CLEARING THE AIR
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