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Thursday, Jan. 24, 2013

Issue of the Week: A Question of Judgment

Plus: Hero of the Week

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Tim Russell (far right) prior to sentencing
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On Tuesday, as part of the long-running John Doe investigation, Tim Russell, a former aide to Scott Walker, was sentenced to two years in prison and five years of probation for felony theft from the Heritage Guard Preservation Society, a nonprofit intended to benefit veterans.

Assistant District Attorney Bruce Landgraf argued in his sentencing memo that Russell’s crime “reflects moral depravity.”

Russell, then working for Walker’s county administration, stole from an account set up for veterans and their families. But he also “exploited his political/government influence for his own personal gain,” Landgraf wrote.

At the same time Walker was placing Russell in positions of trust, Russell was stealing from those he met because of his political connections.

Walker himself transferred finances for the Operation Freedom veterans’ event from the Alonzo Cudworth American Legion Post 23, which had handled the account with no complaints, over to Russell’s nonprofit-turned-sham. Shortly thereafter, Russell began draining the nonprofit account for his own benefit. Facing foreclosure and bankruptcy, Russell used thousands of dollars for luxury vacations in the Caribbean and Hawaii, as well as a trip to Atlanta to discuss Herman Cain’s presidential bid and other personal uses.

Russell also used the veterans’ funds to benefit Walker’s gubernatorial campaign. He used that money to pay for domain names for pro-Walker websites, including the infamous scott4gov.com.

But the veterans’ account wasn’t Russell’s only slush fund. According to prosecutors, Russell embezzled money from Milwaukee County supervisor candidate Chris Kujawa’s campaign account. Kujawa was an ally of Walker’s, but he lost in a special election to Patricia Jursik. Prosecutors allege that Russell not only stole from the account, but he also refused to file seven required campaign finance reports over a number of years. 

“To this day, none have been filed,” Landgraf wrote. “Russell simply ignored those letters [from the County Election Commission], thumbing his nose at the requirements of campaign finance law.”

How did Russell get away with it for so long?

Probably because he and Walker had been so tight for so many years. Over and over again, Walker put Russell in positions of power in his county and campaign operations, even after Russell had lost his job at the Wisconsin Housing and Economic Development Authority (WHEDA) in 1993 for “gross misconduct” involving misappropriation of agency funds and lying about it. And over and over again, Russell worked as a political operative for Republicans, including setting up a corporation that made ad buys in northern Wisconsin congressional races, Landgraf wrote. Russell also ran the Strategic Outsourcing and Research Center, which did political opposition research. Keith Gilkes, Walker’s gubernatorial campaign manager, was a client. The company’s research on Walker’s main Republican rival, Mark Neumann, was published shortly before the 2010 primary election, Landgraf wrote.

Walker has denied that he knew that his campaign and county affairs were intimately connected.

But with each revelation in the John Doe, more and more questions are raised about Walker’s honesty and his judgment.

 

Heroes of the Week

Co-owners and Employees of Milwaukee’s Sign-A-Rama

 

Nonprofits play an essential role in social citizenship and it is uplifting to see corporate franchises donating their time and money in support of important local causes. One such socially conscious company is Sign-A-Rama Milwaukee (272 N. 12th St.), whose Signs of Support grant program provides $10,000 annually in free and discounted signage to Milwaukee- and southeast Wisconsin-area nonprofits, charitable organizations, non-government civic organizations and Milwaukee County public schools. So far, more than 50 nonprofits have benefited from the grant money available during the past three years. Signs of Support was founded five years ago by Maggie and Brian Harlow at the Sign-A-Rama in Louisville, Ky.

“We are proud to be running a program like this at a company our size,” says Sign-A-Rama Milwaukee co-owner Chris Nelesen. “We will do anything to help offset costs for nonprofits and charitable organizations and are hoping to grow the program in the future.”

Applications are currently being accepted through March 15, and the Shepherd is urging local nonprofits and charitable organizations to apply. There are four levels of monetary support and the signage available includes everything made in-house at Sign-A-Rama. Nelesen encourages those who have questions about the program or the application to call 414-273-7446 or email chris@milwaukee-signs.com. Applications are available online at milwaukee-signs.com.

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