Milwaukee Magazine - - Content - By Doug Moe

Jim San­telle had his world shaken in 2015, when mis­con­duct in­ves­ti­ga­tions led him to step down as U.S. at­tor­ney. He tells the story of that dark time, and brighter days ahead, in a Mil­wau­kee Magazine ex­clu­sive.

The meet­ing that day in early November 2013 took place in a sec­ond-floor con­fer­ence room at the Robert F. Kennedy Depart­ment of Jus­tice (DOJ) Build­ing in Washington, or “Main Jus­tice.”

The At­tor­ney Gen­eral’s Ad­vi­sory Com­mit­tee brings to­gether 16 United States at­tor­neys from around the coun­try to dis­cuss every­thing from per­son­nel and bud­gets to crack co­caine and hu­man traf­fick­ing. It’s an honor to be ap­pointed. The chair­woman of the com­mit­tee that day was Loretta Lynch, a fu­ture at­tor­ney gen­eral who at the time was a U.S. at­tor­ney from New York.

James L. San­telle, a Mil­wau­kee na­tive ap­pointed U.S. at­tor­ney for the Eastern Dis­trict of Wis­con­sin by Pres­i­dent Barack Obama, had been on the com­mit­tee for nearly two years.

On that November day, San­telle was called out of the meet­ing. Deputy At­tor­ney Gen­eral Jim Cole, the sec­ond high­est rank­ing of­fi­cial at DOJ, wanted to see him, a mes­sage re­layed by Cole’s sec­re­tary.

San­telle fig­ured he’d been sum­moned for rou­tine busi­ness to dis­cuss a planned stair­way con­struc­tion at the Mil­wau­kee of­fice.

“It’s not about the stair­way, Jim,” San­telle re­calls Cole telling him. The deputy at­tor­ney gen­eral was look­ing at a le­gal pad he held in front of him. He told San­telle he was there to talk about his credit card.

All U.S. at­tor­neys and as­sis­tant U.S. at­tor­neys – San­telle had be­come an as­sis­tant U.S. at­tor­ney in 1985 – have a gov­ern­ment travel charge card.

“There are 31 per­sonal uses, goods and ser­vices, on your credit card,” Cole told him.

“My heart sank,” San­telle says.

It was the num­ber – 31 – of the per­sonal trans­ac­tions that stopped him.

San­telle knew he’d mis­tak­enly used the card for a few pur­chases – the ad­min­is­tra­tive of­fice in Mil­wau­kee had alerted him – but he never sought gov­ern­ment re­im­burse­ment for those items, and there cer­tainly weren’t more than a hand­ful.

San­telle got the list by email, back in Mil­wau­kee the fol­low­ing day. He could see im­me­di­ately that many of the ques­tioned items weren’t per­sonal trans­ac­tions, but it was un­clear whether they’d nonethe­less vi­o­late gov­ern­ment travel reg­u­la­tions. Get­ting to the bot­tom of it was go­ing to take awhile, and be­fore long, he had help, of a sort: DOJ’s Of­fice of the In­spec­tor Gen­eral (OIG) was in­ves­ti­gat­ing.

While the credit card in­ves­ti­ga­tion was on­go­ing, a sec­ond in­quiry was launched con­cern­ing a gath­er­ing that San­telle agreed to host in May 2014 at his home in Brook­field for Wis­con­sin at­tor­ney gen­eral can­di­date Jon Richards.

Laws and reg­u­la­tions, in­clud­ing the 1939 Hatch Act, pro­hibit fed­eral pros­e­cu­tors (among oth­ers) from be­ing in­volved in par­ti­san pol­i­tics.

Though the Richards event never hap­pened – San­telle can­celed it when ques­tions arose – an­other, ear­lier gath­er­ing, for gu­ber­na­to­rial can­di­date Mary Burke, was held at San­telle’s res­i­dence in November 2013. The in­quiry even­tu­ally ex­panded to San­telle’s par­tic­i­pa­tion in non-po­lit­i­cal fundrais­ing events. He was – and re­mains – a tire­less ad­vo­cate for nu­mer­ous so­cial jus­tice or­ga­ni­za­tions.

Though San­telle re­garded the pos­si­ble vi­o­la­tions as se­ri­ous, he was stead­fast in his be­lief that while he was care­less and made mis­takes, his in­tent was never to vi­o­late rules or reg­u­la­tions. He car­ried on – he be­lieves ef­fec­tively – with his U.S. at­tor­ney du­ties while the in­ves­ti­ga­tions pro­ceeded. He told no one in his of­fice about them, not even his sec­re­tary. Yet on March 23, 2015, the Mil­wau­kee Jour­nal Sentinel – cit­ing “sources close to the in­ves­ti­ga­tion” – broke the story that San­telle was be­ing in­ves­ti­gated for credit card mis­use and the can­celed Richards event.

Three months later, he an­nounced his res­ig­na­tion.

“Jim, the in­ves­ti­ga­tions aren’t done yet. You may want to think this through,” he re­calls Monty Wilkin­son, di­rec­tor of the Executive Of­fice of U.S. At­tor­neys, telling him when he an­nounced the news first. San­telle replied, “I have.” Af­ter call­ing Wilkin­son, he gath­ered the 70 staffers in his of­fice and broke the news to them.

“I de­cided that res­ig­na­tion was the most ap­pro­pri­ate and hon­or­able thing to do,” he says. “We’re the ones who say other peo­ple have bro­ken the rules. When the one at the top is al­legedly in­volved in break­ing the rules – not laws, but rules in a very broad con­text – and the pub­lic knows about that, I thought it could have a sig­nif­i­cant im­pact on the ca­pac­ity of the of­fice to do the job we’re as­signed to do.”

On July 31, his last day, he turned his desk into a break­fast venue, invit­ing the staff in for fruit, yo­gurt, breads, eggs, sticky buns and desserts. “A few, in­ter­mit­tent tears by some,” he re­mem­bers, “but mostly laugh­ter, warmth, hu­man­ity.”

That evening, with the staff all gone, San­telle and his niece re­moved some last per­sonal items from his of­fice – in­clud­ing pho­tos of U.S. At­tor­ney Gen­er­als El­liot Richard­son, Bobby Kennedy, Janet Reno and Ed­ward Levi. It was “solemn” and “re­flec­tive,” San­telle says, when he went around turn­ing off the lights one last time. They then went to Noo­dles for din­ner.

The next morn­ing, his first as a pri­vate cit­i­zen, he ran the 6K me­mo­rial run at Oak Creek High School hon­or­ing the six mem­bers of the Sikh tem­ple killed in the 2012 mass shoot­ing by a white na­tion­al­ist, a case San­telle was closely in­volved in in­ves­ti­gat­ing.

Since then – and un­til now – he has not spo­ken to the me­dia.

The OIG re­ports on the in­ves­ti­ga­tions were made pub­lic in the sum­mer of 2016. They said San­telle had used the gov­ern­ment credit card for 37 “ques­tion­able trans­ac­tions” (an ad­di­tional six were dis­cov­ered af­ter the ini­tial sweep) and that he’d vi­o­lated DOJ pol­icy by par­tic­i­pat­ing in po­lit­i­cal ac­tiv­i­ties.

San­telle ad­mits he made mis­takes, but the re­ports also claimed that he was “not forth­com­ing” and “lacked can­dor” dur­ing the in­ves­ti­ga­tions. Those state­ments he strongly de­nies.

San­telle is also con­cerned – given how quickly per­cep­tions can be drawn from a head­line – that peo­ple think he prof­ited per­son­ally from the mis­use of the gov­ern­ment credit card. In fact, he says, the op­po­site is true. Sev­eral of the trans­ac­tions were deemed ques­tion­able be­cause while they were of­fi­cial busi­ness, San­telle didn’t seek re­im­burse­ment (the card­holder pays the bill and then seeks gov­ern­ment re­im­burse­ment). As for charges that were in­deed per­sonal, he never sought to be re­im­bursed, a point on which the OIG agrees.

San­telle thinks, too, per­haps be­cause he has been pub­licly quiet in the 21 months since an­nounc­ing his res­ig­na­tion, that some peo­ple, even friends, as­sume he’s gone down a deep hole of de­pres­sion. Though there were dark days, he says he’s do­ing fine.

“More than all right,” he says. “A lot of things hap­pen in life that are much worse than this.”

He has con­tin­ued work­ing with com­mu­nity groups in sup­port of civil and hu­man rights. He has spo­ken to classes about the le­gal sys­tem and even acted in plays, in­clud­ing “To Kill a Mock­ing­bird” in Wauke­sha last fall, a pro­duc­tion in which San­telle played a racist pros­e­cu­tor.

That’s one thing that he never was. If there were crit­ics of San­telle’s ten­ure as eastern Wis­con­sin’s top pros­e­cu­tor, they tended to sug­gest he wasn’t ag­gres­sive enough. Oth­ers found that ad­mirable.

“Jim’s first re­ac­tion,” says Madi­son at­tor­ney Dean Strang, who worked briefly along­side San­telle as a pros­e­cu­tor in Mil­wau­kee in the 1980s, “was not to ask, ‘Who can I in­dict to­day?’ His first re­ac­tion was to ask, ‘How can I use the power of my of­fice and the tools of the Jus­tice Depart­ment and the fed­eral courts to try to make this a bet­ter com­mu­nity?’”

San­telle and his two older sisters, Su­san and Nancy, grew up read­ers in Brook­field. Ev­ery week in the sum­mer, a new hard­cover from the Weekly Reader book pro­gram would ar­rive in the mail. If San­telle was play­ing out­side, his mother would sum­mon him in to read.

Carol San­telle also in­sisted her kids learn about life be­yond Brook­field’s shop­ping malls. There was one evening – San­telle wasn’t yet 10 – when they were all watch­ing the WTMJ news and John McCul­lough was talk­ing about an on­go­ing demon­stra­tion that was get­ting heated. The po­lice were telling peo­ple to stay away from Down­town.

“My mother packed us up and took us into the city,” he says. “There were peo­ple who felt there was in­jus­tice, and she wanted her kids to see it.”

Af­ter grad­u­at­ing from Brook­field East High School, San­telle at­tended Mar­quette, study­ing English and his­tory and cheer­ing on the bas­ket­ball team’s 1977 na­tional cham­pi­onship run.

He en­rolled at the Univer­sity of Chicago Law School, where An­tonin Scalia was one of his pro­fes­sors. “He taught me every­thing I know about ad­min­is­tra­tive law,” San­telle says.

Rather than go­ing the com­mon Chicago grads’ route of sign­ing with a big firm, San­telle ac­cepted a clerk’s po­si­tion post-grad­u­a­tion with U.S. Dis­trict Judge Robert War­ren in Mil­wau­kee. War­ren was best known for hav­ing signed in 1979 an or­der pro­hibit­ing The Pro­gres­sive from pub­lish­ing an ar­ti­cle on how to build a hy­dro­gen bomb.

San­telle liked not only War­ren but also the as­sis­tant U.S. at­tor­neys he watched ap­pear be­fore the judge. He was of­fered an as­sis­tant’s job by Joe Stadt­mueller, U.S. at­tor­ney for the Eastern Dis­trict of Wis­con­sin, and never looked back. “One of the best de­ci­sions I’ve made,” he says.

Early on, he han­dled both civil and crim­i­nal pros­e­cu­tions. Franklyn Gim­bel, one of Mil­wau­kee’s most prom­i­nent crim­i­nal de­fense at­tor­neys, re­calls lit­i­gat­ing against San­telle in a case in which Gim­bel’s client was charged with sig­nif­i­cant co­caine pos­ses­sion. One of the pros­e­cu­tion’s wit­nesses was an ad­mit­ted abuser of the drug, and Gim­bel found an ex­pert who tes­ti­fied about how all that co­caine could mess up your sleep and make your brain gen­er­ally un­re­li­able. Feel­ing pleased with the tes­ti­mony, Gim­bel turned the wit­ness over to San­telle.

“He de­mol­ished the guy,” Gim­bel says. “It let me know he’s a smart guy who was very well pre­pared.”

San­telle’s rise in the ranks was steady, with ever-grow­ing roles in the Mil­wau­kee of­fice in­ter­rupted only briefly by two years at Main Jus­tice in Washington.

In 2006, his ca­reer took a dra­matic turn. The Jus­tice Depart­ment was look­ing for at­tor­neys to go to Iraq and help the Iraqis es­tab­lish their post-Sad­dam Hus­sein le­gal sys­tem. He de­cided to go.

“Amaz­ing and ter­ri­ble,” San­telle says now, de­scrib­ing his two years in Baghdad. He lived in a small trailer on the em­bassy grounds – Sad­dam’s old palace – shar­ing a bath­room with three sol­diers and be­ing care­ful to keep his mouth closed while show­er­ing be­cause the wa­ter was un­drink­able.

The Golden Mosque was bombed the month San­telle ar­rived. There was a day when some of San­telle’s col­leagues from Main Jus­tice were vis­it­ing and a mis­sile hit the em­bassy, shat­ter­ing win­dows, though no one was in­jured. “Not a scratch on me, ever, for two years,” San­telle says, de­spite close calls.

Things im­proved with the troop surge and the pro­mo­tion of Gen. David Pe­traeus to lead the war ef­fort. Pe­traeus and an­other top mil­i­tary of­fi­cial, Col. Mark Martins, were in­ter­ested in the courts and the de­tainees and see­ing that the jails were hu­mane and didn’t sim­ply in­spire more ter­ror­ists.

San­telle worked closely with both men. When he re­turned to the U.S. at­tor­ney’s of­fice in Mil­wau­kee, in Jan­uary 2008, he stayed in touch, send­ing notes of ap­pre­ci­a­tion which elicited warm re­sponses. Martins sent a three-book hard­cover set of The De­cline and Fall of the Ro­man Em­pire, which San­telle keeps in his

“Should I have known bet­ter? Yes. And I ac­knowl­edged

that from the start.”

liv­ing room. Else­where in the house in Brook­field is a hand­writ­ten note from Pe­traeus dated April 2009. It ends, “With thanks for all that you have done.”

San­telle sent – as he was leav­ing Iraq – eight or 10 boxes back to Wis­con­sin, filled with papers doc­u­ment­ing his ex­tra­or­di­nary ex­pe­ri­ence in a war zone. One of the boxes broke open in Chicago, lead­ing to a phone call from the F.B.I. There were clas­si­fied doc­u­ments in the box.

San­telle con­cedes he made a mis­take, but says the small amount of clas­si­fied ma­te­rial was from a se­cure email ac­count that also han­dled abun­dant mun­dane com­mu­ni­ca­tion, which is what he’d printed and shipped home. The F.B.I. closed the in­ves­ti­ga­tion af­ter find­ing no in­ten­tional vi­o­la­tion on San­telle’s part. He’d been care­less.

Later, some would see it as part of a pat­tern.

San­telle be­came U.S. at­tor­ney for the Eastern Dis­trict of Wis­con­sin in Jan­uary 2010. The of­fice has roughly 70 em­ploy­ees – half of them as­sis­tant U.S. at­tor­neys – and it has by some ac­counts been for many years di­vided by per­son­al­ity dif­fer­ences and con­trast­ing views on its mis­sion and pri­or­i­ties.

“I tried to be in­clu­sive,” says San­telle, who af­ter all worked in the of­fice for most of 30 years. “Even those peo­ple who I knew were not great fans of mine, I gave them po­si­tions of re­spon­si­bil­ity.” Of his own ob­jec­tive, San­telle had no doubt: “[At­tor­ney Gen­eral] Eric Holder would say, ‘Your role, U.S. at­tor­neys, is not sim­ply to throw peo­ple in jail. Is that a part of it? Yes. Un­de­ni­ably. But your role is also to be a prob­lem-solver.’”

To that end, San­telle reached out to the Mil­wau­kee Ur­ban League and the Metropoli­tan Mil­wau­kee Fair Hous­ing Coun­cil – among many other groups – to en­sure their peo­ple were be­ing treated fairly by the jus­tice sys­tem.

“Jim had a com­pas­sion and com­mit­ment to see that peo­ple’s civil rights were be­ing met,” says Bill Tis­dale, pres­i­dent and CEO of the Fair Hous­ing Coun­cil. “You would see him at com­mu­nity meet­ings. It wasn’t just 9 to 5 for him.”

In March 2015, San­telle hosted a Na­tional Women’s His­tory Month event at his of­fice. Wis­con­sin Supreme Court Jus­tice An­nette Ziegler spoke. Af­ter­ward, when San­telle re­turned to his of­fice, Cary Spi­vak from the Mil­wau­kee Jour­nal Sentinel called, say­ing he’d learned San­telle was un­der in­ves­ti­ga­tion for mis­us­ing his gov­ern­ment credit card and for his in­volve­ment in a po­ten­tial po­lit­i­cal event as well.

San­telle still doesn’t know who was the tip­ster, but sus­pects it came from some­one in­side the in­ves­tiga­tive unit in Washington or Chicago be­cause Spi­vak’s de­tailed and ac­cu­rate knowl­edge of both the credit card and po­lit­i­cal event in­ves­ti­ga­tions – two sep­a­rate probes.

By that time, the in­ves­ti­ga­tions were well un­der­way. Af­ter San­telle was alerted to the ques­tion­able charges on his gov­ern­ment credit card dur­ing his trip to Washington in November 2013, he re­ceived cor­re­spon­dence from the Chicago of­fice of the OIG re­quest­ing a meet­ing. San­telle drove to Chicago and met with OIG agents for the first of three in-per­son in­ter­views on Dec. 20.

The agents wanted to iden­tify what were the 37 ques­tion­able charges on his card. Many of them, San­telle says, he iden­ti­fied with­out much trou­ble, be­cause they were gov­ern­ment busi­ness.

More prob­lem­atic were the hand­ful of charges that San­telle made with the gov­ern­ment card for his per­sonal use. They in­cluded a roughly $330 charge from Grasch Foods; an $820 air­line ticket to at­tend his nephew’s col­lege grad­u­a­tion in Ten­nessee; and a roughly $500 car rental charge from En­ter­prise.

“Those should not have been there,” San­telle says. “Was it care­less? Ab­so­lutely. Was it wrong? Ab­so­lutely. I ac­knowl­edged it right away.”

San­telle says he never prof­ited per­son­ally from any as­pect of the card con­tro­versy. What may trou­ble even his sup­port­ers is why – even af­ter, ac­cord­ing to the re­port, he was alerted nu­mer­ous times – San- telle con­tin­ued to have prob­lems with the gov­ern­ment card. He says most of the alerts were more like dun­ning no­tices, for times when he was late pay­ing the bill. Still, be­ing care­less is one thing. Be­ing care­less af­ter you’re told you’re be­ing care­less is an­other.

From San­telle’s stand­point, most trou­ble­some was the OIG’s as­ser­tion that he “pro­vided in­con­sis­tent and in­ac­cu­rate ex­pla­na­tions … that un­duly length­ened and com­pli­cated the in­ves­ti­ga­tion.”

“That is sim­ply not true,” San­telle says.

The Grasch Foods ex­pense, for in­stance, San­telle thinks might have been to buy food for the of­fice, or an of­fice re­treat. San­telle of­ten brought in sea­sonal flow­ers and green plants, at his own ex­pense, to brighten the of­fice. But as for the gro­ceries, he’s just not sure. “They asked who ate the food,” he says. “I don’t know who ate the food. I don’t know that that’s not be­ing forth­com­ing.”

San­telle now ac­knowl­edges that it was “an er­ror” to hold a gath­er­ing for gu­ber­na­to­rial can­di­date Mary Burke at his home in November 2013, as well as to of­fer his home for the planned Jon Richards event.

“Should I have known bet­ter?” San­telle says. “Yes. And I ac­knowl­edged that from the start when this was called to my at­ten­tion.”

He did it by can­cel­ing the Richards event, and, he says, by alert­ing OIG of the

ear­lier Burke event.

What San­telle in­sists – and what the OIG clearly did not buy in its re­port – is that nei­ther the Burke nor Richards events were in­tended as fundrais­ers.

San­telle points out that a week prior to the Burke event, he wrote the or­ga­nizer an email that in­cluded this: “I can­not be host­ing a gath­er­ing in which funds/monies can be af­fir­ma­tively so­licited. I do not un­der­stand this to be a chal­lenge, based upon your ear­lier com­ments about the pur­pose and na­ture of this as an in­tro­duc­tory-type meet­ing among se­lected guests. For much the same rea­son, I should not be iden­ti­fied of­fi­cially as the United States At­tor­ney but in­stead merely Jim San­telle.”

San­telle now con­cedes it was still a vi­o­la­tion to have the event at his home – and in fact one check to the Burke cam­paign was writ­ten, un­be­knownst to San­telle – but says it was un­in­ten­tional based on his mis­un­der­stand­ing of DOJ pol­icy.

OIG ap­pears to have had more prob­lems with the Richards event, which, while it never hap­pened, in­cluded an in­vi­ta­tion – ob­tained by OIG – that said “the Home of Jim San­telle” as lo­ca­tion with a list of sug­gested do­na­tion amounts from $100 to $500. San­telle was not listed as a host of the event – four oth­ers were – but the fi­nan­cial ask prompted San­telle to email Richards’ fi­nance di­rec­tor: “My role as an ap­pointed fed­eral of­fi­cial pre­cludes me from par­tic­i­pat­ing in any man­ner [in so­lic­it­ing con­tri­bu­tions].”

The in­vi­ta­tion was not shared ex­cept to or­ga­niz­ers and oth­ers in San­telle’s in­ner cir­cle, and a sec­ond one, with­out the sug­gested con­tri­bu­tion, went out. It made its way to Main Jus­tice, and some­one in the executive of­fice there called and told San­telle his name couldn’t be on any kind of po­lit­i­cal in­vi­ta­tion. The event was can­celed.

OIG be­lieves San­telle – given the first in­vi­ta­tion – must have known the event was go­ing to be a fundraiser, and that’s why they said San­telle “lacked can­dor” dur­ing the in­ves­ti­ga­tion by not ad­mit­ting it. San­telle points to his email to Richards’ fi­nance di­rec­tor say­ing he couldn’t be in­volved in such an event – and his sim­i­lar stance at the ear­lier Burke event – as ev­i­dence OIG is wrong.

“The po­si­tion of the IG,” San­telle says, “is that I in­tended the Jon Richards event to be a fundraiser .... That is wrong.” John Lavin­sky, se­nior coun­sel to the in­spec­tor gen­eral at DOJ in Washington, de­clined to com­ment for this story.

The last piece of the DOJ in­ves­ti­ga­tion wrapped up in November 2016. In Septem­ber, the DOJ’s Of­fice of Pro­fes­sional Re­spon­si­bil­ity had re­ferred its find­ings to the Of­fice of Lawyer Reg­u­la­tion in Wis­con­sin. On November 10, the state of­fice wrote back to DOJ: “The di­rec­tor has de­ter­mined to close the griev­ance be­cause it does not ap­pear to al­lege con­duct that con­sti­tutes a po­ten­tial vi­o­la­tion of the Rules of Pro­fes­sional Con­duct.” So San­telle’s law li­cense is se­cure.

He will turn 59 in Septem­ber 2017, and among the things he’s think­ing about is work­ing with an or­ga­ni­za­tion de­voted to civil rights or hu­man rights. Teach­ing is an­other pos­si­bil­ity, and so – though he says his sisters would flip – is a re­turn to the Mid­dle East. A run for pub­lic of­fice? Highly un­likely.

San­telle has emerged whole from the tur­bu­lent last two years, and part of his vi­sion for the near fu­ture is let­ting peo­ple know that.

His time away from work has brought few money wor­ries so far, due to a gen­er­ous pen­sion, and given him time for bucket list read­ing, in­clud­ing Thomas Wolfe’s You Can’t Go Home Again and poet Billy Collins’ The Rain in Por­tu­gal.

He’s also con­tin­ued and deep­ened his re­la­tion­ship with the lo­cal Sikh com­mu­nity that grew out of the 2012 Oak Creek tem­ple shoot­ing. He’s helped them in­for­mally with im­mi­gra­tion mat­ters and at­tended Sun­day af­ter­noon ser­vices.

A play he was go­ing to act in re­cently, Amer­i­can Hero, about four down-on-their­luck sand­wich shop work­ers, fell through due to fund­ing short­falls. “It’s about the ca­pac­ity of peo­ple to en­gage in per­sonal and group restora­tion and re­cov­ery and re­birth and re­newal.”

He pauses, smil­ing, and it’s clear what he’s go­ing to say next be­fore he says it.

“Some things much on my mind these days.”



1 Jim San­telle and his sisters grow­ing up at their Brook­field home

2 Univer­sity of Chicago Law School grad­u­a­tion in June 1983 with sisters Su­san and Nancy (right)

3 Pub­lic in­vesti­ture as the United States at­tor­ney by U. S. Court of Ap­peals Judge Mary H. Mur­guia


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