OZAUKEE PRESS EDITORIAL: A judge accuses and the public pays

Taxpayers will not have to pay $33,324 in attorney fees incurred by Clerk of Courts Mary Lou Mueller to defend herself against false criminal accusations by Circuit Judge Joseph Voiland.

A celebration is not in order. Taxpayers have paid dearly to deal with the disruptions inflicted on the Ozaukee County court system by Voiland to the point where the clerk’s legal expenses would have been a comparative pittance.

The amount is not a pittance for Mueller, of course. It’s a large amount of money that an elected administrative official should never have had to spend but felt compelled to by the gravity of Voiland’s allegations—that she committed a felony punishable by prison. The legal bills did not go away just because the allegations were found to be bogus.

A good case that reimbursement of the clerk’s attorney fees was justified could have been made, but the County Board was conflicted; members expressed support for Mueller but, fearful of setting a precedent and following the advice of the county’s insurer and corporation counsel, denied the claim.

A contributing factor was the fact Mueller had access to legal counsel provided to the county through its insurer.

Members of the committee considering Mueller’s claim were nonetheless given a vivid example of Voiland’s animosity toward the clerk when the judge tried to address the panel to argue against the reimbursement.

When the committee chairman rebuffed him, Voiland issued a written statement that included a copy of a letter threatening to sue Mueller for the following comment made to Ozaukee Press: “These were very serious allegations for Judge Voiland to make with no foundation whatsoever.”

Coming from any other source, a threat to sue someone for making a perfectly true statement would be considered a joke.

In this case, no one is laughing.

This threat followed a demand by Voiland’s lawyer that Ozaukee Press retract news articles reporting that the judge’s accusations of criminal misconduct were found to have been false.

The newspaper rejected the demand and stands by the truthfulness of its reporting.

Absent an audit of the work of all of the agencies and offices involved in the Voiland contretemps, it is impossible to put an exact dollar amount on the cost to taxpayers, but any reasonable estimate will surely result in a many-digited number.

It started with a 16-month investigation by the Wisconsin Division of Criminal Investigation whose analysts, investigators and lawyers are paid by the taxpayers to deal with serious lawbreakers.

The probe was instigated by Voiland without the knowledge of the fellow court system officials—Circuit Judge Paul Malloy, Court Commissioner Barry Boline and Mueller—he accused of criminal misconduct by falsifying records to make him look bad.

After the state investigators worked on the case for more than a year, including sending agents to the Ozaukee County Justice Center, the investigation was abruptly closed when Voiland stopped cooperating with it.

There was no finding of any criminal wrongdoing.

This was followed by an investigation ordered by the state court system with a retired judge who is a former U.S. attorney and staff hired at public expense to look into Voiland’s accusations against court officials.

The investigation was completed with a definitive finding by Patrick Fiedler: “I find that there is no basis to believe that anyone has violated Wis. Stat. 946.12 Misconduct in Public Office.” He made it clear that there was no basis to believe that Mueller, Malloy or Boline had attempted to “usurp the authority of Judge Voiland.”        

Next came a state audit of the clerk’s office at public expense, which found no improper handling of the office’s financial responsibilities.

The taxpayers also paid for the legal counsel provided for the accused officials by the insurer. Further, the many hours spent by Ozaukee County officials providing documents and interviews for the various investigations added to the taxpayer bill.

While it is not possible to apply a financial cost to the damage done to the reputation of the Ozaukee court system by the spectacle of the serial investigations, the negative notoriety accrued by Judge Voiland imposed a cost in lost efficiency, clogged court calendars and delays in the administration of justice.

In 2018 alone, 218 substitution requests were filed by defendants and plaintiffs not wanting to take their chances in Voiland’s court.

This compares with only 30 substitutions during the year for Judge Sandy Williams and a mere eight for Judge Paul Malloy.

While it is unclear whether any legal fees Voiland generated for himself in the various investigations were charged to the public, it is obvious that he has little interest in sparing taxpayers.

He recently sued the chief judge who oversaw the investigation that rejected his allegations of wrongdoing in the Ozaukee court system.

The lawsuit not only accuses Judge Jennifer Dorow of violating the Open Records Law, but seeks punitive damages and legal fees that would likely come out of the pockets of taxpayers.

So much for the bad news.

As for the good news, there actually is some: Voiland is not running for re-election, and voters will have a choice of four candidates to replace him on the Branch 2 Circuit Court bench.

Even at this point, four months before his term ends, it can be said that Ozaukee County has never before experienced anything like Joseph Voiland’s impact on its court system.

May it never experience it again.

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Ozaukee Press

Wisconsin’s largest paid circulation community weekly newspaper. Serving Port Washington, Saukville, Grafton, Fredonia, Belgium, as well as Ozaukee County government. Locally owned and printed in Port Washington, Wisconsin.

125 E. Main St.
Port Washington, WI 53074
(262) 284-3494
 

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