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Wednesday, Aug. 15, 2012

Johnny Thomas Trial to Begin Next Week

Defense questions role of county administration chief Patrick Farley

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A year ago, Johnny L. Thomas Jr. was a rising star. The Milwaukee County supervisor with an MBA was running for city of Milwaukee comptroller—and poised to become one of a handful of African-American candidates elected citywide.

But Thomas' fortunes changed during a few conversations with Milwaukee County Director of Administrative Services Patrick Farley, a former assistant district attorney.

Thomas chaired the county board's Finance and Audit Committee, which approves vendor contracts. It is the chair's prerogative to schedule committee meetings and votes. Farley wanted the contract approved involving Public Financial Management (PFM) and resorted to an unusual approach to get that approval.

Farley offered to help Thomas with his campaign. In a taped conversation, Farley gave Thomas $500 in cash, stashed inside an envelope and a folder, that was allegedly from PFM, the vendor that was seeking approval for a contract with the county.

Thomas was arrested within days.

As a result of his interactions with Farley, Thomas suspended his campaign for comptroller, left the county's board of supervisors and will appear in court next week to defend himself against charges of misconduct in office and accepting a bribe as a public official, two felonies.

Prosecutors allege that Thomas took a $500 bribe in exchange for moving a financial services contract to a vote in the county board's Finance and Audit Committee.

But Thomas' defense attorneys claim that the supervisor did not ask for money or realize that it was inappropriate and, as documents filed in the case indicate, that Farley improperly set him up for a fall.

Dueling Jury Questionnaires

Documents filed in the case indicate the strategies of the prosecution and defense.

Not surprisingly, the two sides have squared off over the questions that prospective jurors will have to answer before the trial.

Questions submitted by the prosecution, led by Assistant District Attorney Kurt Benkley, focus on whether the potential jurors have heard Thomas' defenders in the city's major African-American media outlets, WMCS 1290-AM and the Milwaukee Courier. The questions specifically name Curtiss Harris, who has made supportive comments about Thomas on WMCS and in the pages of the Courier and the Shepherd Express.

In June, Harris told the Shepherd, “There was no corruption on the board that would have caused Farley to be concerned. Farley himself created the corruption.”

The prosecution's questions do not specifically name any other media outlets or pundits, just Harris, WMCS and the Courier—even though the Thomas case has been reported in white-dominated media in the city.

Thomas' attorneys, in contrast, do not cite any specific media outlets or sources in their proposed jury questions, although they do ask jurors to describe the media outlets in which they've heard about the case.

On Monday, Judge Dennis Moroney approved four questions that will go to prospective jurors. The second question lists six media outlets, with WMCS and the Courier listed alongside other news sources.

Did Farley Entrap Thomas?

A review of testimony given under oath also calls into question Farley's role in the Thomas case and whether he tricked the supervisor into taking $500 in cash.

Under cross-examination in a February preliminary hearing, Farley admitted that no vendor—including the vendor at the center of this case, PFM—had made complaints about Thomas trying to solicit money from them in exchange for approval of a contract.

Farley also admitted that he was not aware of Thomas ever taking money to do his county job, and said that Thomas did not ask for money in exchange for voting on the contract in his committee.

Farley stated that he did not raise his concerns to Thomas about the county's procurement process or the lack of approval of the PFM contract. Instead, he said he discussed his concerns with the county auditor, Jerome Heer, and later turned to Aaron Weiss, a criminal investigator in the district attorney's office, who proposed that Farley wear a wire and offer money to Thomas. Farley called Thomas last December and proposed meeting in Dunkin' Donuts to discuss the contract.

Farley also stated that he did not see Thomas actually view the cash, placed inside an envelope and a folder, even though the two men were sitting across from each other at the donut shop, because he was wearing an eye patch that day. Instead, the prosecution is alleging that another law enforcement officer, sitting in the donut shop, observed Thomas looking inside both the folder and the envelope and seeing the cash.

Farley also said under oath that after Thomas took the money, the two men had a conversation in a courthouse hallway in which Farley told Thomas that he could keep the money but that PFM did not want it to show up on campaign finance reports. Although Farley was wearing a wire in the donut shop, this conversation was not recorded.

Thomas did not spend the money, nor did he file a campaign finance report that omitted it. According to both sides, he kept it with his other campaign materials and was waiting to discuss it with his campaign advisers when he was arrested.

It was also revealed that when Thomas was brought into custody, he thought that Farley was being accused of offering a bribe.

The defense seems to be building a case for entrapment, which would require them to prove that Thomas did not have a pattern of taking bribes for doing county business and that Farley induced Thomas to take money.

On Monday, Judge Moroney indicated that he would wait until the trial is under way to decide if an entrapment defense could be put forward. If that does happen, it's likely that Thomas would have to take the stand.