MacIver News Service | March 7, 2018
By M.D. Kittle
MADISON, Wis. – As an investigation into Ozaukee County District Court administration continues, some email communications obtained by MacIver News Service in an open records request raise concerns about the objectivity of the chief judge overseeing the probe.
Last month, Chief Judge Jennifer Dorow “initiated an administrative investigation to address recent reports and concerns related to court administration in Ozaukee County,” according to a statement issued on behalf of the judge by the Wisconsin Court System.
The probe was launched following the MacIver News Service’s investigative report into possible misconduct and certain dysfunction in the southeastern Wisconsin circuit court.
Dorow, a Waukesha County judge, heads up the Third Judicial District, which includes Jefferson, Ozaukee, Washington, and Waukesha Counties.
Patrick Fiedler, a former U.S. attorney and Dane County judge, is leading the fact-finding investigation of “claims by (Ozaukee County) Judge Joseph Voiland concerning Ozaukee County Officials,” Tom Sheehan, court information officer for the state Supreme Court, previously said.
Depending on Fiedler’s findings, the Ozaukee County Clerk of Courts office could be under new management.
“The chief judge (in this case, Dorow) may direct the activities of all clerk of court offices within the district and may recommend or direct changes in the operation of any clerk’s office,” according to state Supreme Court rules.
The investigation is supposed to be impartial, following the facts.
“Judge Dorow … expects this process to identify any necessary next steps to ensure that the people of Ozaukee County have full confidence in the administration of their courts,” the court system press release states.
But is the verdict already in? Has Dorow been influenced by her chief administrator, who in emails offers a negative assessment of Voiland and his complaints? And how involved was Dorow in a kind of public relations campaign to support county court administration and discredit Voiland?
Ozaukee County Clerk of Court Mary Lou Mueller in a Dec. 18 email sent to Dorow and Third Judicial District Administrator Michael Neimon a copy of the state Department of Justice’s 357-page report on its investigation into the court. The DOJ, without comment, ended its 15-month probe without recommending charges. But the report left myriad unresolved questions about the conduct of court administrators and what appear to be violations of the law.
In her December email to Dorow and Neimon, Mueller refers to “Judge Voiland’s complaint” against her, Ozaukee County Court Commissioner Barry Boline, and Ozaukee County senior Judge Paul Malloy.
The DOJ report notes that Voiland first raised his concerns about changed or deleted court files and other irregularities in spring 2016 to then-Third Judicial District Chief Judge Randy Koschnick, who now serves as director of state courts. Koshnick then took the matter to the Consolidated Court Automation Programs (CCAP), the online state court records system.
An examination of dozens of Voiland’s case files found someone had indeed been messing with the records, a felony crime – depending on intent.
Mueller has vehemently denied any misconduct, claiming she and others have been harassed by Voiland.
“These distorted accusations are very troubling,” she wrote in the December email. “I feel as though Judge Voiland has tarnished my good name as a clerk and register, as well as Commissioner Boline and Judge Malloy throughout the state with these wild, unfounded accusations.”
The clerk of courts then requested a meeting with Dorow and Neimon to discuss the matter and for advice on “how to proceed in a professional level with Judge Voiland in the future. I am concerned that the harassment will not stop.”
Dorow responded in an email on Dec. 20 advising that she would consult with Malloy and Neimon and be in touch after the holidays.
By early January, Eric Litke, an investigative reporter for USA Today Network-Wisconsin, which includes the Green Bay Gazette and Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, had obtained a copy of the DOJ report. On Jan. 12, Litke sent Mueller an email with a list of questions regarding the allegations against her. The email was included in the pages of electronic communications MacIver News Service obtained through its open records request.
Mueller promptly forwarded Litke’s questions to Malloy, and he sent the email to Dorow and Neimon. Malloy requested they jump on a conference call that afternoon.Neimon’s involvement... raises some serious conflict questions about the impartiality of Judge Dorow’s oversight of the administrative investigation, court insiders tell MacIver News. #wiright #wipolitics Click To Tweet
Neimon then sent Mueller a follow-up email with sample answers to the reporter’s questions.
“I took a stab at some answers as I remember them,” the administrator wrote in an email to Mueller dated Monday, Jan. 15. “I realize there is a balance between answering, need to answer, etc. There is also a balance between what you get from it and what damage will come of responding.”
Neimon, who works for Judge Dorow, told the county court clerk that if he were in Mueller’s position, he he would respond to the reporter’s questions, “because that is my nature.” He advised Mueller to get ahead of the story rather than “chasing the allegations.”
It’s not clear in the email communications released to MacIver News that Mueller forwarded Neimon’s suggested responses onto the reporter, but it appears some of the administrator’s talking points made it into Litke’s story, published in USA Today Network-Wisconsin newspapers around the state. That story did not appear until last week, a month after MacIver News Service first reported on the allegations.
Neimon’s involvement in helping Mueller refute Voiland’s allegations raises some serious conflict questions about the impartiality of Dorow’s oversight of the administrative investigation, court insiders tell MacIver News. Neimon is tasked with assisting the chief judge. His position on Voiland seems clear in his ghostwritten responses for Mueller. He describes Voiland’s claims as “either false, twisted in their presentation or context, or merely are office issues that normally are not aired out to the media.”
MacIver’s questions for Judge Dorow and Third Judicial District administration were directed to Sheehan, the spokesman for the state Supreme Court. Sheehan said he could not comment at this time “on behalf of either the Chief Judge or Director of State Courts.”
Dorow is copied on several emails, although the records released include few responses from her. In many emails, Dorow is made aware of how Ozaukee County court officials plan to respond to questions about their conduct.
On Jan. 30, Mueller copied Dorow and Neimon on an email that included her memo to all Ozaukee County Circuit Court staff. In the memo, the clerk of courts again asserts that misconduct complaints lodged against her are “without merit, false, baseless, or twisted in their presentation or context.” Some of that language ends up in two Ozaukee County news publication stories about the troubled court system. Those stories were highly favorable to Mueller, Malloy, and Voiland’s other critics.
Neimon’s suggested responses for Mueller show an apparent attempt at trying to influence a member of the press.
“As a reporter you should question yourself when all of a sudden you are provided something like this as there clearly is a reason and clearly they had nothing to do with the original frivolous complaint,” Neimon wrote in the proposed letter to the USA Today Network reporter.
The record suggests, however, that the complaints first brought by Voiland are not merely frivolous, or driven by a judge bent on “harassing” his fellow adjudicators and Ozaukee County court staff. If that were so, the state court system would not be conducting an administrative investigation into the allegations.
While the Department of Justice has not responded to MacIver’s questions about the case and why it was closed without comment, the state CCAP administrator did find that the clerk of courts office did change and delete some of Voiland’s court records – a felony crime, depending on intent.
Mueller has said that neither she nor her staff acted maliciously, and that Voiland’s claims are false or “twisted in their presentation.” Of course records were changed, the court clerk told MacIver News. As the county has transferred to an all-online court records system, there was some “cleanup” in order.
“It was housecleaning is what it was, correcting mistakes on the record,” Mueller told MacIver News Service in an interview. “There were mistakes across the board. It’s equal among all the judges. It wasn’t focused just on him.”Judge Voiland makes it clear in the DOJ report, however, that doing things the way they have always been done at times has meant breaking the law. #wiright #wipolitics Click To Tweet
While it appears violations of the law at some level took place, what the Justice Department’s investigation fully exposed was breathtaking dysfunction in the Ozaukee County court system. A place where the administration of justice often seems hampered by a county clerk of courts and an administrative staff that Voiland claims has an ax to grind against him – a judge, Mueller insists, who has created a “hostile work environment.” Voiland, they insist, is unwilling to do things as they have always been done.
The judge makes it clear in the DOJ report, however, that doing things the way they have always been done at times has meant breaking the law.
Voiland asserts Mueller and her staff backdated multiple court documents, deleted dates, and even changed the status of a probate case.
“Judge Voiland stated, from examining this form versus the actual case file, it is clear that the Clerk of Court had changed the case designation from ‘Formal Administration’ to ‘Informal Administration’ on this form,” the DOJ report states. “Judge Voiland stated this change is not to be made without telling Judge Voiland.”
That’s not just a judge’s preference; it’s the law.
The change had the effect of the clerk of court granting an extension to complete the estate case, a power that clearly is the authority of the presiding judge.
The DOJ report also notes allegations that the clerk of court and staff defied court directives.
In one case, the clerk of courts office on multiple occasions failed to deliver judge substitution requests to Voiland, something that must be done under the law. Mueller, according to documents, blamed a new staff member in the office. Eventually Koschnick, chief judge of the Third District at the time, advised Mueller that if she didn’t personally and promptly present Voiland with substitution requests, he would find someone else to do the job – at county expense. Mueller complied.
Voiland, as he has in the past, declined to comment for this story.