Court probe fallout: $33,000 in legal fees for official

Clerk of courts files claim with county seeking reimbursement for lawyers she hired during investigation sparked by judge
Ozaukee Press staff

Ozaukee County Clerk of Courts Mary Lou Mueller said an investigation sparked by Judge Joseph Voiland’s false accusations against her and two other court officials cost her more than $30,000 in legal fees.

Neither that investigation nor a criminal probe that preceded it found any evidence to support Voiland’s claims that Mueller, Ozaukee County presiding Judge Paul Malloy or Circuit Court Commissioner Barry Boline committed felony misconduct in office while conspiring to subvert his career, and now Mueller is asking the county to reimburse the $33,224 she paid attorneys who represented her during a state probe of the county court system earlier this year.

Mueller, a veteran of the Clerk of Courts Office who was elected to lead the department in 2011 and serves as the county’s register in probate, filed a $33,224 claim with the county last week.   

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

The claim is to be considered by the County Board on Dec. 5, and County Administrator Jason Dzwinel and  the county’s attorney, Corporation Counsel Rhonda Gorden, confirmed this week that the county’s insurance carrier has advised the board to deny the claim. Gorden said that she is prepared to recommend the board follow that advice.

Claims are often precursors to lawsuits, but Mueller said this week she has not decided whether to sue her longtime employer if her claim if denied.

“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.”

Fallout from a courthouse saga that began in spring 2016 and concluded just two months ago, Mueller’s claim is the first indication of the costs of multiple investigations triggered by Voiland, who unseated longtime Branch 2 Judge Tom Wolfgram in the April 2013 election with a campaign that focused on Wolfgram’s signing of the Gov. Scott Walker recall petition. 

Still unknown  are the costs of a 16-month criminal probe conducted by the Wisconsin Department of Justice’s Division of Criminal Investigation (DCI) and a state court system administrative investigation, both of which highlighted and perhaps cemented the rift between Voiland and other court officials but found no indication of wrongdoing in Ozaukee County’s court system.

The criminal investigation that began in May 2016 when Voiland contacted DCI and alleged that court records had been falsified to undermine him went on for months unbeknownst to courthouse officials. Then in December of that year, two agents showed up unannounced at the Ozaukee County Justice Center in Port Washington to interview court officials. Gorden sat in on some of the interviews, effectively serving as legal counsel for employees.

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

County court officials who thought that was the end of it were shocked when in February of this year Chief Judge of the Third Judicial District Jennifer Dorow ordered an administrative investigation of the court system “to address recent reports and concerns related to court administration.”

At about the same time, 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.

Shortly after the second investigation was announced, 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.

“We thought it was done” when the DCI 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.

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

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.

“I find that there is no basis to believe that anyone has violated Wis. Stat. 946.12 Misconduct in Public Office. There is also no basis to find that anyone has violated any other criminal statute,” Patrick Fiedler, a former U.S. attorney and longtime Dane County circuit judge who conducted the administrative investigation, wrote in his report.

In response to Voiland’s claims that records had been intentionally 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 Malloy, Mueller or Boline 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.

“This has been a very difficult time ... a long time to be under this much stress,” Mueller said this week. “But if there is bright spot, we came through all of this squeaky clean.”






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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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