City health com­mis­sioner fi­nal­ist has his­tory of fi­nan­cial trou­bles.

Milwaukee Journal Sentinel - - Front Page - Con­tact Daniel Bice at (414) 2242135 or dbice@jrn.com. Fol­low him on Twit­ter @DanielBice or on Face­book at fb.me/daniel.bice.

You just knew the selec­tion of the next com­mis­sioner for the troubled Mil­wau­kee Health Depart­ment would not go off with­out a hitch.

That’s be­cause, just days af­ter city of­fi­cials an­nounced the pair of fi­nal­ists for the job, it comes to light that one of them has a his­tory of fi­nan­cial trou­bles.

Jeanette Kowa­lik, an as­so­ciate direc­tor of the As­so­ci­a­tion of Ma­ter­nal & Child Health Pro­grams in Wash­ing­ton, D.C., has filed for bankruptcy twice and had a Mil­wau­kee home fore­closed on by a lender and then sold.

Kowa­lik, 39, most re­cently filed for Chap­ter 7 bankruptcy in 2014, list­ing $217,000 in as­sets and $406,000 in li­a­bil­i­ties. Her as­sets at the time in­cluded the Mil­wau­kee house and time­shares in two con­do­mini­ums in Orlando, Fla. Later in 2014, Kowa­lik was sued by mort­gage lender James B. Nut­ter & Co. for not mak­ing pay­ments on the house, which she bought for $152,000.

Chap­ter 7 bankruptcy al­lows a cred­i­tor to clear most un­se­cured debts, such as credit cards and medical bills. It did not al­low Kowa­lik, how­ever, to dis­pose of her $170,000 in ed­u­ca­tion loans.

Mil­wau­kee Mayor Tom Bar­rett is ex­pected to choose be­tween Kowa­lik and Sanjib Bhat­tacharyya, the Health Depart­ment’s lab­o­ra­tory direc­tor, to fill the com­mis­sioner’s post. Pa­tri­cia McManus, the long­time leader of the Black Health Coali­tion of Wis­con­sin, is the in­terim direc­tor.

Ald. Michael Mur­phy, who was one of eight of­fi­cials on the com­mit­tee that rec­om­mended the two fi­nal­ists, said he would have liked to have known about Kowa­lik’s fi­nan­cial trou­bles.

Such in­for­ma­tion, he said, would not have de­ter­mined — on its own — how he would have viewed Kowa­lik’s can­di­dacy. But he said it would have been rel­e­vant in de­cid­ing whether she should be run­ning an agency with a $21.7 mil­lion bud­get.

“It would have played a role in my de­ci­sion-mak­ing,” Mur­phy said. He added, “You would think any­one ap­ply­ing for such a high-pro­file job would have known this would be­come pub­lic in­for­ma­tion right away.”

It doesn’t ap­pear that the city had fully vet­ted the job can­di­dates.

Maria Mon­teagudo, the city’s direc­tor of em­ployee re­la­tions, said the com­mit­tee was given the re­spon­si­bil­ity of re­view­ing the pool of 10 can­di­dates based on their ré­sumés and ref­er­ences. The panel then re­ferred two fi­nal­ists to the mayor for his con­sid­er­a­tion.

“If and when the mayor makes a de­ci­sion on whether he wants to nom­i­nate some­one based on their qual­i­fi­ca­tions and pro­fes­sional ref­er­ences, a back­ground check will be done,” Mon­teagudo said by email.

A spokes­woman for the mayor said Bar­rett was un­aware of the fi­nal­ist’s past fi­nan­cial woes.

Kowa­lik, who has a doc­tor­ate in health sciences from the Univer­sity of Wis­con­sin-Mil­wau­kee, pro­vided the Jour­nal Sen­tinel with a five-para­graph state­ment em­pha­siz­ing the ob­sta­cles she has over­come since be­ing born to a black mother and Pol­ish fa­ther.

Kowa­lik

“I can re­late to many as I had to work my way up and out of poverty,” Kowa­lik wrote. “Ed­u­ca­tion was my way out.”

Fed­eral records show she first filed for bankruptcy in 2003, a year af­ter she got her un­der­grad­u­ate de­gree from UWM. De­tails of that court ac­tion are not avail­able.

Kowa­lik worked for the city Health Depart­ment for six years. While there, she got a mas­ter’s in pub­lic health from North­ern Illi­nois Univer­sity.

She re­ceived a doc­tor­ate in 2013 while work­ing for the Wauwatosa Health Depart­ment and Boys & Girls Clubs of Greater Mil­wau­kee. She pre­vi­ously served as UW-Madi­son’s direc­tor of pre­ven­tion and cam­pus health ini­tia­tives.

Along the way, she bought a duplex in the En­deris Park neigh­bor­hood on the city’s north­west side. She said she was then caught in the na­tional fore­clo­sure cri­sis.

“I was young and pur­chased my first home in 2007 and was im­pacted by the re­ces­sion,” she wrote. “This is not unique to most Amer­i­cans who pur­chased homes shortly be­fore the re­ces­sion and were un­able to sell due to de­creased prop­erty val­ues ver­sus mort­gages owed.”

As a re­sult, Kowa­lik — the sin­gle par­ent of a 19-year-old son — said she needed to file for bankruptcy, which she called “a form of fi­nan­cial re­cov­ery that has helped many Amer­i­cans.”

She said it is le­git­i­mate to ask about the fi­nan­cial back­grounds of pub­lic ser­vants ex­pected to over­see tax dol­lars. But she said her per­sonal fi­nan­cial his­tory “in no way re­flects my fu­ture abil­ity to run the Mil­wau­kee Health Depart­ment.”

She added, “I have demon­strated the abil­ity to not only ex­pe­ri­ence but re­cover from per­sonal fi­nan­cial chal­lenges which have NEVER im­pacted my abil­ity to func­tion in lead­er­ship po­si­tions, in­clud­ing man­age­ment of mil­lion dollar bud­gets.”

Paul Vorn­holt, chief of staff to the mayor, said Bar­rett will take into con­sid­er­a­tion “all ap­pro­pri­ate fac­tors,” in­clud­ing work his­tory and per­sonal back­ground, when se­lect­ing the next health chief.

If se­lected, Kowa­lik would not be the first top Mil­wau­kee health of­fi­cial with per­sonal fi­nan­cial trou­bles.

Baker’s prob­lems

For­mer Health Com­mis­sion Be­van Baker had the In­ter­nal Rev­enue Ser­vice put a lien on his prop­erty in July 2015 for un­paid fed­eral in­come taxes to­tal­ing $26,578 for four pre­vi­ous years. The lien has not been re­leased.

Baker — who was mak­ing $147,842 a year when he left of­fice — also had to go to court in 2012 to con­sol­i­date and pay off a se­ries of delin­quent loans from about a dozen pay­day lenders and other short-term, high-in­ter­est out­fits. In Jan­uary, Baker left his job as news broke that his be­lea­guered depart­ment failed to pro­vide ser­vices to fam­i­lies of thou­sands of chil­dren who had tested pos­i­tive for lead — or at least doc­u­ment those ef­forts.

Also com­ing un­der crit­i­cism has been the city pro­gram aimed at pre­vent­ing chil­dren from suf­fer­ing lead poi­son­ing. The prob­lems were first de­tailed in a scathing re­port re­leased by the mayor in Jan­uary and then in an even tougher state re­port last month.

Daniel Bice Mil­wau­kee Jour­nal Sen­tinel USA TO­DAY NET­WORK – WIS.

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