County doesn’t deny official’s legal fees claim

Committee to consider clerk of courts’ request to be reimbursed for lawyers she hired during court probe
Ozaukee Press staff

Expressing support for a county employee, Ozaukee County supervisors on Wednesday decided not to deny a claim filed by Clerk of Courts Mary Lou Mueller seeking reimbursement for $33,224 that she paid lawyers to represent her during an administrative investigation of the court system earlier this year.

Instead, the County Board voted 17-9 to refer Mueller’s claim to the Public Safety Committee.

Based on the advice of the county’s insurance company, Corporation Counsel Rhonda Gorden recommended the board deny the claim.

But Supr. Patrick Marchese made a motion to accept the claim, saying that doing so would show support for a longtime county employee and help put an embarrassing courthouse controversy to rest. 

“If we don’t support an employee when they are challenged it will have a chilling effect on how we go about doing our jobs and on the future hiring of high-level employees,” he said. “And I don’t know that it’s in the best interests of the county to continue this controversy. It’s a bad reflection on the quality of Ozaukee County.”

Ultimately Marchese’s motion was changed to direct the matter to the committee.

Mueller, a veteran of the Clerk of Courts Office who was elected to lead the department in 2011 and also serves as the county’s register in probate, hired two law firms to represent her after Jennifer Dorow, chief judge of the Third Judicial District, ordered the probe in February to look into allegations made by Ozaukee County Circuit Judge Joseph Voiland.

That probe came on the heels of a 16-month criminal investigation into claims made by Voiland that court records had been falsified to undermine him. Voiland accused Mueller and two other court officials of criminal misconduct in office, according to a Wisconsin Department of Justice Division of Criminal Investigation report.

The investigation, which began in May 2016, dragged on for months, then in September 2017 was abruptly closed without conclusions or recommendations after Voiland stopped cooperating. 

The administrative probe that followed, which was conducted by former U.S. attorney and retired Dane County Judge Patrick Fiedler, concluded in July and found no evidence of criminal wrongdoing in the court system.

“I find that there is no basis to believe that anyone has violated Wis. Stat. 946.12 Misconduct in Public Office,” Fiedler wrote in his report. “There is also no basis to find that anyone has violated any other criminal statute.”

Mueller said last month that because of the seriousness of the allegations against her and the fact they prompted a second investigation, she hired a lawyer.

“We thought it was done” when the criminal investigation was closed, she said. “But when the second investigation was announced, it became clear this wasn’t going away. I don’t want to call it a witch hunt, but they were looking hard for something that didn’t exist, and that concerned me.

“These were very serious allegations for Judge Voiland to make with no foundation whatsoever. I felt I needed representation.”

At about the same time the administrative investigation began, the county received numerous open records requests related to the investigations, many of which were from the MacIver Institute, a conservative think tank. Gorden said she consulted with the county’s insurance carrier, Wisconsin County Mutual Insurance Corp., which offered to provide a lawyer under the county’s liability policy to deal primarily with the records requests.

Mueller hired lawyer Kathy Nusslock of the Milwaukee law firm Davis & Kuelthau, who in a Feb. 15 letter to Gorden requested the county provide a lawyer for Mueller or pay Nusslock’s fees and costs. Nusslock did not receive a formal response, Mueller said.

But Gorden said Samuel Hall, the Milwaukee lawyer hired by the county’s insurance company, was available to advise employees.

“We made sure that employees in the Clerk of Courts Office knew they could meet with Sam Hall,” Gorden said. “The county did provide representation for its employees.”

Mueller, however, said that because the allegations against her were serious, she needed her own lawyer.

“Yes, Sam Hall was hired to represent the county, but he wasn’t hired to represent me,” she said.

On Nusslock’s advice, Mueller hired a second law firm, Gimbel, Reilly, Guerin & Brown of Milwaukee, to represent her. Invoices show that the two firms represented Mueller from February into early July when the administrative investigation ended and a report was issued.

In response to Voiland’s claims that records had been falsified and that Mueller abused her power, Fiedler found that Mueller had “reasonable” explanations for some of her actions. In other cases, mistakes, one of which he described as an “innocent error” by a deputy clerk, were made but Mueller “has taken appropriate measures to correct past errors and to ensure that court records are accurate going forward,” Fiedler wrote.

He concluded that there was no attempt by other court officials to “usurp the authority of Judge Voiland.”

A follow-up financial audit recommended by Fiedler that was concluded in October found that payments for family court services, mediation and custody studies were handled properly by the Clerk of Courts Office.

Mueller said last month she wasn’t sure she would pursue her claim for reimbursement further if it was denied by the county.

“That’s something I need to think hard about,” she said. “I do believe the county has a duty to make sure its elected officials can do their jobs.”






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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.

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