The Northwestern

Posted May 13, 2004

Panel rejected Schierland grievance

Judges urged lawyer discipline agency to reconsider

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 interviewed.

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 ahummel@thenorthwestern.com.


How the System Works
Truth in Justice