April 12, 2007
Thursday’s ruling by the 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Chicago, which immediately freed former state worker Georgia Thompson, was a stunner. Not only did the three federal judges immediately give Thompson her freedom, but they also delivered a smack-down to the Milwaukee office of U.S. Attorney Steven Biskupic, calling the evidence in the case “beyond thin.”
So how did that happen? Why would a prosecutor, working on the taxpayers’ dime, press charges when the evidence was negligible? Why did a jury convict based on that same evidence? And why was Thompson given the unusual punishment of going to federal prison while her case was being appealed?
Why? Because the political climate—in George W. Bush’s America, in Wisconsin and in Milwaukee, in particular, where the case was decided—is so poisoned by political games that the jury sent a message that wasn’t based on the evidence introduced in the courtroom.
Once the case was heard by three neutral judges, two of which were appointed by Republican presidents, who only looked at the facts in the case and not the screaming headlines about Gov. Jim Doyle’s alleged corruption, the court made the right call. And in doing so the appeals court revealed much about what’s happening behind the scenes at the Department of Justice under Attorney General Alberto Gonzales. Believe it or not, there was once a time when the Justice Department was supposed to be removed from politics; fortunately, the appeals court judges didn’t realize that times have changed.
Last June, just as the race for governor was heating up, Georgia Thompson was convicted of improperly steering a state contract to the Adelman Travel Group, which is run by a politically involved family that has a history of favoring Democrats.
Predictably, almost daily headlines blaring the latest developments in the “travelgate” saga were used in campaign advertisements against Doyle. Mark Green supporters—right-wing WTMJ radio talkers and the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel included—plumped up the allegations against Thompson and buried her defense, if it reported her side of the story at all. (In interviews after the verdict, juror Marvin Bizzelle claimed that Doyle had orchestrated the whole matter, even though Biskupic didn’t make that allegation. Gee, wonder where Bizzelle could have gotten that information? And why did he bring that information into deliberations, when jurors are supposed to render a verdict on the evidence brought forth in the courtroom?)
The case was curious from the beginning. As Thompson’s attorney, Stephen Hurley, noted, the state worker was a civil servant hired during Republican Gov. Scott McCallum’s tenure, making Thompson’s supposed bias toward Doyle seem improbable; she didn’t profit from the contract; no one else was named in connection with her supposed fraud; she didn’t name names or plead to a lesser charge to save herself; and the contract did, indeed, go to the lowest bidder, as is required. So where’s the crime?
But other factors bothered us. Why was Thompson charged with federal crimes? As we noted in a news article last summer, Thompson’s attorney argued that “at best, the evidence demonstrates a violation of the applicable sections of the Wisconsin Administrative Code.”
It also seemed curious that Thompson was tried in the U.S. District Court Eastern District of Wisconsin, in Milwaukee. She lived and worked in Madison and was a state employee, and the fact that Adelman Travel’s headquarters is located in Milwaukee has nothing to do with the case. Even though then-Attorney General Peg Lautenschlager and Dane County District Attorney Brian Blanchard helped to investigate the case, they declined to bring charges. But Biskupic, a Bush appointee, did, even though it really didn’t have anything to do with his jurisdiction. At the time of the trial, we wondered whether Biskupic truly believed he had a strong case, which would cause one to question his competence, or whether he knew that there really wasn’t a case but succumbed to Republican political pressure.
But now, after weeks of news about Alberto Gonzales’ Justice Department, we may have an answer to our questions. Feeling the political pressure, Biskupic first tried to find the massive voter fraud that the Republican Party and the Journal Sentinel, along with their talk-radio friends, screamed was rampant in the city of Milwaukee. They even provided hundreds of names of “illegal voters” that Biskupic attempted to track down. After spending tens of thousands of taxpayer dollars, he found that there was no rampant voter fraud.
So Biskupic, in an attempt to satisfy his bosses, then went after Georgia Thompson. To destroy an innocent woman’s life was no problem for Biskupic if it could be used to help defeat Gov. Doyle. Once Georgia Thompson was charged, the Republican Party, the Journal Sentinel and the right-wing talk-show hosts used this indictment to try to make Doyle look corrupt.
Now Biskupic is at it again. He has indicted Dennis Troha for illegally channeling donations to Doyle. Once again, the political target of Biskupic is being tried in the press, on the front pages of the Journal Sentinel, which has already decided that Doyle is corrupt and just needs the right case—or perhaps the right prosecutor—to prove it.
The real question is why Biskupic hasn’t investigated Troha family contributions of tens of thousands of dollars to U.S. Rep. Paul Ryan and President Bush. Rep. Ryan received more than $50,000 in campaign contributions from the Troha family. The only difference is that Paul Ryan actually introduced special-interest legislation for Troha, signed by Bush, that substantially increased the value of Troha’s business. Ryan provided a clear quid pro quo and he should be investigated and perhaps indicted. Ryan, of course, denied he knew this was happening; however, when a congressman introduces special-interest legislation for a major contributor, what is he thinking about? If Biskupic is really trying to ferret out corruption, why isn’t he investigating Ryan, where there is actually a smoking gun of corruption? But, wait a second, isn’t Paul Ryan a Republican?