Secrecy of $1M settlement questioned

County cuts deal with Ralph Armstrong
Secrecy of $1M settlement questioned

Officials in Dane County have signed off on a secret $1 million legal settlement with a man whose murder conviction was overturned in 2005.

Dane County represented former prosector John Norsetter in a case brought by Ralph Armstrong, a man originally convicted of killing Cherise Kamps in 1980.

Armstrong’s case was overturned in 2005 over questions about DNA evidence and in 2009, a Dane County judge threw out the case completely. Norsetter was accused of not reporting a possible confession in the case, as well as allegedly destroying evidence that could have been re-tested.

Armstrong filed a federal civil rights lawsuit in 2012, alleging misconduct by Norsetter as well as by a Madison Police Department detective and a state DNA analyst, claiming they destroyed evidence that could have exonerated him.

Attorneys with Dane County, the city of Madison and the Wisconsin Department of Justice settled the case earlier this year, awarding Armstrong a total of $1.75 million.

As part of the Dane County part of that settlement, county officials, Armstrong and his attorneys agreed to a confidentiality clause that prohibits them from discussing any facts of the case or reasons why the settlement was struck with any member of the public, including the media.

County Board supervisor and former Assistant District Attorney Tim Kiefer criticized the inclusion of the confidentiality agreement.

“I think when $1 million of taxpayer money is being spent, people should be able to ask why this is happening,” Kiefer said. “Under this confidentiality agreement, nobody can do that.”

The clause also prohibits any posting on social media or “any writer, film producer, or anyone acting on behalf of a representative of a proposed book, article, movie, play or other type of performance.”

Kiefer also noted that the county board was not apprised of the settlement and did not approve it.

“This case is essentially about evidence that was allegedly destroyed,” Kiefer said. “One question would be, ‘How can we prevent situations like this coming up in the future? What is it that we can do differently?’ But without being able to talk about the case, you can’t really learn from it.”

Dane County’s risk manager told News 3 the county board president, judiciary committee chair and county executive had all been briefed on the legal case.

Judiciary Committee chair Paul Rusk told News 3 the county’s attorney advised him that a confidentiality clause was needed and he “accepted advice that it needed to be confidential.”

Kiefer said he’d like to see it in state law that agreements involving taxpayer money cannot include a confidentiality clause. News 3 reached out to the chair of the Assembly Committee on Government Accountability and Oversight, Rob Hutton, whose aide told us he’s looking into the issue.