Prosecutor deals under fire
by Andy Hall
The Legislature ought to ban prosecutors from secretly agreeing to skip criminal charges for people who pay large sums of money, several of Wisconsin's chief judges say.
The judges, who will discuss the issue at a meeting Friday, say they want to avoid interfering with prosecutors' powers but need to ensure that the state's justice system isn't for sale.
The 10-member committee of chief circuit court judges, who are appointed by the Supreme Court to oversee the justice system within the trial courts, is responding to a request from Sen. Dave Zien, R-Eau Claire, chairman of the Senate Judiciary committee, for "thoughtful discussions" on whether state law needs to be changed.
The Wisconsin State Journal last month reported that former Outagamie County District Attorney Vince Biskupic, the unsuccessful Republican candidate for state attorney general, secretly allowed at least 13 people to avoid the filing of criminal charges after they paid $500 to $8,000 apiece to politically important police agencies, non-profit groups and a crime-prevention fund controlled by Biskupic.
"I don't condone the practice," said Outagamie County Circuit Court Judge Joseph Troy, one of the chief judges, who wasn't aware of the deals in his county until he read them in the newspaper. "It doesn't look good, even if there were responsible motives."
Like several of his colleagues, Troy said deals involving money should be done in public, and well-to-do people shouldn't be able to buy their way out of being charged while poor people are left with criminal records.
Troy said he would support a change in state law requiring district attorneys to file all deals with uncharged individuals with clerks of court, when money is included in the agreements.
In addition, he said, it's possible that the chief judges might recommend that prosecutors' deals with uncharged individuals should be subject to the same restrictions the Legislature imposed in 2000 on deals with people who have been charged with crimes. That law prohibits prosecutors from collecting money from defendants in exchange for reducing or amending charges.
Another chief judge, Dane County Circuit Court Judge Michael Nowakowski, said the judges almost certainly will take a stand, but more study might be needed first.
He criticized Biskupic's deals, calling them "a very, very troubling kind of practice that certainly creates the appearance that justice is for sale and creates the appearance that those with the resources are going to be treated differently than those that don't have financial resources. That is wholly antithetical to the purposes for the criminal justice system."
Racine County Circuit Court Judge Gerald Ptacek, a chief judge and former prosecutor, said Biskupic's deals undermine the integrity of the justice system. "Money shouldn't be a factor to get a result, quite frankly," Ptacek said.
Vilas County Circuit Court Judge James Mohr predicted that his fellow chief judges will recommend changes in state law, for the same reason they cracked down on prosecutors' monetary deals with defendants in 2000.
It's wrong, he said, for so much money to be flowing without oversight from judges, and for poor people to be excluded.
However, Mohr and several judges emphasized that the cases now under scrutiny don't ever make it into court, so the judges' power to regulate them is limited.
It's crucial, they said, for district attorneys to be part of the solution. The Wisconsin District Attorneys Association has begun studying the issue.
Sauk County Circuit Court Judge James Evenson, who heads the panel of chief judges, said Nowakowski's concerns about a two-tiered system of justice are valid.
The judges, Evenson said, will debate how far to go in studying the issue and making recommendations to the Legislature.
||Truth in Justice