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Johnny Thomas: After the Acquittal

'My family and I were dragged through the mud'

Sep. 5, 2012
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“I did nothing wrong,” former Milwaukee County Supervisor Johnny Thomas said days after a 12-member jury quickly decided that he was innocent of the bribery and misconduct charges brought against him.

“There's never been a complaint from a vendor, or an employee or a department head,” Thomas said. “Yet still, my family and I were dragged through the mud. My reputation was sullied. Based off of Pat Farley's warped sense of reality.”

Although Thomas was totally calm and composed during the hour-long interview, he has every reason to be angry.

He was charged with two felonies that could have landed him in jail for nine and a half years. Even worse, the charges were based on conversations he'd had with Milwaukee County Department of Administrative Services (DAS) Director Patrick Farley, who was wearing a hidden wire and secretly setting up Thomas for a fall.

Farley had gone to the Milwaukee County District Attorney's Office with his “concerns” that Thomas was delaying the approval of a $700,000 financial adviser contract. Based on those concerns, Farley wore a wire, gave Thomas an opportunity to take a bribe, and days later handed Thomas an envelope filled with cash.

But the prosecution's case, argued by Assistant District Attorney Kurt Benkley, fell apart during the trial.

Upon cross-examination by Thomas' attorney, Craig Mastantuono, Farley admitted that he had never spoken to Thomas about the delayed contract prior to setting him up; that he was the one who first mentioned “support” for Thomas' city comptroller campaign; that he hadn't seen Thomas look inside the envelope to see the cash; and that he deliberately lied to and misled Thomas on numerous occasions, including his advice about whether Thomas could accept the cash, after Thomas had later discovered that there was money inside the envelope and approached Farley about it.

Other testimony further weakened the prosecution's case. The vendor with the pending contract, Public Financial Management (PFM), had no contact with Thomas. Transcripts of Thomas' conversation with Farley revealed that Thomas made it clear that he did not want to “leverage” the contract approval for campaign support. And no evidence was provided that showed that Thomas knew that there was cash in the envelope when Farley handed it to him.

According to the criminal complaint, which shaped public perception of Thomas' guilt or innocence, an investigator said that he saw Thomas open the envelope and see cash and that Thomas had later stashed it behind a “mirror on a dresser.” But that eyewitness didn't take the stand and Thomas contradicted those claims, saying that the envelope was held in a briefcase behind a floor-length mirror, where he kept all of his campaign materials. And a video taken by Farley of the Dunkin' Donuts exchange provided no proof that Thomas looked inside the envelope and saw the cash.

In the end, the jury returned a definitive judgment after deliberating for less than 90 minutes: Johnny Thomas was not guilty on both counts.

Milwaukee County District Attorney John Chisholm did not want to comment on the case, saying only that he respected the jury's decision.

'I Believe That Pat Farley Should Be Fired'

Thomas has strong words about Farley, who still has the support of Milwaukee County Executive Chris Abele, who in spring 2011 appointed the former assistant district attorney and Doyle administration official to head DAS.

“I believe that Pat Farley should be fired,” Thomas said. “If the perception is to weed out corruption, here's a man who created corruption. He created a situation that impacted my life. This is not what we should expect from our government—individuals who are there with the pretense of lying and deceiving and with the agenda of creating an environment of distrust. I don't understand how the county executive could try to protect [Farley] and say that this was his job, he's a whistle-blower. [I don't see] how he could feel that Pat Farley can be productive. I just don't see it.”

Thomas said that Farley's participation in a sting operation would have a negative impact on the workings of county government.

“It's going to be difficult for supervisors to trust him,” Thomas said. “I think the board's relationship with the executive's office has been strained for quite some time. And then there's my case. And going forward you have to be so skeptical of everything that comes out of the administration's offices. Supervisors will more than likely be skeptical. It's going to be difficult for them to handle county business, and that's something that I think is going to impact us as constituents. We're going to get the brunt of it.”

After the verdict, Abele's spokesman Brendan Conway said that the county executive wouldn't fire Farley or ask him to resign. Conway said that supervisors had nothing to fear from Farley or other potential stings if they are doing nothing wrong.

“I was doing nothing wrong and look at what I had to fear,” Thomas said in response. “Just the fact that—again, in [Farley's] mind I was guilty and there was nothing that I could do to change that.”

Thomas still doesn't know what, exactly, led Farley to believe that he was primed to take a bribe. Leaks in the press claimed that Thomas had asked for vendors' contact information so that he could contact them for campaign contributions, but that information was never presented in court. Prosecutor Benkley didn't present evidence that Thomas had contacted any vendor for his campaign, including PFM.

Thomas said he and Farley had a cordial professional relationship and that Farley had congratulated him on his run for city comptroller. Farley was on his email list of potential supporters, so Thomas said he wasn't surprised that Farley wanted to talk about the campaign away from their county offices. Farley has a long history as a fundraiser for Democrats and Thomas thought that Farley might have been vetting him for Abele, himself a major political donor.

But Thomas had no idea that Farley initiated the conversation at the Wisconsin Avenue Dunkin' Donuts because he was wearing a wire and trying to lure him into asking for a bribe.

“It's disappointing,” Thomas said of Farley's wearing a wire. “I guess, knowing my background—if you're coming from an honest position, you assume that everyone else is coming from an honest position. He was the director of DAS. That gave him credibility. I guess automatically you'd think that this was someone you could trust, someone you could have an honest conversation with… I would never imagine that he would put me in this situation.”

Thomas chalked up Farley's assumptions to having a “warped sense of reality.” He said the widespread suspicion that the board of supervisors is corrupt didn't help, and that the other supervisors who were most gossiped about are also African American.

“Maybe they thought that other African Americans on the board were guilty of something, and then they lumped me into that group and said, well, we all must be guilty,” Thomas said.

Thomas said he's most upset by what he feels was a lack of a thorough investigation by prosecutors that could have cleared him.

“If they had just asked Farley, 'What support do you have? What facts do you have to support these allegations?' I think right there the case would have stopped,” Thomas said.

The Future

After the verdict, juror Rebekah Turner said she hoped that Thomas would run for office again and that she'd vote for him.

Thomas said he wasn't sure about getting back into politics, but that he had no regrets about suspending his campaign after he was charged in February. He'd been seen as the front-runner for city comptroller and had been endorsed by a slew of prominent political and community leaders.

Thomas said that being charged “was like getting hit in the gut. And not just for me, but for the entire community of people who were supporting me. It knocked the wind out of us. People didn't know how to react. There were a lot of hurt feelings. A lot of damaged relationships. The accusations really damaged me.”

Thomas said he's still trying to come to terms with the trial and is most concerned with supporting his wife, Yolanda, and two sons.

“Of course I'm glad that the jury came back with a not-guilty verdict,” Thomas said. “But in this case I think winning and losing are two big deceivers, because I won my freedom, which I've always had. It's just that someone tried to take it from me. But I've lost my good name and my reputation. And it's going to take some time for me to build up some relationships that I've established over my whole 43 years.”


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