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Thursday, Aug. 30, 2012

Issue of the Week: Will Chris Abele Fire Patrick Farley?

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We are all paying a price as Milwaukee County Executive Chris Abele attempts to learn to be both an elected official in a democracy and an executive capable of making measured decisions. Like most things Abele has gotten involved with, he unfortunately is leaving a stream of collateral damage in his path. The latest travesty resulted from a petulant snit that Abele went into when the county board, a co-equal branch of county government, did not immediately vote to approve a contract for bond counsel.

As anyone in government knows, the legislative arm—whether it is Congress, the state Legislature, the city council or the county board—has more diffuse power, as opposed to the concentrated power of the executive branch. For that reason, it is difficult for individual legislators, or even a small group of legislators, to influence policy unless they are in leadership—and even leadership doesn't always get its way.

One way for legislators not in leadership to try to shape policy is for a committee chair to slow down legislation by not scheduling a hearing or a vote and using this leverage to negotiate changes in policy before scheduling a vote in his or her committee. That is exactly what Milwaukee County Supervisor Johnny Thomas was doing before he was accused of misconduct. He wanted the results of a study on best practices in selecting financial consultants. What Thomas did was not only legal, which is why a jury quickly found him "not guilty" last week, but it is also the way the legislative process works. Thomas has an MBA and a background in finance, so it made sense for him to have an interest in sharing his expertise on behalf of the county when it came to selecting financial consultants.

Patrick Farley, Abele's administrative director, apparently doesn't understand some of the more basic elements of the legislative process—neither, apparently, does his boss. Rather than work with a co-equal branch of government in a respectful manner and work with Thomas on his request about the study, Farley, with the approval of his boss, Abele, instead decided that Supervisor Thomas wanted a bribe, despite the fact that Thomas had never brought up money or bribes of any manner. So Farley, an attorney and former assistant district attorney, goes to the District Attorney's Office. A staff investigator decided that Farley would wear a wire and then meet with Thomas to try to bribe him.

If one reads the transcript of the wire, it is clear that Thomas had no idea what was happening. Farley, who was supposedly helping Thomas with his campaign for city comptroller, gave Thomas an envelope with another envelope inside. When Thomas questioned Farley's envelope of cash, Farley, again a former assistant district attorney, assured Thomas that what he was doing was perfectly legal. Farley was lying while telling Thomas that he was helping him with his campaign. Later, Thomas left the money in the envelope with his campaign material and did not place it with any of his own money.

But Thomas was quickly arrested for taking a bribe. This all fits Abele's modus operandi, in which it seems like he believes that anyone without inherited money is "on the take." Under oath in the trial, Farley admitted he repeatedly lied to Thomas during his attempt to bribe Thomas in a very amateur "sting effort." Fortunately, we have due process, and Thomas was very quickly found "not guilty" of any wrongdoing.

So where does this leave things? Thomas, who was found completely innocent, has had his life seriously damaged. At the time of his arrest, he was the odds-on favorite to become city comptroller. Thomas, in a sense, personified the American dream. He was raised in the central city, served in the military, came back to Milwaukee and earned an MBA. He worked in the private sector, but then gave up the opportunity for higher pay in the private sector to commit himself to public service. He was elected to the Milwaukee County Board. Now his career has been destroyed, he has racked up substantial legal costs and he is unemployed.

The relationship between the county board and the county executive has been very seriously damaged by the attempt to set up a county board supervisor with a series of lies and deception. When Wisconsin is trying hard to create a more civil political atmosphere after the recall elections, Farley and Abele are using lies and intimidation to deal with their co-equal branch of government. What county board member is going to be willing to meet with Farley or trust him? This is going to hinder effective government in Milwaukee County.

Farley, who is the one who probably should have been on trial for trying to bribe someone, will probably keep his job and six-figure salary. Abele, who will use buzzwords like "excellence," will probably keep Farley in his job because Abele is comfortable surrounding himself with people who are mediocre, which is the pattern of insecure administrators.

Finally, this attempt to bribe a county supervisor—and the ensuing trial—was not cheap. There were tens of thousands of taxpayer dollars wasted on investigators, district attorneys, the judge, the court reporter, the bailiff, the court clerk, etc. A Milwaukee County judge commented that someone should add up these costs and send the bill to Abele's dad to pay.

Heroes of the Week
: The Coffee House Volunteers

For the past 45 years, The Coffee House (631 N. 19th St.) has served greater Milwaukee by providing a relaxing place for people to share folk and acoustic music, poetry and great conversation. In addition, The Coffee House strives to raise awareness and money for other nonprofit and activist organizations by featuring one each month on "Living Activism" night and giving the featured group 100% of the door donations collected during the evening. This volunteer-run nonprofit also holds food pantry benefits that feature performers who donate their time—on these nights, all of the food collected and half of the money raised goes to Central City Churches' food pantry.

"We do not exist to make money, but to support the arts and to serve the community by providing a safe place for people to meet friends and enjoy music and poetry in a relaxed, unhurried, alcohol- and smoke-free environment," says Sandy Weisto, manager and board director of The Coffee House.

Volunteers are crucial to the organization's success and The Coffee House is currently seeking many door volunteers and people to help behind the scenes. To learn more about this organization, visit www.the-coffee-house.com; for more information about volunteer opportunities, email info@the-coffee-house.com or leave a message at 414-534-4612.