MacIver News Service
By M.D. Kittle
MADISON, Wis. – The judge who brought multiple allegations of misconduct against Ozaukee County Court administrators is now asking whether the chief judge overseeing an investigation into the charges should remove herself from the case over concerns of potential bias.
In a letter last week to Third Judicial Administrative District Chief Judge Jennifer Dorow, Ozaukee County Judge Joe Voiland raises serious concerns about the potential bias of Dorow’s top administrator.
“… (W)e ask that you determine, and set forth in writing, whether you will recuse yourself pursuant to the Wisconsin Supreme Court Rules, Section 60.04(4),” Voiland’s attorney, Brent Nistler, wrote in the letter regarding “Potential Conflict of Interest.”
Nistler references documents obtained by MacIver News Service in its investigation into the troubled Ozaukee County Court System. Included in hundreds of pages returned through an open records request was a Jan. 15 email by Third Judicial District Administrator Michael Neimon, Judge Dorow’s top assistant.
Neimon’s email, to Ozaukee County Court Clerk Mary Lou Mueller, included sample answers to questions posed by Eric Litke, a reporter for USA Today Network-Wisconsin. Litke sought comment from Mueller about a state Department of Justice investigation into the Ozaukee County Court system. The agency had recently wrapped up the lengthy probe into Voiland’s misconduct allegations, ending the investigation without charges or comment.
“I took a stab at some answers as I remember them,” Neimon wrote in the 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 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 on to 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, including the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. That story appeared a month after MacIver News Service first reported on the allegations.
Neimon’s suggestions to Mueller occurred weeks before Dorow announced she had “initiated an administrative investigation to address recent reports and concerns related to court administration in Ozaukee County.”
Dorow, a Waukesha County judge, heads up the Third Judicial Administrative District, which includes Jefferson, Ozaukee, Washington, and Waukesha Counties. The chief judge has said she “expects this (investigative) process to identify any necessary next steps to ensure that the people of Ozaukee County have full confidence in the administration of the courts,” according to a February press release.
Patrick Fiedler, a former U.S. attorney and Dane County judge, was tapped to lead the fact-finding investigation. Sources tell MacIver News that Fiedler has conducted several interviews thus far.
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 have told 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.”
Voiland’s attorney, in his letter to Dorow, points to Neimon’s involvement in the public relations effort.
“Published reports, citing documents obtained as open records, indicate that your Administrator authored the attached letter on behalf of subjects of the investigation, denying the claims at issue in these proceedings,” Nistler wrote. He included Mueller’s response to Litke in the six pages of information he sent to Dorow. “That letter labels material information as ‘false’ and falsely states that the Department of Justice ‘concluded that there was no basis’ to the claims at issue.”
“At a minimum, with respect to the level of coordination between your Administrator and the subjects of this investigation, you appear to be a witness who may have relevant information relating to that letter and how it came to be,” the attorney continued.
According to emails, the clerk of courts in December requested a meeting with Dorow and Neimon to discuss the Department of Justice report 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 Ozaukee County lead Judge Paul Malloy and Neimon and be in touch after the holidays.
Nistler wrote that Neimon’s assistance to Mueller “appears to indicate” Dorow’s office “judged these matters prior to the start of the investigation – and failed to disclose that judgment at the outset,” begging the question of recusal.
As MacIver News Service first reported in January, the Ozaukee County Court system seems riddled with personality clashes and outright feuds. More so, the county clerk of courts, staff members and an administrator have been accused of changing and deleting a judge’s online court cases and not following the judge’s order.
Voiland in the spring of 2016 took his concerns to then-Jefferson County Judge Randy Koschnick, who also served as chief judge in the Third Judicial District. Koschnick, who is now Wisconsin’s director of State Courts, was concerned enough to get the director of the Consolidated Court Automation Programs (CCAP), the online state court records system, involved.
An examination of dozens of Voiland’s case files found someone had indeed been messing with the records, a felony crime – depending on intent.
Voiland, according to the DOJ report, accuses Ozaukee County Clerk of Courts Mary Lou Mueller, Judge Paul Malloy, and Ozaukee County Circuit Court Commissioner Barry Boline of exceeding their authority in dealing with court documents and other court matters.
Mueller insists the allegations are “false and unfounded.” Of course records were changed, the court clerk said. As the county has transferred to an all-online court records system, there was some “cleanup” in order.
Tom Sheehan, Wisconsin Court System information officer, on Friday said the administrative investigation “remains ongoing.”
M.D. Kittle is an Investigative Reporter with the MacIver Institute. This article appears courtesy of the MacIver Institute.