Mystery Around Dennis Smith Deepens
Departure of state health department secretary leaves many questions unanswered -- and lots of secrecy.
The abrupt resignation of Dennis Smith, secretary of the state Department of Health Services, leaves behind an ever-deepening mystery. The press noted that his announcement came just days after legal motions were filed in the case of Andrew Spear, charged with attempted murder against his wife Mary Spear. Andrew Spear had accused his wife of having an affair with Dennis Smith and his legal motions raised the issue anew.
Smith insisted his departure for a job with the private law firm of McKenna Long and Aldridge had nothing to do with the legal case and that after just two years, “we have accomplished what we set out to do here” in the administration of Gov. Scott Walker.
But his statement also underlined his familiarity with the Spears. “I don’t want to get into the personal lives of two people who have been through a great deal of pain,” Smith said. He has been a friend of Mary Spear since they were children. The alleged affair is one possible scenario. Another is that Smith was simply supportive of Mary Spear, who was having marital problems of some kind. Either way, Smith was caught in a messy situation he seems eager to leave behind.
The Spears lived in Dallas and met with tragedy when their only child was killed by a drunken driver in June, 2008. In a legal filing, Andrew Spear claims his wife has had mental and emotional problems since then. His attorney Brian Brophy is requesting to inspect all medical, psychiatric, psychological and mental health records of Mary Spear since Jan 1, 2008. Brophy will undoubtedly try to attack her credibility, as she is the chief witness against her longtime husband.
In his legal filings, Andrew has portrayed himself as someone who provided support to a wife who had trouble dealing with their daughter’s death. A letter Mary wrote to the Dallas News in June 2010 supports this view. She calls her husband “the owner of the world’s most compassionate heart… He is the rock that grounds me, righting my world, if only for a time, long enough for me to get a grip on myself and blunder through whatever is the problem du jour. I wouldn’t be here if not for his love for me…”
Precisely how Mary was employed at that time is unclear. The newspaper identified her only as “an attorney.” And when Smith hired her as his chief legal counsel in January 2012, the announcement, while it mentioned many past jobs she had held, did not indicate what her job was at the time.
Smith’s explanation of how he happened to hire her doesn’t help. In one statement he noted he had stayed in touch with his old friend over the years and at some point “she asked me to review a paper on the health insurance system she was writing. I remember being very impressed… When I had began searching for a new General Counsel I remembered her good work and asked her to consider becoming the new DHS General Counsel.”
That seems a pretty informal way to hire someone. A lawyer with the Department of Health Services told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel there was no other candidate for the job, which paid $120,304. But Smith now says he contacted other candidates. “I specifically actively recruited other people. I can think of at least three,” he told the newspaper.
So Mary took the job and Spears moved to Madison. Eight months later the situation exploded, with the alleged attempted murder, which Mary told police was triggered by Andrews’s discovery of emails between her and Smith. The complaint against Andrew Spear is a gruesome document: Mary accuses him of holding her captive in his workshop, accusing her of having an affair with Smith, then repeatedly attacking her, dousing her with gasoline and lighting a fire and then putting it out.
At the initial hearing, however, Madison Police Detective Jamie Grann said he had not seen any burns on Mary Spear’s body, despite her statement that her arm and leg were on fire. In his recent legal filings (filed on February 19), Brophy claims that emergency room records show Mary Spear had only a small, first-degree burn on her lower leg. (In his recent affidavit, Andrew says his wife is five inches taller than him and 40 pounds heavier and “has always been bigger and stronger than me.”)
In his recent legal filings, Brophy contends that Mary “threatened to light herself on fire and then did light a fire… in a pattern of increasingly dramatic behavior intended to keep the defendant from calling Dennis Smith’s wife.”
Mary Spear denied the affair to police. But she also told police she told her husband “she was sorry she had lied to him.”
In those recent legal filings, Andrew Spear claims he had read an email message between Mary Spear and Smith in which she declared her love for Smith and Smith wrote, “My dearest, I did not know you had called. I am sorry you think I left you. Stupidly left my blackberry at the office.”
After the incidents in the workshop, the Spears went back to their home and got into another altercation when she tried to take both of their laptop computers and leave. Brophy has filed a motion seeking “a copy of the hard-drives of Mary Spear’s and the defendant’s computers,” noting that “The State has possession of the computers both of which have exculpatory information on them.”
Brophy’s motion says Madison Police Detective Bernards interviewed Dennis Smith and told him “I’d heard that there were emails between him and Mary that Andrew had found. Dennis then said that there are e-mails of a sensitive nature but that he and Mary are just friends.”
Once again, Smith’s comment points to at least two possible scenarios — an affair or a supportive friendship with a woman who may have been having difficulties with her husband.
Brophy has also filed a motion requesting all “phone records, text records and email communications between Mary Spears and Dennis Smith,” arguing that this could produce evidence that will aid in Andrew Spear’s defense.
Not long after Andrew Spear was arrested, the Wisconsin State Journal requested emails between Smith and Mary Spear between July 16 and Aug 16, 2012, and the Department of Health Services — which was then being run by Smith — turned over over some emails but withheld “purely personal” emails. The Journal Sentinel also requested email exchanges between Smith and Mary Spear, and was treated the same. “Purely personal emails sent or received by employees or officers on (a government) computer system, evincing no violation of law or policy, are not subject to disclosure in response to a public records request,” wrote Deputy Chief Legal Counsel Sandra Rowe in a letter to the paper.
But it was surely the purely personal emails the newspapers sought, to test whether there was any truth to the claim that Smith and Mary Spear were having an affair. The idea that state employees are protected from disclosure of personal emails while working on government computers on government time seems to drive a large hole in the open records law.
As for the emails she received, State Journal reporter Dee Hall described them as “cryptic.” On one day in August, she notes, the emails between the two began just before 7 a.m. and ended around 9:30 p.m. Mary Spear’s message to Smith that evening was “All ok, if a bit difficult. Same situation as last week. Minimal damage.”
The secrecy surrounding this case was heightened after Diane Welsh, the divorce lawyer for Mary Spears, filed an affidavit asking Dane County Judge William Hanrahan, who is hearing the case against Andrew Spears, to seal the four legal motions filed by Brophy on February 19. Hanrahan agreed.
According the Journal Sentinel, Welsh’s affidavit said the filings by Brophy on behalf of Andrew Spear could be seen as an attempt to embarrass and intimidate Mary Spear. But there is no way for the media or the public to judge the reasoning in Welsh’s affidavit, because the judge also agree to her request to seal her affidavit as well.
What’s extraordinary about this is that Welsh has no standing in the case involving Andrew Spear; she is neither the prosecutor nor defense attorney. Then there is the fact that Welsh herself worked for Dennis Smith, having served as his chief legal counsel in the State Department of Health Services for nearly eight months, from January 2011 into August 2011. The legal motions she successfully sealed are not just embarrassing to Mary Spear but to Smith.
Hanrahan’s order to seal the motions noted that if either party in the case had an objection, he would have a hearing on it, but Brophy says that’s not his concern: “I don’t care. My interest is in getting the motions granted” (asking to examine the computer, email and health records).
All of which leaves this case proceeding with an extraordinary level of secrecy. Adding to the intrigue is one other issue: by moving to Washington D.C, Smith may have made it more difficult or more expensive for the defense to subpoena him as a witness. This is a case that just keeps getting weirder.