney who has handled conservative and Republican causes, and is now representing Gableman in the controversy over the free legal help the justice received. Is Dinh, too, working for free for Gableman?

Under normal circumstances, that would seem to disqualify Dinh and Bopp from arguing a case before the Wisconsin Supreme Court, unless Gableman would recuse himself. But as the justice has already proved with Michael Best, he is comfortable thumbing his nose at the code of judicial ethics, not to mention state law that prevents any state official from accepting anything of value.

“Why is this not a matter for the US Attorney?” asked someone identified as “Legal Ethicist” in the comments section of my last column. “I’m not immediately seeing why…this situation is less troubling on its face from a criminal perspective than Gov. Blagojevich’s efforts to get full value from a Senate appointment or former Chicago Judge Reginald Holzer’s solicitation of loans in Chicago’s Operation Greylord era. A public official got a substantial private benefit, and you have to wonder why that benefit was conferred. For the public to have trust in the judiciary, someone with determination and the subpoena power ought to find out the answer.”


The Buzz

-Who decides the rankings for what shade of truth each JS Politifact should get? According to Borowski, it’s him and deputy managing editors Tom Koetting (Local News) and Jill Williams (Features) who make the call. If one of them is gone, someone else may step in. Only on a “handful of occasions” has that been managing editor George Stanley, Borowski says.

-In case you missed it, Michael Horne reports (in his second item) on the interesting way former JS columnist Patrick McIlheran is being paid by Wisconsin’s U.S. Senator Ron Johnson

-How did the city’s gay paper cover the arrest of Scott Walker’s aide Tim Russell? Pressroom Buzz reports



Bruce Murphy is a former editor of Milwaukee Magazine. He has been writing about state and local politics since 1980, which is to say he’s old. His claim to fame, such as it is, is breaking the county pension scandal, which led to resignation of County Executive F. Thomas Ament and the recall of seven county supervisors. Murphy calls himself a fiscally conservative liberal contrarian. Others have shorter, less complimentary ways to describe him.