By M.D. Kittle | Wisconsin Reporter
MADISON, Wis. — Jefferson County District Attorney Susan Happ likes to tout her record as an aggressive prosecutor in Wisconsin’s war on heroin.
The Democrat has been particularly boastful during her run for state attorney general against her opponent and Waukesha County District Attorney Brad Schimel.
“As a district attorney in Jefferson County, I have aggressively prosecuted the heroin dealers because they put the lives of others at risk,” Happ said late last month on Wisconsin Public Radio’s Central Time public affairs show.
THIN RESUME? While Jefferson County District Attorney Susan Happ touts her ‘aggressive’ approach to prosecuting heroin crimes, those who have seen her in action say she has done too little too late in confronting the epidemic.
During the interview, Happ talked up her role as “founding member” of the Jefferson County Heroin Task Force.
But Happ’s “aggressive” approach to combating the heroin epidemic in Jefferson County seems to have coincided with her decision to run for attorney general.
“It’s clear that she is a Johnny-come-lately on this issue, whereas others have been more aggressive,” a Jefferson County elected official told Wisconsin Reporter.
The officeholder, who asked not to be identified because of his working relationship with the district attorney, said he found it startling how ill-informed and uninvolved Happ has been in confronting a societal scourge that has claimed the lives of scores of people in southcentral Wisconsin in recent years.
He attended a community forum on the heroin problem in Watertown a year ago, at which Happ was a panelist.
“I think it was clear to anyone who lives here that this issue has been more on the radar of other law enforcement officials than it has ever been on the Jefferson County district attorney’s radar,” the elected official said.
The Jefferson County task force was launched around the time of the forum, a couple of months before Happ began talking publicly about a potential run for attorney general.
In early December 2013, Happ told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel the she had been approached about running and that she was “exploring how I can best put my experiences to work for Wisconsin.”
A month and a half later, Happ made it official. She went on to beat two fellow Democrats, state Rep. Jon Richards, of Milwaukee, and Dane County District Attorney Ismael Ozanne, in the August partisan primary. Schimel ran unopposed on the Republican side.
Happ joined a lineup of law enforcement and community leaders at Jefferson County’s first Heroin Summit in May.
In the Wisconsin Public Radio interview last month, Happ bragged of her involvement in creating the county’s heroin task force.
“I work with law enforcement, county officials, educators and community leaders to help inform our citizens and our youngsters about the dangers and availability of opiates,” she said.
“I have also made presentations to educators, civic organizations and community leaders about the heroin epidemic in Jefferson County and throughout Wisconsin,” she said in a statement earlier this year.
One of Happ’s sharpest critics, Ozaukee County District Attorney Adam Gerol, said most DAs and law enforcement in Wisconsin began recognizing heroin was becoming a problem nearly a decade ago. Not Happ, who was first elected as Jefferson County DA in 2008, he said.
“I have never heard about her involvement from anyone in the area of heroin engagement, certainly not as a leader,” Gerol, a Republican, said.
Happ told Wisconsin Public Radio that she would like to replicate her approach to community education at a statewide level, should she be elected attorney general in next month’s general election.
“Education is very important, and I would take what we’ve been doing here in Jefferson County in terms of informing our citizens and our community leaders and I would take that initiative statewide to make sure that every county is able to bring that information to its citizens …” she said.
Happ’s campaign did not return email requests for comment from Wisconsin Reporter.
The district attorney has earned the backing of the Madison Professional Police Officers Association, in part due to her approach to the heroin issue. The union, which represents nearly 400 law enforcement professionals in Madison, in its endorsement asserts Happ is the “right candidate to face Wisconsin’s growing challenges, including the epidemic of heroin in our communities.” Why that is, the union doesn’t explain.
Wisconsin Reporter also examined the record of Happ’s opponent, Waukesha County District Attorney Brad Schimel.
Waukesha County, under Schimel, has filed the most Len Bias homicide charges of any county in the state, through September, and leads the nation.
The charge, named after the 1986 cocaine overdose death of college basketball star Len Bias, involves any number of illegal drugs linked to overdose deaths.
NATIONAL LEADER: Waukesha County, under District Attorney Brad Schimel, has filed the most heroin-related death homicide charges in the state.
Milwaukee County filed 19 drug-related homicide charges from 2010 to 2013 despite having 198 heroin overdose deaths, according to a USA Today story, published July 25, while the smaller Waukesha County had 40 heroin deaths but filed a state-high 26 charges.
“While serving as an Assistant DA in the Waukesha County Metro drug unit, Schimel saw the oncoming crisis early on and as District Attorney, Schimel worked with county law enforcement and EMS to make sure Waukesha County conducts effective investigations that hold people accountable for providing drugs that kill,” Schimel’s campaign said in a statement to Wisconsin Reporter.
“You’ve got to have your law enforcement and even your EMS trained to know how to do these kinds of investigations, to recognize the signs, to know how to preserve the evidence,” Schimel said in the USA Today piece. “It’s a lot of legwork. It’s old-fashioned policing — calling people, knocking on doors.”
In October 2010, the Waukesha County Criminal Justice Collaborating Council formed the Drug Abuse Trends Committee, chaired by Schimel, to more closely examine the rising opiate abuse problem in the county.
“One of the recommendations of this committee was to implement a drug court program in Waukesha County to address this emerging need,” according to the county. “Shortly thereafter, the CJCC applied for drug court implementation grant funding from the U.S. Department of Justice (USDOJ) Bureau of Justice Assistance (BJA) and was notified of the grant award in September 2011.”
In June, Schimel proposed his detailed S.T.O.P plan, focused on law enforcement and community partnerships, the kind of relationships Happ in recent months has said are so critical in the battle against heroin. Schimel’s plan, which stands for Support, Training, Opiates, Prevention, includes training for law enforcement and the establishment of statewide drug treatment courts.
Happ and Schimel, at least publicly, do agree that Wisconsin’s heroin problem is nothing short of an epidemic. In 2013, the state recorded 199 known heroin deaths, up 50 percent from the year before. That’s an increase of more than five-fold since the period between 2000 and 2007, when there were an average 29 deaths. As Schimel notes on his website, “Drug overdose is now the leading cause of accidental death, surpassing all motor vehicle crash deaths.”
But it appears Happ’s resume on combating heroin is much leaner than Schimel’s.
Perhaps Happ put it best in a statement responding to Schimel’s proposal.
“Those of us in law enforcement know that we must do more. Our children and loved ones are dying,” she said.