Attorney general candidates spar over experience during final debate
MADISON, Wis. — Who is experienced enough to be Wisconsin’s next attorney general was a central focus during the third and final attorney general debate Wednesday night at the State Bar Association.
“We need an experienced attorney general, who’s not going to earn while they learn,” the Republican, Waukesha County District Attorney Brad Schimel said. “I’ve got that experience with 25 years as a front-line prosecutor.”
“Both Brad and I are experienced front-line prosecutors,” the Democrat, Jefferson County District Attorney Susan Happ responded. “I put away serial killers, heroin dealers, domestic abusers and sexual predators. I also have 10 years, a decade, of private practice experience.”
To reinforce his claim that his opponent lacks experience, Schimel used Happ’s 2009 prosecution of Andrew Wirth, who shot and killed off-duty Oconomowoc police officer Jennifer Luick, and her boyfriend Greg Peters, during a bar fight. Wirth was eventually sentenced to 10 years in prison.
“Ms. Happ sent out an email in the middle of that trial to prosecutors statewide, that I saw, and many others saw, that demonstrated she was over her head,” Schimel said. “Wasn’t the jury’s fault. She got it reduced to the lowest possible homicide. She got in that position because she wasn’t prepared, she didn’t know the law well enough, of self-defense.”
“In terms of the Wirth case, you know that your representation of the email, and that case, is not true. No matter how many times you say it, it isn’t true,” Happ responded as she looked directly at Schimel.
Happ told the audience that prosecutors assisting other prosecutors is a common practice.
“That’s what we’re there for,” Happ said. “At the very end of our trial my judge decided to give a homicide by negligent use of a dangerous weapon instruction. And my email to Brad, and others, was asking whether that was actually a lesser included (change) and whether he was entitled to that instruction, which he was not.”
ATTACKING ATTACK ADS
Schimel’s accusations that Happ lacks experience came after the Democrat attacked Schimel’s attack ad.
“I haven’t really picked apart Brad’s record. His campaign has been desperate to paint me from the beginning as ‘soft on crime,’ Happ said. “Last Friday, Brad had the chance to look me in the eye and say I was soft on crime, and he didn’t. Yet at the same time he was talking about independent, negative attack ads, Brad was running his own independent attack ads against me with false claims that I receive payment from predators.”
The Schimel ad, in part, says, “Another child molester case sat for months while Happ finished pocketing $180,000 in a land deal with the molester, who is still on the streets.”
Happ and her husband sold a piece of property to Daniel Reynolds in 2009, with payment on that property to go through 2013. Reynolds was accused of sexual assault in 2011 by his 25-year-old sister-in-law, who claimed the assaults happened when she was in fifth grade. Charges were not filed in the case until 2013.
The case ended in a plea deal for deferred prosecution in March. Documents show if Reynolds received a psycho-sexual evaluation and treatment, paid for the victim’s therapy and stayed out of trouble with the law for 12 months, he would be charged with disorderly conduct instead of sexual assault in March of 2015.
The attorney on the case was not Happ, but an assistant district attorney in her office. Happ claimed she was not involved, but the case was handled by her office. The victim filed a complaint with the State Office of Lawyer Regulation, and a Republican Party employee filed a second complaint with the state’s Government Accountability Board challenging Happ’s handling of the case. In both cases Happ has been cleared of any conflict.
During the debate, Schimel did not specifically address his Happ attack ad.
“I said our records were fair game, and the public was welcome to consider those. But it’s important that we consider just, truthful representations,” Schimel said, instead turning the focus to an attack ad by a party Schimel identified as Happ’s allies.
“Her allies ran a series of ads that have been demonstrably false,” Schimel said. “I’m confident enough if the voters look at my record they’ll find I have a strong record.”
Schimel renewed accusations Happ is a liberal activist who will hurt businesses, saying she will turn the state Justice Department into another hurdle. He said she will especially fight to stop a proposed iron mine in far northwestern Wisconsin even though federal and state environmental agencies have oversight of the project.
“She’s an activist who has promised to dangerously pick and choose which laws she likes and which laws she doesn’t,” Schimel said.
Happ, meanwhile, reiterated she would fight to protect voting rights and women’s reproductive rights. Happ has said previously that she would not defend GOP-authored laws mandating voters show photo identification and abortion providers to get admitting privileges at nearby hospitals. Happ also took issue with Schimel’s idea to move district attorneys from the state Administration Department to the state Justice Department.
“That sounds like an activist to me,” Happ said. “Brad also wants to move the lab of hygiene over to the Department of Justice. And he has a lot of plans. But he doesn’t articulate how he’s going to pay for those plans, how we’re going to adjust for the personnel or what we’re going to do to fill the void.”
ROLE TO LEGISLATE
A key difference thoughout the campaign has been Schimel’s view if elected attorney general he would defend state laws no matter his personal opinion, while Happ said a law’s constitutional muster must be considered.
“The attorney general is not a legislator,” Happ said when asked if elected attorney general she would push to change legislative policy. “But the attorney general certainly has the wonderful opportunity to let legislators know when there are gaps in the law. So I think it’s a good ability for the attorney general where we’re falling short and where we can improve.”
While Schimel recounted a long resume of state task forces he has sat on that has advised the legislature, he stood firm in saying he would not promote his personal beliefs as attorney general.
“When the state of Wisconsin elects an attorney general, they are in fact electing their attorney. And your job is not to represent your personal interests, and personal views, and inflict those on the voters by being a super legislator.”
Both Happ and Schimel said if elected the state’s next “top cop,” their priority will be combating the state’s heroin epidemic.
While Happ said her plan is better than Schimel’s because she will use her experience holding local summits, which she said brings heroin resources directly to local communities, Schimel said he has been doing that for years, and Happ’s heroin plan offers no real vision, while his is contingent on continuing to secure drug treatment court funding.
“My opponent talks about being part of her heroin task force. That wasn’t started until (late) 2013,” Schimel said. “I led the charge to create Waukesha County’s successful drug treatment court. And it’s been up and running, successful for years. And in Jefferson County there were identified 14 delivery of heroin cases in the city of Watertown alone in 2010. And yet it took more than three years before she responded in any way compressible.”
“As Brad knows full well in law enforcement we’re often dependent on our law enforcement agencies to make referrals to us in order to prosecute those types of actions. And they’re often dependent on confidential informants. And, so, in terms of timelines we know we have to aggressively and quickly prosecute those cases.”