A whistleblower’s story: Taking on a ‘hyper-partisan’ district attorney

Part 126 of 126 in the series Wisconsin’s Secret War

By M.D. Kittle | Wisconsin Reporter

MADISON, Wis. – Glee.

That’s the word Michael Lutz uses to describe the mood of Milwaukee County prosecutors at the power they held over a woman charged in the first iteration of the politically charged John Doe investigations.

“Just the way they were bragging about how they could send this 60-year-old woman to prison if she doesn’t provide information about (Gov. Scott) Walker,” Lutz, former highly decorated Milwaukee cop turned whistleblower, told Wisconsin Reporter in a recent interview.

“They were taking glee out of it, this older lady that they were going to send to prison, and she didn’t have a criminal record,” said Lutz, 44, who made national headlines this month with his detailed account of his time as special prosecutor in the office of Milwaukee County District Attorney John Chisholm, a Democrat, who, Lutz claims, carried a vendetta against Republican Walker.

The woman in question, the subject of such prosecutorial bravado, Lutz said, was Darlene Wink, a former aide to Walker when Walker was Milwaukee County executive.

The John Doe investigations focused on allegations of illegal coordination between the Walker campaign and various outside organizations.

Wink never did do time for sending campaign-related emails and online comments on the county clock, but the threat certainly hung over her from prosecutors who were eager to reel in bigger fish. She faced one year in prison and a $2,000 fine, but the 2012 plea deal brought her probation instead.

“I think it’s fair to say Ms. Wink did everything we asked of her,” said Assistant District Attorney Bruce Landgraf following Wink’s sentencing in early 2013.

WHISTLEBLOWER: Michael Lutz, a former highly decorated Milwaukee police officer and special prosecutor in the Milwaukee County District Attorney’s office, has paid a price for going public about his claims that DA John Chisholm is on a mission to take down Gov. Scott Walker.

But the John Doe probes never have been about Darlene Wink, Walker’s other former associates and aides or his allies in conservative policy, Lutz said. Chisholm’s mission, Lutz said, has long been a personal war on Walker.

“I don’t think there ever was a doubt about who they were going after in that DA’s office,” he said. “It was called the ‘Walker John Doe.’ It was never called anything else. All the conversations were very clear of who they wanted.”

All hell broke loose

On Sept. 9, the same day a federal appeals court heard oral arguments related to a civil rights lawsuit filed by conservative targets of the latest John Doe probe against the Milwaukee County prosecutors, national legal reporter Stuart Taylor broke a bombshell story detailing Lutz’s accounts of a partisan DA’s office.

Lutz worked in the DA’s office as an unpaid community service special prosecutor for about six months, between late January and early August 2011, just as Walker took the reins as governor and just as all hell broke loose in Wisconsin.

Lutz told Taylor in the article for the American Media Institute that Chisholm was furious over Walker’s public sector collective-bargaining reforms known as Act 10. The DA’s wife, Colleen Chisholm, was a union shop steward at an area school. She “frequently cried when discussing the topic of the union disbanding and the effect it would have on the people involved … She took it personally.”

Her husband did, too.

“He felt it was his personal duty to stop people from being treated like this, to stop Walker from treating people like this,” Lutz told Wisconsin Reporter.

All of Chisholm’s anger, Lutz said, boiled to the surface in a meeting he had with the DA in March 2011, about two weeks after state Senate Democrats had fled the state to stave off a vote on Act 10. Lutz had asked Chisholm permission to do a supportive campaign commercial for Justice David Prosser, one of the right-leaning members on the state Supreme Court. Prosser was engaged in a bitterly partisan re-election campaign.

PERSONAL JUSTICE: Milwaukee County District Attorney John Chisholm, a Democrat, has been accused of partisan prosecution in launching secret John Doe investigations into conservatives.

For Lutz, Prosser’s request was a way to express support for the justice who had made a big difference in his life. It was Prosser who had written the Supreme Court decision that reinstated the conviction of the man who shot Lutz when he was working the “worst of the worst” crime-ridden areas of Milwaukee. It was that incident that forced the veteran cop to quit the force and apply for duty disability. It was that incident that left him suffering the effects of post-traumatic stress disorder.

The district attorney said no, that he had to “stay away from all Republicans.” Lutz said Chisholm told him that Act 10 was eventually going to be decided by the Supreme Court and the DA said he couldn’t allow Prosser to decide on the case. “He did not want Prosser to have a decision on Act 10.”

Neither Chisholm nor his attorney returned Wisconsin Reporter’s requests for comment.

Despite accounts to the contrary, Lutz wasn’t just some temp in the DA’s office. He has known Chisholm for years. He counted him as a close friend who was respected by Milwaukee cops as an “aggressive, no-nonsense prosecutor,” a DA who would “do what was right, no matter what.” At least until the late winter of 2011.

Lutz was a Chisholm family friend. His former partner in policing was Jon Osowski, Chisholm’s brother-in-law.

Osowski, Lutz said, was no fan of Walker, either. Lutz said Osowski and his sister, Colleen Chisholm, sent him pictures of themselves joining the throngs of protesters at the Capitol in Madison demonstrating against Act 10. It was Osowski who told his friend about the bragging of Chisholm and crew concerning their power to compel Wink to play ball with prosecutors or risk a prison sentence, Lutz said.

Partisan office?

Inside the DA’s office there was a “hyper-partisan” atmosphere, Lutz said.

“You’ve seen the people worked up at the Capitol. That’s how worked up the people were in the office,” he said.

He did not want to divulge any names of partisan prosecutors, but he has told other media outlets that it was not uncommon to see the iconic blue-fist posters of the anti-Walker movement hanging in a prosecutor’s office.

Wisconsin Reporter has learned that Assistant DA Irene Parthum had such a sign in her office, according to sources. Parthum was one of at least 19 assistant DA’s to sign petitions to recall Walker in 2012, according to conservative news outlet Media Trackers.

Parthum’s LinkedIn account notes that for many years she was on the negotiating team and served as a union steward in disciplinary matters for the Association of State Prosecutors before being elected a board member and later union secretary until 2012.

“I participate in both non-partisan and partisan political campaign work on the local, state, and national level,” she states in the online page, noting her membership in the Democratic Party of Wisconsin.

Parthum’s LinkedIn page describes the duty of an assistant DA.

“An Assistant District Attorney is sworn to evaluate the merit of charges and whether they can be proven, fairly and impartially, to follow the law and respect the Constitutional rights of all parties, and to serve and protect the public while treating all parties with respect and dignity,” her profile states.

Parthum could not be reached for comment Sunday.

‘Doorstepping’

Lutz was supposed to be an anonymous source in Taylor’s story. He declined to state his name on the record for fear of retribution by Chisholm and his loyal staff. His fears came true shortly after the story broke.

Milwaukee Journal Sentinel columnist Daniel Bice outted the source in what critics described as an attack piece, attempting to sever the credibility of the whistleblower while protecting Chisholm’s battered reputation.

Bice was criticized by the right for reporting on Lutz’s PTSD, as a way of diminishing his story, and for showing up on the former cop’s doorstep late at night seeking confirmation that Lutz was “the source.”

Lutz said Bice awakened his 12-year-old daughter. The former police officer’s children have had plenty to worry about over the years, with their father going up against gangs like the Murda Mobb and Latin Kings.

“It really killed me this time when Bice came to my door, and my little girl started crying again,” Lutz said.

Bice disputes the characterizations that he created a disturbance at Lutz’s home, although he said he does “enjoy the boisterous, swashbuckling character created by Mike and Stuart Taylor regarding my Sept. 11 visit to his house.”

The investigative reporter, in an email response to Wisconsin Reporter’s questions, said he attempted to reach Lutz on the phone and through email, but that Lutz did not want to comment and that he wished to “stay out of this firestorm.”

Not satisfied, Bice said he decided to do some “doorstepping,” arriving at Lutz’s home around 9:15 p.m.

He said he knocked on the door, and rang the doorbell twice. Getting no response, he left. He was halfway down the front lawn when Lutz called him from the front door. They then had a 10-minute conversation.

“It was not a hostile conversation. I do such interviews regularly, but this wasn’t one of them.”

Bice’s story included a “shocker.” He reported that Lutz had once left a death threat on Chisholm’s voicemail.

Lutz said there was no real threat. He made desperate calls to Chisholm after getting a call from Osowski claiming he intended to harm himself. Not believing Chisholm was responding quickly enough, Lutz said he made some “unartful” pleadings on the voicemail message, something like, if Osowski ended up killing himself, Lutz woud kill Chisholm.

With Osowski safe, Lutz said he and Chisholm later laughed and joked about the incident.

“Anyone who knows us knows that wasn’t a death threat,” he said.

Bice got the tip from an unidentified source. He’s gotten a lot of tips on the John Doe investigations over the years. So much so that conservatives accuse Bice of having an inside leak. Bice has vehemently denied the allegations.

While Lutz said he cannot definitely say where the leaks come from, he has a strong idea that Bice has “conduits,” people outside of the office getting information from the DA’s office.

Bice said there is no conduit.

Lutz also recently disclosed that he tried to take his information to the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel in 2012, but the newspaper never did anything with the story.

Bice was incredulous, saying he did not know why Lutz sent his tip to a reporter covering sports business and City Hall instead of the columnist covering the John Doe. Asked why a reporter wouldn’t pass such a tip on to the appropriate beat reporter or to an editor, particularly given Lutz’s status in Milwaukee law enforcement, Bice brushed off the question.

“I get lots of tips every day, but I’ve not taken any of them to an editor in years — unless I find them particularly stupid or funny,” he said. “Editors vet my copy, not my story tips.”

Whistleblowing has a price

So what’s next for the man who broke ranks with Chisholm’s select “inner circle” of confidants?

“That’s the million-dollar question. I don’t know what’s next,” he said.

Lutz said it won’t be his law practice in Milwaukee. He earned his law degree in 2010, and in recent years following his time in the DA’s office he has served as a defense attorney. He said that’s over. He can no longer promise his clients they will receive the best representation going up against a DA with an ax to grind.

“Either I will be refocusing in Milwaukee or moving elsewhere,” Lutz said.

Rob Port is the editor of SayAnythingBlog.com, a columnist for the Forum News Service, and host of the Plain Talk Podcast which you can subscribe to by clicking here.

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