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Questions Surround Courthouse Fire and Possible Coverup

Abele administration faulted for withholding and destroying information

Jan. 8, 2014
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The Abele administration is giving the public a highly edited version of what really happened when the courthouse caught fire last summer, causing up to $12 million in damages, supervisors allege.

When testifying before Milwaukee County board committees that are open to the public, Abele administration officials offer limited information about the events of that day and the potential cause of the electrical fire. Their written fire investigation status report for the supervisors was so skimpy that the full board refused to receive it and place it on file, a rare act that’s akin to throwing it in the garbage.

Behind closed doors, however, Abele’s appointees—notably his pick to run the Department of Administration Services, Don Tyler—are telling a different story. According to those who heard Tyler’s explanation in a closed-door meeting in mid-December, it was allegedly revealed that fire-damaged electrical components were intentionally destroyed during the courthouse cleanup.

And supervisors aren’t happy about Abele’s and Tyler’s attempt to conceal vital information from the public.

“There was an accident. There was a fire,” Milwaukee County Supervisor John Weishan told the Shepherd. “But you don’t have to lie about this stuff. People get this impression, from the media, I guess, that the board just doesn’t like Chris Abele. But the reason why the board is upset with Chris Abele is because of things like this. They’re not forthcoming, they’re not honest, they lie to us in committee. Don Tyler should be terminated for lying to the county board.”

Milwaukee County Executive Chris Abele’s spokesman, Brendan Conway, has a different view of the administration’s transparency.

“No one is more interested in giving the public an honest explanation than we are, but they also deserve an accurate explanation, which is why it does not do anyone any good to try to interpret this situation without all the facts,” Conway emailed the Shepherd.

Tyler didn’t respond to the Shepherd’s request to comment for this article.


The Public Story: ‘We Might Never Know’

In a Dec. 4, 2013, meeting of the board’s Transportation, Public Works and Transit Committee, Tyler updated the board on the status of the fire investigation. Tyler’s main point was that the county’s insurer, the state-run Local Government Property Insurance Fund, wouldn’t pursue the matter further and would pay out its portion of the claim. The investigation would now be led by the county’s reinsurer, Lexington Insurance Co. Tyler provided no written documents to explain why the state-run fund made that decision or what the fund investigators had discovered.

Two other officials—Interim Facilities Maintenance Manager Gary Waszak and Interim Risk Management Director Dennis Dietscher—briefed the supervisors on the status of the repair work.

And that was that.

Until Supervisor Theo Lipscomb pressed further.

Lipscomb asked, after five months of investigations and a handful of hearings, “What do we know? What’s been narrowed down? What’s been excluded? I’m assuming something has been ruled out. Can we get any information?”

Tyler responded, “We’re eager to get clarity as well.”

He added later, “I wish I could do better. But there’s been nothing that has been identified, as far as I know…. There’s a possibility that we might never know.”

Tyler and his aides testified that “there is not much there left to investigate” at the scene of the fire.

Dietscher said the cause of origin investigation was a “slow-moving process” because the investigator had to determine whether any hazardous materials existed and then develop a protocol for how they would be handled. He then said that the extreme amount of power “does a lot of damage, and the things there, for evidence, that you’d like to look at and test, are gone. They got burned up.”

Lipscomb then expressed more frustration with the lack of information coming from Tyler and his aides in multiple hearings.

“It’s unbelievable,” Lipscomb said.

“We are trying to be as forthright as we possibly can be,” Tyler said. “There’s nothing more that I know of to be able to communicate to you.”

He said the fund’s representative said that it would not pursue claims based on its cost/benefit analysis. Tyler provided no documentation to back up his assertion.

Lipscomb then asked what the county’s inspector was telling them.

Dietscher replied, “That because of the extent of the damage, that in order to find exactly what the failure aspects were, that you may never find that.”

Conway defended Tyler’s testimony before the committee.

“Don Tyler and everyone in the administration has been very forthcoming about this issue and all issues,” he emailed the Shepherd.


The Private Confession: Evidence Was Destroyed

Two weeks later, in a closed-door session of the Judiciary, Safety and General Services Committee, Tyler allegedly told supervisors a different story—that three huge electrical components had been dismantled and thrown away.

According to those who heard Tyler’s testimony, the three components are about 1,500 to 2,000 pounds each, the size of a refrigerator, and photos of them showed evidence of fire damage. Someone—Tyler allegedly didn’t say who—tagged them with spray paint to indicate that they could be thrown out. Someone directed an electrician to dismantle them so they could be removed and discarded. Now they are gone.

Some supervisors spoke to a reporter after the closed-door meeting because they were angry about how Tyler handled the information. The next day, the county’s attorneys sent supervisors an email warning them not to reveal information disclosed in a closed session.

Weishan said he voted against going into closed session and spoke out because Tyler’s testimony didn’t require a closed session and Weishan wanted the information to be made public.

“This was basically just to cover up the fact that Don Tyler and his crew threw out a bunch of stuff that should have been saved and now puts us at risk for millions of dollars,” Weishan said. “Then they tried to pressure committee members by saying you’re not supposed to talk about this. My whole thing is, I’m not there to participate in any dishonest or illegal action.”

Lipscomb told the Shepherd that he didn’t disagree with the decision to go into closed session, but he hoped that the information discussed could be made available to the public. County Board Chairwoman Marina Dimitrijevic directed the county comptroller’s office to conduct an independent audit of the fire, including the cause and the aftermath, which will be made public.

“I remain frustrated but I think with time we will finally get some answers,” Lipscomb said. “I look forward to the administration being more forthcoming.”


A Dangerous Environment

Supervisors—and the public—may not be getting much information from the Abele administration about the condition of the courthouse before the fire, possibly revealing its cause.

But a February 2013 review of the courthouse’s infrastructure by CBRE shows that the building was in dire need of repairs and upgrades for quite some time—including the years that Gov. Scott Walker was county executive.

The electrical system “is approaching or beyond its life expectancy and should be upgraded in the next five years” and “most of the HVAC systems are at the end of their service life,” the report states.

Equipment seemed to be a mess. Steam and condensate piping were routed above an electrical substation without a drain pan to collect water, the report states. That same electrical substation is located “next to a corridor turned into a paint shop where there are paint fumes that are hazardous. Recommend ventilation or some form of separation of the two areas.”

Regarding its fire-protection infrastructure, “There are major capital requirements involved at this time—lack of sprinkler system,” the report states. “Building does not meet current codes and standards. Automatic fire protection system with flow and tamper alarms is required for all buildings.”

Conway, Abele’s spokesman, emailed the Shepherd, “The county has hundreds of millions of dollars in deferred maintenance that the county executive has aggressively started to tackle in his first three budgets. Unfortunately, this work has piled up over decades and will take many years to fix.”


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