Panel rejected Schierland grievance
Judges urged lawyer discipline agency to
By Alex Hummel
of The Northwestern
The FBI saw grounds for an investigation and rooted out a
bribery scheme involving Winnebago
County’s former district attorney.
But the state Supreme Court’s lawyer discipline agency had a different
take: Investigators told two county judges more than a year ago there
was “insufficient information” to suggest misconduct by a local defense
attorney at the center of the bribery scheme.
Documents obtained by The Northwestern Wednesday show an OLR Special
Investigative Panel member told two county judges in February 2003
there simply weren’t grounds to substantiate allegations of misconduct
against Milton “Mitch” Schierland.
One year later, Schierland – having cooperated with the FBI to bring
down former district attorney Joseph Paulus – stands accused of tax
evasion for his role in the bribery scheme rumored for two years.
“My guess is they (OLR officials) will agree they may need to look as
well on how this was handled, and do some soul searching, too,”
Winnebago County Judge Barbara Hart Key said. “Obviously, from our
perspective, it’s been a real trying time and test of patience.”
On April 23, 2002, Key and now-retired Judge Robert Haase sent a formal
grievance to the OLR, concerned with reports of Schierland’s
misconduct. They were particularly disturbed by a 2002 affidavit from
Connie Christensen, an Oshkosh woman who said she paid Schierland
$5,000 under the impression it would guarantee her reduced charges.
It was nearly a year before Key and Haase finally got a response from
OLR stating that “there is insufficient information to support an
allegation of possible misconduct against Attorney Schierland.”
On Wednesday, after two years of secrecy, the judges disclosed
correspondence that has long frustrated them.
For Key and Haase, the FBI revelations have raised questions about the
OLR’s decision and validity.
“It was just stunning when we got that letter,” Haase said. “It was
‘That’s it. We’re dropping everything.’”
“I think perplexed is the word I used before on it,” Key said,
explaining her initial reaction. “I didn’t want to rush to judgment.”
In March 2003, the judges formally questioned OLR’s decision to close
the investigation, asking OLR officials in a letter why an office
member who had planned to come to Oshkosh “to look at documentation”
never showed and why defendants in other suspect cases were never
Key said she is further troubled that Schierland stayed on the OLR’s
local investigative panel at the same time their grievance was being
considered in Madison.
To protect the reputations of attorneys, OLR grievances are always
handled out of public view. Unfounded allegations die in anonymity.
Substantiated allegations result in public reprimands or more serious,
disclosed penalties against lawyers.
Haase didn’t mince words when he wrote the March 2003 letter. The
judges state the lack of answers in their grievance and their treatment
made it “extremely unlikely that either of us will ever again bother
contacting the Office of Lawyer Regulation.”
“We are kept in the dark, no explanations are made, and no
rationalization is provided,” the letter states. “… Under all the
circumstances we are left with the impression that foxes are guarding
the henhouse and that reporting what seems to be obvious violations is
an exercise in futility.”
Neither OLR Director Keith Sellen nor Richard Niess, who rejected the
judges’ grievance against Schierland, were not immediately available
for comment Wednesday afternoon.
Haase said Wednesday he thought Christensen’s affidavit alone raised
enough concern about Schierland’s conduct to warrant a probe.
“They are supposed to be protecting the public,” Haase said,
understanding of some need for investigative secrecy. “But when you
have something of this nature flying around, to not even tell you why
there is ‘insufficient’ evidence – that’s just nonsense.”
An OLR official told key in December, more than two years after the
grievance was first filed, that it planned to investigate Schierland.
Alex Hummel: (920) 426-6669 or firstname.lastname@example.org.