Posted July 15, 2003
Doyle says ‘loophole’ needs fix
Ex-DA Biskupic utilized law to collect money, allow defendants to avoid charges
By Dan Wilson and Ben Jones
MADISON — Gov. Jim Doyle said Monday that the state should close a loophole that allows county prosecutors to settle cases before charges are filed.
Doyle’s comments came in the wake of the news that former Outagamie County Dist. Atty. Vince Biskupic is the subject of a state Ethics Board investigation for possible abuse of a procedure he used to settle cases. Biskupic allowed defendants to make payments to an internal crime prevention fund or other nonprofit organizations, avoiding prosecution in the bargain.
Roth Judd, Ethics Board executive director, said Monday that the board began the investigation when the practice became an issue in Biskupic’s failed campaign for attorney general in the November election. There was no complaint filed that led to the investigation, he said.
Biskupic struck at least 13 secret deals that allowed people to avoid criminal charges after they paid between $500 and $8,000 to organizations with which he was associated, the Wisconsin State Journal reported Sunday.
“I have never seen those kind of payments that were reported,” Doyle said at a press conference.
“I guess I would hope that the judiciary and others will really take a look at the practice.”
Biskupic, in comments to The Post-Crescent made during his campaign last fall, defended the practice. “(The procedure) was used to resolve a case and there is still some penalty on the person who committed the crime,” he said.
“It is a case-by-case situation and it is used to promote a positive program.”
Biskupic did not return calls Monday seeking comment on the investigation.
Two Outagamie County judges who dealt for years with Biskupic and his staff agreed with Doyle’s call for stricter oversight.
Under state law, defendants may enter into court-approved settlements by making payments to an approved crime prevention organization. However, that doesn’t apply to cases such as those under question, which never made it to a judge.
“The law should be modified to plug that gap,” said Outagamie County Circuit Judge John Des Jardins, who preceded Biskupic as Outagamie DA.
“We don’t know anything about those cases as judges,” Des Jardins said. “I just don’t think there are sufficient safeguards in the system if they are not put on the record. There is a potential for abuse.”
Outagamie County Circuit Judge Dee Dyer was Winnebago County district attorney from 1982-85.
“I think everything should be above board when you are making those decisions,” Dyer said. “When I was in the prosecutor’s office, we made all kinds of decisions to not prosecute based on a variety of factors, but none of them were based on making a payment of money to any organization. I think some legislation needs to be enacted to finalize once and for all whether these things are going to be permitted or not.”
Doyle, who served 12 years as Wisconsin’s attorney general before he was elected governor last November, said the deferred prosecution agreements are unlike any deals he’s seen.
“It certainly was not unusual, it isn’t today, as part of a deferred prosecution to make restitution to a victim or to help defray the court costs,” Doyle said. “(But) certainly in my days I never saw the kind of dollars I saw in the newspaper yesterday.
“What people are really focused on here, quite legitimately, is to have this be an open practice and have some kind of judicial oversight over it so that there is some control over what is going on instead of a deal that is not public in any way and nobody knows what happened.”
Doyle, who served as Dane County’s district attorney from 1977 to 1983, said there was a deferred prosecution program during his tenure, but without the kinds of fees the State Journal reported Biskupic imposed. Doyle said the fees were only used to cover costs of the program, including classes defendants had to complete.
“A number of years ago, judges tried to rein this in,” Doyle said. “Apparently, there may be a loophole that they will have to fill in some way.”
The judges who preside over each of Wisconsin’s circuit courts created a committee in the mid-1990s to investigate whether police, prosecutors and judges were inappropriately using their power to raise money for crime-prevention groups.
The panel heard stories about defendants who avoided traffic tickets or had charges lowered or dismissed by giving money to groups favored by law enforcement and the judiciary. Some judges and prosecutors defended the practice, saying it was a good way to raise money for worthy organizations.
Dane County Circuit Judge Daniel Moeser, the committee’s chairman, said he and his colleagues “didn’t feel it was proper to use criminal charges to pay for someone’s pet projects.”
The chief judges pushed for a law that made it illegal for prosecutors to dismiss or amend charges in exchange for a defendant’s contribution to a crime-prevention organization. The law took effect in April 2000.
In an interview with the State Journal last October, Biskupic said he saw the law differently.
“It did not restrict prosecutors on ... cases that are not filed,” Biskupic said. “Clearly the intention of the law was to still give prosecutors and the parties involved in those cases, pre-charging, the opportunity to resolve them.”
Ben Jones can be reached at 608-255-9256 or by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org Dan Wilson can be reached at 920-993-1000, ext. 304, or by e-mail at dwilson@postcrescent. com. The Associated Press contributed to this report.
||Truth in Justice