Schimel’s of­fice probed critic of AG

Re­tiree of­fered opin­ion on case two months af­ter leav­ing job

Milwaukee Journal Sentinel - - Front Page - Con­tact Daniel Bice at (414) 224-2135 or dbice@jrn.com.

At­tor­ney Gen­eral Brad Schimel re­ally doesn’t like crit­i­cism.

His agency went af­ter an ex-as­sis­tant at­tor­ney gen­eral last year af­ter he made crit­i­cal re­marks in the Jour­nal Sen­tinel over a deal the Depart­ment of Jus­tice had struck with a pol­luter.

Schimel’s of­fice said it was look­ing into whether the re­tiree — Thomas Daw­son, long the state’s top en­vi­ron­men­tal lawyer — pro­vided con­fi­den­tial in­for­ma­tion to the press.

Of­fi­cials said they still con­sid­ered Daw­son a state worker be­cause his un­used va­ca­tion time was be­ing paid out to him, al­though he had re­turned all his state equip­ment, was no longer work­ing day-to-day at the agency and his res­ig­na­tion let­ter had been ac­cepted

by the Jus­tice Depart­ment months ear­lier.

“I re­gard what they did as re­tal­i­a­tion,” Daw­son said this week of the pre­vi­ously undis­closed in­ves­ti­ga­tion.

Daw­son said he gave no doc­u­ments, just his on-the-record opin­ion, when con­tacted by Jour­nal Sen­tinel re­porter Lee Bergquist in March 2017 — two months af­ter he left his state job. Daw­son told Bergquist that he and other lawyers at the Jus­tice Depart­ment had rec­om­mended a hefty fine against 3M, a pro­posal that was over­rid­den by higher-ups in the agency.

He said he felt free to of­fer his opin­ion on the case be­cause he was no longer at the Jus­tice Depart­ment and, more im­por­tant, he be­lieved the pub­lic should know the back­ground on the case, which he said was closed.

As a re­sult of the probe, Daw­son hired two top crim­i­nal de­fense at­tor­neys — Hal Har­lowe and Dean Strang — to fight the action, and he re­solved the mat­ter by tak­ing his va­ca­tion pay in a lump sum.

“I was happy to cut my ties with this depart­ment and es­pe­cially Mr. Schimel,” said Daw­son, who worked for the state for more than 30 years.

But his de­par­ture from the state is not listed as re­tire­ment in Jus­tice Depart­ment records. He said hu­man re­sources of­fi­cials had pre­vi­ously agreed in a let­ter that his re­tire­ment day was Jan. 20, 2017.

In­stead, one in­ter­nal record says: “Res­ig­na­tion dur­ing an in­ves­ti­ga­tion into al­le­ga­tions that he pro­vided in­for­ma­tion that was con­fi­den­tial and pro­tected by the at­tor­ney-client priv­iledge (sic) and the work-prod­uct doc­trine, to a mem­ber of the pub­lic me­dia.”

Daw­son was not pleased to find this out. He em­pha­sized that he did not re­sign for this rea­son.

The whole in­ci­dent, Daw­son said, is part of a larger is­sue at Schimel’s agency.

He noted that cur­rent Jus­tice Depart­ment em­ploy­ees are now re­quired to sign nondis­clo­sure agree­ments that bar them from re­veal­ing any con­fi­den­tial in­for­ma­tion about their work — not just dur­ing their time in of­fice but even af­ter they leave the state.

“There’s a lock-down in this depart­ment on pub­lic in­for­ma­tion,” said Daw­son, who was one of 45 for­mer DOJ lawyers who signed a let­ter op­pos­ing Schimel’s re-election bid. The Repub­li­can AG is op­posed by Demo­crat Josh Kaul.

Schimel spokesman Alec Hanna con­firmed that the agency con­sid­ered Daw­son a DOJ em­ployee be­cause his va­ca­tion time was still be­ing paid out. Many state em­ploy­ees spread out these pay­ments, Hanna said, be­cause it al­lows them to con­tinue to re­ceive health in­surance through the state.

Hanna said this meant Daw­son was still bound by the agency’s in­ter­nal reg­u­la­tions when he talked to the news­pa­per re­porter.

In this case, Hanna ac­cused Daw­son of pro­vid­ing “con­fi­den­tial in­for­ma­tion” to the news­pa­per re­porter, though he didn’t spec­ify what that was.

Hanna said the agency started its in­ves­ti­ga­tion, which he said was led by civil ser­vice em­ploy­ees, af­ter the Jour­nal Sen­tinel pub­lished the March 2017 ar­ti­cle quot­ing Daw­son.

“Based on what the re­porter put in his story, it is clear that Daw­son lied to the re­porter,” Hanna wrote in an email. “Also, dis­cus­sion of in­for­ma­tion pro­tected by the at­tor­ney client-priv­i­lege was a vi­o­la­tion of Daw­son’s eth­i­cal obli­ga­tions.”

This isn’t the first time Daw­son and Schimel have clashed.

In Au­gust 2016, Schimel de­moted Daw­son as head of the agency’s en­vi­ron­men­tal pro­tec­tion unit — a job he had held for 13 years. He be­came an as­sis­tant at­tor­ney gen­eral within that unit.

In the 3M case, the firm was able to es­cape a fine by agree­ing to make $665,000 in im­prove­ments at two fa­cil­i­ties in Wausau for air pol­lu­tion vi­o­la­tions in 2014 and 2015, ac­cord­ing to court records.

The Min­nesota-based com­pany em­ploys hun­dreds of workers at plants in Wausau, Menomonie, Cumberland and Prairie du Chien.

Daw­son was quoted call­ing the set­tle­ment “un­prece­dented,” a point he re­it­er­ated this week.

He also said he had no prob­lem let­ting peo­ple know that the fi­nal set­tle­ment was reached over the ob­jec­tions of staff lawyers.

Daniel Bice Mil­wau­kee Jour­nal Sen­tinel USA TO­DAY NET­WORK – WIS.

Schimel

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