Dee Hall has scooped the Journal Sentinel again. Hall, the reporter for the Wisconsin State Journal, broke the legislative caucus story that led to the conviction of numerous state legislators. On Sunday, Hall did a story showing state Supreme Court candidate Annette Ziegler failed to disclose a conflict of interest in numerous cases she presided over as […]

Dee Hall has scooped the Journal Sentinel again. Hall, the reporter for the Wisconsin State Journal, broke the legislative caucus story that led to the conviction of numerous state legislators. On Sunday, Hall did a story showing state Supreme Court candidate Annette Ziegler failed to disclose a conflict of interest in numerous cases she presided over as Washington County Circuit Court Judge.

Today’s Journal Sentinel covered the story without crediting the State Journal. JS reporter Patrick Marley even interviewed some of the same people in Hall’s article, including Scott Lopacinski, a defendant in a case heard by Zeigler, and Cynthia Gray, director of the Center for Judicial Ethics at the American Judicature Society.

Questions about Ziegler’s potential conflicts were raised last week by the liberal political group One Wisconsin Now, which claimed Ziegler had presided over 45 cases involving West Bend Savings Bank, a company where her husband serves on the board of directors. But the JS wasn’t willing to follow up on the story until a rival newspaper did.

The issue could be very harmful to Ziegler, but it’s worth noting that other judges have conducted themselves in a similar manner. The question of how judges should handle financial conflicts is murkier than these newspaper stories suggest.

An investigative story in the February issue of Milwaukee Magazine found such conflicts are common. Veteran legal reporter Geoff Davidian analyzed the files of all Milwaukee civil cases from the beginning of 2004 through the first eight months of 2006 and found 202 cases in which judges did not recuse themselves from cases where they had some financial interest at stake. Five Milwaukee judges had such conflicts, led by Judge Michael J. Dwyer, who had 54 such cases in 2005 alone. The story noted examples where judges failed to disclose such a conflict.

Under the law, it is up to judges to determine if their conflict is “de minimis,” meaning so insignificant it will not compromise their objectivity. But no one can define what that means. Supposedly, the Wisconsin Judicial Commission oversees the system to make sure judges either recuse themselves from cases where they have a financial interest or let all parties to the case know about the conflict. “An impartial judge is the cornerstone of the judicial system,” James Alexander, the commission’s executive director, told the State Journal.

In fact, Alexander’s commission has never aggressively patrolled the courts. It simply responds to complaints about judges and rarely takes any action against them.

Judges who care about the appearance of impartiality take care not to invest in companies that may appear before them. Local banks and insurance companies are most likely to come before them, often in cases involving mortgages. The cases where Ziegler looks negligent involved West Bend Savings Bank, which leases property owned by her husband.

Should a judge so unconcerned about her financial conflicts be elected to the state’s highest court? It’s a legitimate question, and one we’re likely to see asked in TV ads. But the problem transcends this campaign, affecting the impartiality of judges across the state.

The Truth About Troha

Conservative bloggers have been ranting about the indictment of casino developer Dennis Troha, who was indicted for using a business he ran to funnel money to family members, who then donated it to Gov. Jim Doyle’s campaign. This shows how corrupt Doyle is, conservatives argue.

Certainly, Doyle doesn’t look like a choir boy. But a politician accepting lots of donations from members of the same family is nothing new. “Dennis Troha is not the only one doing this through other family members,” says Mike McCabe, executive director of the Wisconsin Democracy Campaign. Other experts have suggested this happens commonly.

Whether a Democrat or Republican, most candidates aren’t going to look a gift horse in the mouth. The goal is to get all the campaign cash you can.

The Troha situation, McCabe notes, shows how useless the state Elections Board has been. McCabe’s group, which tracks donations, documented the fact that Troha had exceeded the campaign donation limit of $10,000 in 2003. “The elections board did nothing,” McCabe charges.

Troha, McCabe suggests, might have been more careful about how he operated if he hadn’t been let off so easy in 2003. McCabe is hopeful the new Government Accountability Board, which will be a nonpartisan government watchdog group with retired judges as board members, will be tougher on such conduct.

It’s worth noting that Gov. Doyle signed the law creating the new board. This was a bipartisan reform addressing a problem that is rampant in both parties.

Short Takes

-Is it just me or do Jessica McBride’s columns always sound like she’s out of breath? She was huffing and puffing per usual in a December column entitled “Watch Your Wallet,” where she decried “that sick leave scandal the governor doesn’t want to do much about.” In her zeal to protect the taxpayers, McBride apparently forgot to disclose how she would personally benefit from the sick leave benefit.

Last week the JS reported on district attorneys in the state who’ve piled up a lot of sick leave. The leader was McBride’s husband, Waukesha County District Attorney Paul Bucher, who has amassed $158,000 worth of unused sick leave he can apply toward retiree health insurance. Bucher hadn’t claimed a sick day since 1999. And though his wife is a journalist, he did not respond to reporters’ calls for comment.

-I’ve been critical of JS columnist Patrick McIlheran in the past, but I recommend his recent column. He endorsed an intriguing idea to pay for the proposed commuter rail from Kenosha to Milwaukee by killing funding for the state’s auto emissions test in this region. The proposal was made by two moderates within their respective parties, state Sen. Jeff Plale (D-South Milwaukee) and Rep. Jeff Stone (R-Greendale), and McIlheran’s argument grabs a conservative notion (government emissions tests waste money) to fund a liberal dream (transit). He argues that cars built since 1996 have computers that already monitor the exhaust. As older cars get retired, pollution goes down automatically, accomplishing much more than emissions tests. Mass transit, by putting some drivers on trains, would further reduce pollution.

-Finally, I must direct your attention to a letter from UW-Milwaukee fiercely objecting to my column of last week. UWM claims the Labor Department has simply conducted a random federal audit that found mere “technical violations” and “zero findings of discrimination.”

The letter quotes no documentation of this claim of “zero findings.” The letter claims the university has made great progress with respect to hiring staff members of color but offers no statistics to back this up. That may be because UWM “did not monitor its compensation systems to determine whether there is gender, race or national origin based disparities,” as the federal evaluation noted.

The evaluation found three violations and required remedies to all three. Because UWM had identified an adverse impact on minorities and females in its affirmative action documents, the university is now required to “develop, implement and monitor action oriented programs designed to eliminate … problems identified.”

This has never been reported and still seems newsworthy. You’ll find the counter argument above in letters.

And check out critic Ann Christenson’s Dish on Dining.