Tearman Spencer’s First Year as City Attorney Has Been Marked by Turmoil

After a chaotic first year for Milwaukee’s city attorney, former staffers describe a reign of fear, sexism and potential ethical violations.

The lawyers didn’t mince words.

“Fleeing the toxic and hostile work environment that was created in the city attorney’s office in the last year,” former Assistant City Attorney Naomi Gehling wrote as her reason for transferring to another city job, part of a mass exodus of staff lawyers within a year after Milwaukee City Attorney Tearman Spencer took office.

On former Assistant City Attorney Sheila Thobani’s resignation form, obtained through an open records request, she filled six lines with reasons for quitting, including “inexperienced upper management,” “ethical violations by the city attorney,” false accusations that she and others “fabricated incidents with the city attorney,” and “treatment of female attorneys and staff.”

Since he unseated nine-term incumbent Grant Langley in the April 2020 election, the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel has reported allegations of sexual harassment by Spencer and revealed his top deputy is running a law firm on the side. Spencer has clashed with the Common Council over development rules and with the police union over settling a high-profile excessive force case, while engaging in finger-pointing over who’s to blame for the Fire and Police Commission’s botched ouster of ex-Police Chief Alfonso Morales.

But in exclusive interviews with Milwaukee Magazine, former assistant and deputy city attorneys say their concerns run even deeper, questioning Spencer’s ethics and ability. One also says Spencer misled aldermen about whether Deputy City Attorney Odalu Ohiku would end his private practice.

 

 

And they describe an office that Spencer rules by fear, weaponizing his temper and his power over subordinates’ work lives. Most former employees interviewed asked not to be identified, saying they were still afraid of retaliation.

Between the election and early June, 14 deputy and assistant city attorneys quit or retired. Ten of 39 attorney jobs remained vacant in early June.

The situation is so dire that some council members have quietly started discussing the unprecedented – and still unlikely – step of removing Spencer from office.

Spencer canceled a scheduled interview with MilMag for this story after requesting a list of all questions in advance. Following normal journalistic practice, that request was denied. He had been told which topics the interview would cover.

OF COURSE LANGLEY ran on experience in 2020. With a record 36 years in office, after 13 years as an assistant city attorney, nobody could match his municipal law background.

By contrast, Spencer was relatively unknown in political and legal circles, despite 16 years in private practice, handling real estate, consumer and business matters. Police union leaders say they had never heard of him. Former assistant city attorneys found few records of his cases.

Spencer ran as “a voice for the voiceless,” playing to community frustration with Langley’s defense of police officers accused of misconduct. The challenger won decisively, 61%-39%.

Once in office, Spencer started delivering on his campaign promises. In June 2020, he announced he wouldn’t prosecute all of the 170 tickets issued for violating curfew during protests over the death of George Floyd. “I admire him for doing that,” Ald. Nik Kovac says of Spencer, calling the tickets part of a major police overreach against peaceful protesters.

Later that year, Spencer recommended a $750,000 settlement – and an unprecedented admission of police wrongdoing – for former Milwaukee Bucks player Sterling Brown, who was Tased and arrested over a parking violation in 2018. The council approved a revised version of that deal in May 2021, with an apology instead of an admission that officers violated Brown’s rights.

Ald. Ashanti Hamilton praised the settlement, saying, “This case is not just about Sterling Brown and the incident that happened that night. … I’m hoping we can embrace the symbolic nature of this case and move forward to build a stronger and more compassionate city.”

However, former staffers, citing city ordinances and state Supreme Court rules, say that as city attorney, Spencer’s legal duty isn’t to his constituents – a citizenry that was outraged by the disturbing video of the Brown incident – but to his clients: the city government, Milwaukee Public Schools and their employees. That includes police officers.

“There’s a clear lack of understanding who the client is,” a former assistant city attorney says of Spencer’s belief he represents voters. “I just don’t think he ever understood that, and still doesn’t.”

Deputy and assistant city attorneys raised ethical and professional objections to some of Spencer’s decisions. Several former staffers say they repeatedly called the State Bar of Wisconsin’s ethics hotline for confidential advice.

The former employees wouldn’t detail their concerns, invoking attorney-client confidentiality. But some of what they would share resembled the Milwaukee Police Association’s objections to the Brown settlement.

In an 11-page complaint filed with the state Office of Lawyer Regulation, the police union alleged Spencer violated his duty to his clients by failing to discuss the settlement with the officers he was representing in Brown’s federal lawsuit. The union also accused Spencer of incompetence “for failing to understand the role of city attorney.”

Ex-staffers say Spencer reacted explosively to professional disagreements, including threatening to fire a top litigator, then moving to reassign her to prosecuting traffic tickets. Another lawyer, former Deputy City Attorney Mary Schanning, says she transferred to another agency because “I sensed that I was being set up for some made-up disciplinary thing.”

“First and foremost, what I need to have at my side is loyalty,” Spencer told the council’s Finance & Personnel Committee about his criteria for promotions this April.

“We are not loyal to the person who sits in that office,” but to the city, Gehling responded in an interview. She and others disputed Spencer’s public claims that he’s being undermined by diehard Langley fans.

Employees were already on edge from alleged sexual harassment that started almost as soon as Spencer took office, according to an independent investigation commissioned by the city. Gehling identified herself as the staffer whose knee Spencer patted in the only reported incident of unwelcome physical contact.

Spencer admitted to some inappropriate remarks but told the committee any allegations of touching were “a flat-out lie.” He accused his staff of inventing incidents for racial and political reasons, and said he was drafting a new city sexual harassment policy that would hold employees accountable for false claims.

In response, city personnel chief Makda Fessahaye warned Spencer that retaliation was illegal. She said the investigation found evidence that “his actions were inappropriate and unbecoming of his position,” but he couldn’t be punished because the current policy doesn’t cover elected officials – something the council is moving to correct.

“We are both people of color,” Gehling says of herself and Thobani. “I will call bullshit on his statement that we’re all racists.” She also noted that she, Schanning and former Assistant City Attorney Bill Davidson all took new jobs with Black male bosses, adding, “Nobody’s scared of working for a Black man. Everybody’s scared of working for him.”

One reason some former staffers say they still fear speaking about Spencer is his support from U.S. Rep. Gwen Moore and other powerful politicians. Besides endorsing him and appearing at campaign events, the Milwaukee Democrat donated $4,512 of her own money and $2,500 from her campaign treasury to Spencer over two years, campaign finance reports show. She was his No. 2 donor, after Spencer himself, who loaned his campaign $100,000. Moore did not respond to requests for comment.

LIKE ALDERS AND POLICE UNIONS, ex-staffers see a conflict of interest in Ohiku’s outside legal work – including defending criminal suspects arrested by Milwaukee police. Office policy allows limited outside work but

prohibits conflicts and says no staffer’s name can appear on a law firm’s letterhead. Ohiku’s firm bears his name.

Under questioning from finance panel chair Ald. Michael Murphy, Spencer said in March that he had given Ohiku six months to wrap up his cases, then backed off that timeline a month later.

But at a staff meeting, Ohiku said he was hired after declaring in his job interview that he had no intention of giving up his private practice, according to a former employee who attended the meeting.

Ohiku referred questions to Spencer and outgoing chief of staff Kimberly Walker, who did not respond.

SPENCER’S ROCKY FIRST YEAR has some on the Common Council wondering if they can allow him to complete his four-year term. State law allows removal for “inefficiency, neglect of duty, official misconduct or malfeasance in office.”

However, removing Spencer would require 12 votes on the 15-member council – and hand his job to the controversial Ohiku. Council President Cavalier Johnson and several other alders either declined comment or did not respond.

“It’s nobody’s first choice, or second choice, or third choice,” Kovac says of removal. “It’s a last resort.”


Standing Nearly Alone

Illustration by Getty Images

MILWAUKEE IS AMONG a rapidly dwindling number of local governments that elect their top lawyers. Of the 12 largest Midwestern cities, only Milwaukee and Columbus, Ohio, elect city attorneys. The rest, including Chicago, appoint their chief legal counsels.

Less than a dozen of Wisconsin’s 190 cities, including Waukesha, still elect their city attorneys. At least six have ended elections in recent years, including Cudahy, South Milwaukee and West Allis, with up to three more changes scheduled or under discussion.

Of Wisconsin’s 421 school districts, only the Milwaukee Public Schools is represented by an elected city attorney. All other districts, all 72 counties, all 414 villages, all 1,250 towns and most cities either appoint in-house counsel or contract with private law firms.

Despite numerous issues with City Attorney Tearman Spencer, Ald. Michael Murphy and Ald. Nik Kovac say they don’t support appointing his successors. Murphy says the city attorney must be independent of the mayor and council, and Kovac says structural decisions shouldn’t be based on one person.

One of Spencer’s ex-employees disagrees, citing a conflict between his promises to voters and his duty to the city. With an appointed city attorney, “we could avoid someone as incapable as Tearman Spencer ascending into an office that he’s not prepared to take,” the former assistant city attorney says.


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Larry Sandler has been writing about Milwaukee-area news for more than 30 years. He covered City Hall and transportation for the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, after reporting on county government, business and education for the former Milwaukee Sentinel. At the Journal Sentinel, he won a Milwaukee Press Club award for his investigation of airline security. He's been freelancing since late 2012, with a focus on local government, politics and transportation. His contributions to Milwaukee Magazine have included in-depth articles about our lively local politics, prized cultural assets and evolving transportation options. Larry grew up in Chicago and now lives in Glendale.