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The Other John Doe

How solid is the case against former Supervisor Johnny Thomas?

Jun. 6, 2012
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While the state has been watching every twist and turn in the John Doe investigation into Scott Walker's Milwaukee County executive office and campaign, another John Doe case involving an elected county official has been proceeding through the court system with much less fanfare.

In February, the Milwaukee County District Attorney's Office charged then-Supervisor Johnny Thomas Jr. with two felonies for allegedly accepting a $500 bribe from a vendor in December 2011.

Thomas has steadily proclaimed his innocence.

So how solid is the case?

The State's Case Against Thomas

The original criminal complaint seems straightforward. (Chief Deputy District Attorney Kent Lovern told the Shepherd that he didn't think it was proper to comment on a pending case.)

According to the document, Thomas, then the chair of the Committee on Finance and Audit, hadn't scheduled a vote for a financial services contract with Public Financial Management (PCM), which was already doing business with the county. Thomas needed to schedule the vote for the Dec. 8 committee meeting, or else the contract would expire at the end of the calendar year.

The head of the Department of Administrative Services, Patrick Farley, a former prosecutor, was concerned about "Thomas' interactions with vendors doing business with Milwaukee County," the complaint states.

Farley invited Thomas to a Dunkin' Donuts to discuss the matter on Dec. 2. Farley was wearing a wire. The complaint contains some of that conversation. Farley asks Thomas what the vendor can do to get the process moving.

Thomas said he was concerned about the price of the contract going up after it's been signed, as well as the participation of local and disadvantaged businesses.

Farley asks what the company can do.

Thomas responds, "You've handled these type of things before. What would you recommend?"

Farley mentions a donation to Thomas' campaign for city comptroller.

Later in the conversation, Thomas asks Farley to act as a "liaison."

Four days later, the two men meet and Farley gives Thomas a manila folder with $500 in small denominations.

Farley tells Thomas that a lobbyist named "Gary"—who, unbeknownst to Thomas, doesn't exist—wants to "support" Thomas. Thomas says he has a campaign event on Dec. 15. Farley tells Thomas that the payment is "the first part of it," meaning another donation.

An hour later, Thomas went to Farley's office—Farley is no longer wearing a wire—and says, "words to the effect, 'I just noticed that the $500 you gave me was cash.'"

Farley told him the money, allegedly from PCM, was in cash because it allowed "maximum flexibility" for his campaign.

Shortly thereafter, Thomas emailed Farley an invitation for campaign fundraising events.

The next day, Thomas scheduled the contract for a vote in the finance committee. The contract was approved.

Farley then created an email address for Gary, the fictional lobbyist. Farley forwards an email from "Gary" saying that he can't make the fundraiser. Thomas replies that Gary can donate through his campaign website or via a contribution envelope.

Three days later, Thomas is arrested and the $500 is found in his bedroom.

Milwaukee County Executive Chris Abele, who appointed Farley to his position, applauded Farley's efforts as a "whistleblower" who was rooting out corruption on the board of supervisors.

The Rest of the Story

So if Thomas took the money, he's guilty, right?

Those familiar with Thomas' side of the story say the public should not rush to judgment.

"There was no corruption on the board that would have caused Farley to be concerned," said Curtiss Harris, a small business owner and Thomas' friend. "Farley himself created the corruption."

Harris said that it's his understanding that a few days prior to the original coffee meeting, Thomas told Farley to have his staff contact the committee clerk to put the item on the Dec. 8 committee agenda. Harris said Thomas had not scheduled the contract prior to this time because of his lingering concerns about disadvantaged business participation—which the criminal complaint seems to confirm.

And the cash?

Thomas held on to it so that he could hand it over to his campaign committee the following Monday, Harris said.

According to documents filed by Thomas' attorney to dismiss the case, the investigation was based on "rumors," not driven by a specific complaint from any vendor—not even the vendor in question, PCM—about Thomas engaging in pay-to-play.

"Neither Mr. Farley nor the prosecution was aware of any information that Mr. Thomas ever contacted county vendors for anything of value in exchange for moving a particular contract, nor had the prosecution team received any complaints that Mr. Thomas had asked for money in exchange for favorable treatment from the vendors having business with the county," wrote Thomas' attorney, Craig Mastantuono. [Italics in the original.]

Mastantuono is petitioning the court to dismiss the charges against Thomas, claiming that his client is the subject of a discriminatory prosecution.

He's arguing that Thomas is being charged because Thomas couldn't come up with evidence against other supervisors—then-Board Chair Lee Holloway, then-Supervisor Joe Rice and Supervisor Michael Mayo—when he'd agreed to wear a wire for prosecutors, who had expressed a desire to not charge Thomas in exchange for evidence against other board members.

"Discriminatory effect is established if the defendant has been singled out for prosecution while others who are similarly situated have not," Mastantuono wrote.

In response, Assistant District Attorney Kurt Benkley wrote, Thomas "unsuccessfully attempted a sting operation, provided no actionable investigative leads, and was then charged. The District Attorney's Office decision to go forward with charges against a failed informant was not unconstitutionally discriminatory."

Benkley wrote that Farley claims Thomas had asked for a list of vendors "and had explained he was raising election campaign contributions" and that county supervisors "were soliciting business cards from vendors bidding for contracts. Such conduct presented the potential for corrupt relationships."

The Aftermath

Thomas suspended his campaign for city comptroller and is no longer on the board of supervisors.

Harris said he supports his friend and frat brother, as he always has.

"I saw great things in him," Harris said.

Farley's appointment for a full term as Department of Administrative Services (DAS) chief is on hold and the subject of a battle between Abele and the board.

Abele has stood by his appointee, and lashed out at board members—in particular, new Board Chair Marina Dimitrijevic—for postponing the vote on Farley's appointment for another month.

Dimitrijevic and the board members, on the other hand, claimed that the delayed vote had nothing to do with Farley's willingness to wear a wire and participate in a sting operation. Instead, they say they're unhappy with Farley's performance at DAS.

Abele's spokesman Brendan Conway scoffed at that argument and said that supervisors shouldn't fear members of Abele's administration wearing a wire.

"If you have nothing to hide, you have nothing to fear," Conway said.


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