For 36 years, E. Michael McCannhas been the conscience of the community.
McCann has been Milwaukee County district attorney since 1969, serving so long that most voters can remember no one else holding that position. The one-time seminary student has had a reputation as a rock of morality.
McCann was the conservative Irish Catholic who fiercely opposed abortion and favored anti-obscenity legislation. But he was also the liberal who spoke out in favor of integrating neighborhoods and helping the homeless. He was, in short, a complex man of strong convictions.
But in recent years, the halo has begun to disappear from the Democrat’s image, smudged, if not erased, by countless complaints from detractors: McCann has done little when citizens are fatally shot by police, he has been less than aggressive about sexual assault of minors by priests, he failed to go after corrupt activities by prominent Democrats. And McCann never declined the lucrative 25 percent bonus included in the controversial county pension plan.
Those are the complaints. But should we believe them?
McCann admits he’s never prosecuted a police officer who shot a citizen. Critics say McCann, like most district attorneys, is too close to the police with whom he works.
McCann says juries across America are unwilling to convict cops. But he also says he would support a law to have the state attorney general, whose lawyers “don’t work with this police department,” handle cases of shootings by officers. At the very least, he concedes the appearance of a conflict for his office.
McCann also appeared oddly compromised by his close relationship with former Milwaukee Archbishop Rembert Weakland. Weakland confided with McCann about an affair that ultimately resulted in an accusation of sexual abuse against the archbishop. That made the D.A.look conflicted when it came to prosecuting archdiocesan priests accused of sexually abusing minors.
Peter Isely, Midwest director of the Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests, argues that McCann hasn’t been aggressive enough. McCann says he is handcuffed by a state law that hampers his ability to prosecute older cases of abuse. Isely concedes that this has limited McCann’s options.
But even some Democrats privately complain that McCann has been timid about prosecuting corrupt members of their party. As soon as a Republican, Steven Biskupic, was appointed U.S. attorney, a host of local Democrats got nailed on various kinds of corruption charges: Former state Sen. Gary George and former Milwaukee Common Council members Paul Henningsen, Jeff Pawlinski and Rosa Cameron were all successfully prosecuted by Biskupic.
McCann indignantly denies he’s been soft on Democrats. He points to his prosecutions of former Senate Majority Leader Chuck Chvala and former Alderman and acting Mayor Marvin Pratt.
But McCann didn’t initiate the charges against Chvala. Dane County D.A. Brian Blanchard launched the entire investigation of corrupt legislators. Later, he decided he had a conflict of interest on the Chvala investigation and asked McCann to take it over; it would have been difficult for McCann to decline this much publicized case.
The Pratt indictment was so unique for McCann that experts wondered why he was suddenly prosecuting a member of his party. McCann’s answer was that he had little choice: A particularly aggressive citizen was going to city, county and state law enforcement officers to press the case against Pratt. Even there, McCann seemed reluctant to prosecute.
McCann’s supporters can perhaps excuse the D.A. on all of these issues. But how do they explain his handling of the pension issue? Yes, McCann denounced the lump-sum backdrop payment and signed a waiver of that benefit. But unlike some employees, he has never waived the unique 25 percent bonus given to veterans like him.
The general theory behind pensions is that retired employees need to replace about 60 percent of income once earned. That, combined with Social Security payments, would gain them at least 80 percent of income once earned, and given the lower expenses for retirees, would mean no reduction in their standard of living.
But the county is so generous that McCann was already eligible to collect 80 percent of his income upon retirement, a higher percentage than any other government in Wisconsin allows. Based on his current salary of $115,262, one of the highest in county government, McCann stood to collect at least $92,000 annually for life.
But that isn’t enough for McCann. He wants the 25 percent bonus, which is multiplied times the $92,000, raising his retirement payment to at least $115,000 annually.
When asked why he didn’t waive this grossly inflated benefit, McCann blames his wife. “My wife did not desire to do this. I certainly respected her opinion,” he says.
But Milwaukee County’s voters did not elect Mrs. McCann district attorney. They elected Mr. McCann, believing him to be a man of integrity who stands for what is right.
But his convictions seem in decline these days, in more ways than one. Nowadays, McCann seems to offer a lot of excuses for his performance, as he contemplates a very lucrative retirement.