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Wednesday, Aug. 29, 2012

Jury Exonerates Former Supervisor Johnny Thomas

Prosecution's case falls apart under questioning

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On Friday afternoon, after deliberating for just over an hour, a 12-member jury cleared former Milwaukee County Supervisor Johnny Thomas of two felony counts of bribery and misconduct in office.

The shockingly swift verdict completely exonerated Thomas and calls into question whether the case should have been brought in the first place.

The jury rejected the prosecution's allegations that Thomas had moved a financial adviser contract for approval in the Finance and Audit Committee because he had received $500 from Milwaukee County Department of Administrative Services (DAS) chief Patrick Farley—with the promise that the vendor would provide another $500 when the contract was approved.

Farley, a former prosecutor who was appointed to his current position by County Executive Chris Abele, took the extraordinary step of wearing a wire under the guidance of a criminal investigator and conducting an undercover sting operation to give Thomas an “opportunity” to accept a bribe.

The jury found that Thomas did not take Farley up on his offer.

Thomas' attorney, Craig Mastantuono, told the Shepherd that he has real concerns about the validity of the case and Farley's role as a county official who repeatedly lied to and manipulated Thomas during the sting.

“We conducted a thorough investigation and I know that Pat Farley had no evidence of criminal wrongdoing or even circumstantial evidence of criminal wrongdoing against John Thomas,” Mastantuono said. “And he put into motion a series of events that cost the taxpayers a lot of money.”

Here's what was revealed in the courtroom:

Farley's Department Failed to Provide Information to Thomas That Would Have Moved the Contract Forward

Prosecutor Kurt Benkley, who argued the case, alleged that Thomas did not put a contract on his committee's agenda until he had taken a cash bribe from Farley last December, allegedly at the behest of Public Financial Management (PFM), the vendor with the pending contract.

But under-oath testimony revealed that Thomas did not move to approve the contract for very good reasons that had nothing—absolutely nothing—to do with a bribe.

In fact, the stalled PFM contract was due to Farley's and county finance manager Pamela Bryant's failure to do their jobs.

Johnny Thomas; the committee's vice chair, then-Supervisor Lynne De Bruin; and Pamela Bryant herself testified that Thomas linked the approval of the PFM contract to a bond-issuance study that Thomas had requested Bryant to conduct. Thomas and De Bruin were interested in learning how the county could issue bonds more competitively.

Bryant provided an initial report in May 2011, which Thomas asked her to redo. She did so and presented it in July 2011, and the committee asked her yet again to expand it.

But Bryant never provided that information—and, therefore, the contract dropped off of the committee's radar.

Farley testified that he didn't respond to Thomas' concerns about the county's bonding because “I didn't think they were real.” Rather, Farley made the wild conclusion that Thomas was waiting for a bribe. Farley went to the district attorney with his unfounded suspicions.

Farley's Department—Not Thomas—Failed to Put the Contract on the Committee Agenda

In addition to failing to provide Thomas' committee with the requested bond study, Farley and Bryant said that they did not personally bring up the PFM contract during monthly agenda-setting meetings with Thomas and his staff, which is the official way Farley could move an item onto Thomas' committee agenda. In fact, Farley couldn't remember which agenda-setting meetings he had attended during the summer and fall of 2011, although he said that members of his staff would have been present at all meetings.

But the agenda-setting meetings aren't the only way Farley and Bryant could have gotten Thomas to take up the contract in his committee.

Bryant did email Thomas in an attempt to place the contract on the October 2011 meeting agenda, but Thomas testified that it got lost in the shuffle of budget deliberations.

Former County Supervisor De Bruin testified that Farley and Bryant had had other legitimate means to get around Thomas if they thought he was being unreasonable. They could have contacted her or lobbied the board chair or other supervisors. But Farley and Bryant didn't contact De Bruin.

In fact, Farley had never discussed the stalled contract directly with Thomas before going to the district attorney and agreeing to wear a wire and set up Thomas in a sting.

Thomas Had No Contact With Vendor in Question

Was Thomas trying to shake down PFM in exchange for approving its contract?

Absolutely not, testified David Anderson, the senior managing consultant for PFM. Anderson testified that Thomas had no contact with his company.

Even Farley, who initiated the sting against Thomas, testified that he had no knowledge of Thomas being in contact with PFM or any other vendor doing business with the county.

Farley had no contact with PFM, either. He never contacted the company to find out if Thomas was doing anything inappropriate.

Thomas Never Asked for Money from Farley

Even the criminal complaint exonerates Thomas on this count. According to a transcript of a portion of Thomas' conversation with Farley at a Dunkin' Donuts coffee shop on Dec. 2, Farley is the one who initiated talk of PFM being “supportive.” Thomas never mentioned money during that conversation.

In fact, according to the complete transcript of the Dec. 2 conversation, Thomas told Farley that he did not want to “leverage” the contract in exchange for support for his campaign. That part of the discussion came out during the trial but was not included in the criminal complaint.

Thomas Didn't Know the Envelope Contained Cash
The criminal complaint states that district attorney investigator Paul Bratonja was sitting 10 feet from Thomas in Dunkin' Donuts on Dec. 6 when Farley handed Thomas a manila folder with $500 cash. “Investigator Bratonja saw defendant Thomas pick up the manila folder and look at the cash inside.”

Yet Bratonja didn't testify under oath during the trial, and his story does not check out.

Farley didn't give Thomas a folder, as Bratonja stated in the complaint. Rather, he gave Thomas a manila envelope with another business-size envelope inside, which contained the cash. A video recording of the exchange never showed Thomas looking in the envelope while in the coffee shop. Even Farley testified that he didn't see Thomas look in the envelope, even though he was sitting across the table from Thomas in the coffee shop. And Thomas' attorney Mastantuono found that Bratonja was sitting more than 22 feet away from Thomas, not 10 feet.

Farley Misled Thomas About the Cash

After leaving the coffee shop, Thomas looked inside the envelope and discovered that Farley had handed him cash.

He then went to Farley's office in the courthouse, where the two men had a conversation that was not recorded by Farley's hidden device. Farley claimed that he told Thomas he gave him cash to give him “maximum flexibility” for his campaign. Farley admitted on the stand that he would not advise a friend or a candidate in the same way. Thomas testified that Farley told him he could take that contribution and that he trusted that Farley was telling him the truth.

Thomas Didn't Hide the Envelope of Cash Behind 'A Mirror on the Dresser'
The criminal complaint states that Bratonja “found a packet of $500.00 cash stashed behind a mirror on the dresser.”

That statement is false.

The cash in question was in its original envelope and placed in Thomas' briefcase, which held all of his campaign materials. That briefcase was placed on the floor, propped up behind a floor-length mirror. Thomas testified that he kept his campaign materials separate from his other belongings and out of the way so that his wife and children couldn't access them.

Farley's Invented Lobbyist Proves to Be a Bust
In addition to trying to get Thomas to take a bribe, Farley also tried to induce Thomas to take a contribution from a PFM lobbyist, since county ethics guidelines ban supervisors from accepting a donation from a vendor that has a contract pending before their committee.

The vendor, “Gary,” didn't exist, although Thomas didn't know that at the time. According to the criminal complaint, Farley says “Gary” wants to “support” Thomas. Thomas says that “Gary” can go to a campaign event on Dec. 15 and eventually rejects offers to meet with him.

Yet the “Gary” exchange proved to be a bust, since Farley never actually told Thomas that “Gary” was associated with PFM. Therefore, any contact between Thomas and “Gary” would have been legal.

Accepting a $500 Cash Campaign Contribution Is Not Illegal
Thomas' campaign manager, Sachin Chheda, testified that candidates accept cash and campaign contributions over the legal limit “all the time” because they aren't aware of all of the intricacies of campaign finance law.

Chheda testified that there are rules regarding the receipt of cash. The candidate can return the cash to the donor. If the candidate doesn't know the source of the cash, the campaign can deposit it, record it on campaign finance reports, and then donate the amount exceeding campaign finance limits—or all of it—to charity.

Yet Thomas wasn't allowed to do any of these things because he was arrested while he was waiting to discuss his campaign with Chheda on Dec. 12, 2011. Thomas didn't spend the money or file a false campaign finance report. Nor was he charged with a campaign finance violation.

An interview with Johnny Thomas will appear in next week's
Shepherd.
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