In a stunning reversal, a federal court of appeals struck down a state worker's fraud conviction that Wisconsin Republicans used in efforts to paint Gov. Jim Doyle's administration as corrupt.
Attorneys on both sides of the case said the three-judge panel likely overruled the trial jury's conviction of former state purchasing officer Georgia Thompson within hours of oral arguments due to a simple lack of evidence.
The decision by the 7th Circuit Court of Appeals in Chicago, which will explain the judges' reasoning, was not immediately available.
During oral arguments Thursday, one of the members the three-judge panel said the charges against Thompson were unfounded.
"I have to say it strikes me that your evidence is beyond thin," federal Appeals Judge Diane Wood told prosecutors. "I'm not sure what your actual theory in this case is."
The court heard arguments in the case Thursday morning and then ordered a trial judge to free Thompson from a federal prison in Illinois, which she entered in November.
Thompson was a civil service employee last year when she was convicted of fraud after being accused of steering a state travel contract to a firm whose top officials were major campaign contributors to Doyle.
Her attorney, Stephen Hurley of Madison, argued that prosecutors never proved Thompson had been pressured by her superiors to deliver the contract to a company run by a major contributor to Doyle.
Hurley noted that the appeals court acquitted Thompson rather than sending her case back to a trial court.
Federal prosecutors could appeal the decision -- the acquittal was stayed for 14 days to allow them to ask for a rehearing -- but said they probably would not do so.
"It's extraordinary for a U.S. Court of Appeals to issue a decision on the day of oral arguments without a written opinion," Hurley said. "What they're saying is, There's no evidence, she's acquitted.'"
\ Doyle comments
Thompson's conviction was used to batter Doyle during his successful re-election campaign last year. Republican challenger Mark Green and allies blasted the governor for the case in television ads.
Thursday, Doyle praised the appeals court ruling but saved his strongest words for what he called "sensationalized media reports and partisan attacks" on his administration that turned Thompson into a "political football."
"This conviction was a terrible injustice," Doyle said. "Georgia Thompson is an innocent woman who was imprisoned for more than four months just for doing her job. It is great for her that the Court of Appeals has taken this extraordinary action so she does not have to spend one more night in prison."
Doyle said Thompson was entitled to return to her $77,300-a-year job, along with back pay and state assistance covering her legal expenses.
Hurley called that "very cool," but said he hadn't spoken with Thompson since the acquittal and didn't know if she would accept. Hurley said his client wouldn't speak with reporters about her case, calling her "the most private person I've ever met." He declined to state the amount of her legal bills.
A man answering the phone at the home of Valerie Priebe, Thompson's sister, said Priebe was on her way to pick up Thompson from the prison in Pekin, Ill., Thursday night and was not available to comment.
\ Lawyers commended
Michelle Jacobs, a spokesman for U.S. Attorney Steven Biskupic in Milwaukee, said it was difficult to comment without seeing the written decision.
But she agreed it would be difficult to ask the court to rehear the case -- the next step for any appeal by prosecutors. That's because the decision appeared to hinge on the facts presented at trial, which wouldn't change, she said.
"We convinced a ... jury, and we convinced (U.S. District Court Judge Rudolph T.) Randa but I think we're going to see that we didn't convince the three-judge court of appeals," Jacobs said. "I think it's very unlikely that we'll petition for a rehearing."
In a statement, Biskupic himself said simply: "We commend the work of Thompson's lawyers."
Tammy Jones, spokeswoman for the federal prison in Pekin, about 230 miles south of Madison, said Thursday afternoon that Thompson "will be released shortly."
Michael O'Hear, a law professor at Marquette University, said the Court of Appeals decision is unusual.
First, he said appeals court judges typically issue decisions weeks or months after hearing oral arguments, rather than on the same day. Second, instead of ordering a new trial -- typically how appeals panels rule in favor of defendants -- the judges acquitted Thompson.
"If this was a finding of insufficient evidence, what they're saying is it's unjust that Georgia Thompson has been in prison the last few months," O'Hear said.
\ 'Zero tolerance'
Following her conviction in June, Thompson resigned from her state job.
At the time, Doyle said, "I have zero tolerance for ethical lapses in government. When public servants abuse the public's trust, they forfeit their rights to continue in the state's employ."
Hurley said he thought Doyle's statements have been consistent. "I think the governor on each occasion accepted the court's decision."
At the news conference Thursday, Doyle lashed out at political opponents and news organizations for coverage of the Thompson case. But Doyle, a Democrat, declined to criticize the federal prosecutor, a Republican appointee.
Biskupic and Republic state Attorney General J.B. Van Hollen have both said the investigation into the travel contract remains open. Neither commented on it Thursday.
Mark Jefferson, executive director of the state Republican Party, defended past statements by the GOP, and said the court ruling didn't end the questions the case raised.
"The fact remains that when presented with the evidence, the jury thought there was a case here," Jefferson said.
UW-Madison political science professor Charles Franklin called the ruling "amazing" and said it was fortunate that Thompson's conviction didn't ultimately affect the outcome of the election.
"We kind of dodged a bullet," Franklin said.
But Thompson's trial raised "perfectly legitimate issues" that political opponents and the news media were right to focus on, Franklin said.
\ 18-month sentence
Hurley said Thompson's appeal focused on two claims -- that there was insufficient evidence presented at trial, and that the grand jury indictment failed to show a crime.
Acting on the appeals court's order, Randa in Milwaukee ordered Thompson's immediate release in a one-page order that said Thompson would be released on her own recognizance and could move back to Wisconsin.
After her conviction, Thompson was sentenced to 18 months in federal prison. Randa rejected her pleas to stay out of prison during her appeal. Until Thursday, Thompson had a projected release date of March 2008, according to the federal Bureau of Prisons.
Prosecutors argued that Thompson rigged the bidding process to ensure a contract worth up to $750,000 to book travel for state employees went to Adelman Travel Group of Glendale, whose top executive and a board member contributed $10,000 each to Doyle's campaign before and after winning the contract. Prosecutors tried to paint a cozy relationship between Doyle's administration and Adelman that led to pressure on Thompson.
Thompson maintained her innocence, arguing she didn't know about those political connections, did not gain financially from the deal and was only trying to save taxpayers money.
In a statement, Hurley said the government should accept responsibility for its actions, although he said there was no legal redress Thompson could take at the state or federal level.
"The government charged Thompson with conduct that did not constitute a crime," he said. "It cost Georgia her job, her life savings, her home and her liberty, and it cost Georgia her good name."
||Truth in Justice