By M.D. Kittle Wisconsin Reporter
MADISON — The chief investigator in a highly publicized — albeit super secret — John Doe investigation could be in violation of Milwaukee County employee ethics governing objective performance of duties.
On Monday, Milwaukee-area conservative news outlet Media Trackers reported that David Budde, helping lead the Milwaukee County District Attorney’s office probe targeting former aides of Gov. Scott Walker when he served as Milwaukee county executive, had a “Recall Walker” sign in the front yard of his home.
Milwaukee County District Attorney John Chisholm sent out a terse statement defending his chief investigator and insisting that Budde’s wife, a Milwaukee County employee, put up the sign about a week ago.
“I do not regulate or control the constitutional freedoms of my employees’ families in their private lives,” Chisholm, a Democrat, wrote. “They have the right, under state law, and in this case, county civil service rules, to express their political views as does any other citizen.”
But does Budde, investigating people accused of campaigning for Walker’s gubernatorial campaign on county time, have the right to have a “Recall Walker” sign on his front lawn?
Milwaukee’s County’s professional ethics code may state otherwise.
“The ethical county public official or employee should not: Engage in outside interests that are not compatible with the impartial and objective performance of his or her duties,” according to Rule 9.01(2)(b).
Rick Esenberg, president and general counsel of the Wisconsin Institute for Law & Liberty, a Milwaukee-based constitutional rights nonprofit organization, said the language of the ethics code could be pertinent to Budde’s situation.
“It is not inconceivable that someone could file a complaint with the (Milwaukee) County Ethics Board saying you can’t be involved with an investigation that relates to Scott Walker when you are simultaneously supporting his recall from office,” Esenberg said. “That doesn’t mean (Budde) has actually performed his duties in a biased way, but the suggestion in the rule is that one needs to maintain not just the fact of impartiality but the perception of impartiality.”
In his defense of the chief investigator, Chisholm said Budde did not sign the recall petition, and that Budde has conducted himself “professionally and independently, as he has done in numerous criminal investigations throughout his 26-year career as a law enforcement officer.”
“Any decisions related to the John Doe investigation are based on the evidence and not on the political views of any members of this office or their families,” Chisholm wrote.
Media Trackers on Tuesday found that Budde repeatedly gave money to the state Senate campaign of Jim Sullivan, considered a strong pro-labor Democrat in 2006 and 2010.
There’s nothing illegal about county employees giving to campaigns, but Esenberg said perception of partisanship could create unwanted political headaches for the district attorney and an investigation already criticized for its public leaks.
Esenberg said it’s similar to the district court judges who signed the recall petition.
“Someone can make the plausible argument that if you’ve actively committed yourself to the recall of the governor, maybe you shouldn’t sit on a case about the governor’s top accomplishment,” he said of the legal challenge to Walker’s defining Act 10, which curbed collective bargaining for most unionized public employees in the state. “I think the same issue presents itself here. It’s an inherent problem.”
Should a complaint be filed in the Budde matter, it could be a long time before the public knows about it – if ever.
Veronica W. Robinson, executive director of the Milwaukee County Ethics Board, told Wisconsin Reporter that such complaints are not a matter of public record, unless the person subject to the Ethics Board investigation has asked that the complaint be made public. Certain information contained in the public document could be redacted, however, Robinson said.
She said she could not say whether Budde is in violation of county professional ethics rules.
“That’s the reason why the Ethics Board looks at each decision alone and makes a determination of what’s appropriate and what isn’t,” Robinson said.
The board meets at 3 p.m. Wednesday in the Courthouse, Room 203-R.