Bruce Murphy
Murphy’s Law

The Curious Case of Kimberly Walker

The board is angry at Abele so they fired Walker. Go figure.

By - Jul 2nd, 2013 03:30 pm
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Willie Hines, Kimberly Walker, and Chis Abele.

Willie Hines, Kimberly Walker, and Chis Abele.

It was back in June 2011, when Milwaukee County Executive Chris Abele was still enjoying his brief honeymoon period with the county board, that he named Kimberly Walker to become the county’s corporation counsel. Walker was then the in-house lawyer for Johnson Controls and had also served as head of the state Energy Division under Democratic Gov. Jim Doyle. Abele complimented her “breadth of experience,” the board approved the appointment, and everything was coming up roses.

But by November 2011, board member were irate over a state law Abele promoted to create a new position of independently elected comptroller. The bill was passed, supervisors were outraged, and so began what gradually turned into a long-running war between board members and Abele.

This created a tricky situation for Walker. As corp counsel, her job was to provide legal advice to both the board and the executive, even on issues where they were diametrically opposed. It was rather like being the referee stuck between the feuding Hatfields and McCoys, each of whom was looking to use her legal decisions as ammunition.

For nearly two years Walker somehow managed this delicate dance, but on June 20th the county board voted 13 to 5 to fire her. Abele has vetoed this measure but needs to turn around two votes or Walker will be dismissed.

County Board chairwoman Marina Dimitrijevic hasn’t said a word about the firing. Instead the point person on this issue has been Supervisor Patricia Jursik an attorney who can be fiercely independent and has offered some lawyerly justifications for the firing that were largely swallowed by Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reporter Steve Schultze. Writer Dominique Paul Noth’s op ed for Urban Milwaukee also hewed to a similar line.

Jursik contends that it was Walker who disclosed the discussions in a closed-door county board committee meeting in March where board members discussed the issue of negotiating with unions. The committee had expelled Abele’s liason to the county board, Raisa Koltun, from the meeting, but others who directly report to the county exec were also in the meeting, including labor negotiator Fred Bau and then-Budget Director Craig Kammholz. 

“Could Kammholz have communicated with Abele? Simply, Yes,” Jursik replied via email to my question. She added that  “I can not speak for… Walker.” Walker tells me that no one from her office disclosed a word of the closed-door meeting to Abele.

In short, there is no evidence Walker talked to Abele about the issue. Once Abele learned the board was considering negotiating with unions, he asked Walker for a legal opinion as to how this squared with Act 10, which outlawed such negotiations. Walker’s job required her to answer and she wrote a memo saying that despite some court cases raising doubts about Act 10, the county must still comply with it at this point. Nothing in the memo mentions the closed door committee meeting.

Eventually the media learned about the memo, but once again there is no evidence Walker shared this information. The list of possible leakers includes Abele, his staff, and five county supervisors who opposed any negotiations with the unions. Once the media wrote about this, Republican legislators were outraged and decided to speed up passage of Act 14, the bill to reduce the funding and powers of the county board.

Nonetheless, many board members blamed Walker for the situation. Jursik wrote a letter on April 23 to Walker suggesting that Walker’s actions “provided the political platform” for Abele’s “political attack” on the board for negotiating with unions. Jursik and others wanted Walker to allow outside counsel for the board’s legal challenge of Act 14, and Walker agreed, saying “we believe that we can ethically provide advice,” but “due to the exceptional level of controversy over this matter and to avoid any real or perceived conflict of interest,” she would approve the request for outside counsel.

Some supervisors jumped on this, claiming Walker admitted to a conflict of interest. In fact, she was going overboard to be purer than pure and to defuse a trumped-up “controversy” which was based on an unproven claim by Jursik and other board members.

Jursik and others have also criticized Walker for a March 2 email she wrote to Abele staffers describing how to protect the confidentiality of the email exchange. Blogger Cory Liebmann disclosed the email on May 6, and board members jumped on this, seeing it as the smoking gun that proves Walker is more loyal to Abele and was advising him on how to evade the Freedom of Information law.

So did board members ask Walker to explain herself? I twice asked Jursik this via email and she twice declined to answer. Here is what Walker tells me: “When this issue was raised by Supervisor (Theo) Lipscomb during the May County Board meeting, the Chairwoman did not acknowledge me, and give me the opportunity to respond.  The advice that was provided to the County Executive’s Office regarding public records has been consistently provided to other elected officials, department heads and employees during my time as Corporation Counsel.  Further, I understand that the advice provided under my leadership is consistent with the advice given under my predecessor, Judge Bill Domina. This is attorney-client privilege communications 101.”

The Couture - Rendering 2

The Couture – Rendering 2

Finally, Jursik and others contend Walker failed to communicate with the board regarding Abele’s handling of The Couture. That’s an odd one, because there has been little disagreement between the board and Abele on this issue. The full Board voted 19-0 in 2011 to sell the county transit center so the land could be developed and then voted 18-0 in 2012 to move forward on The Couture project.

In January, the board voted to authorize funding for expert attorneys at the Reinhart Boerner law firm to “take any actions as may be appropriate and necessary” to get a title insurance policy on The Couture site. The Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources has twice ruled the land can be developed and is not in conflict with the lakebed public trust doctrine, but an attorney with Preserve Our Parks has disagreed.

The Reinhart lawyers consulted with Teig Whaley-Smith, the county economic development director, and apparently with Walker, and decided to try to get an amendment added to the state budget that would essentially declare the transit center property is not in the lake bed. Whaley-Smith contacted Rep. Jeff Stone (R-Greendale), who led the effort to add the amendment. Abele claimed he supported but did not initiate the move.

Supervisors at a June 10th meeting of the Economic and Community Development Committee brought Whaley-Smith before them and expressed outrage at what he did. The language they used was revealing. Supervisor Michael Mayo actually compared Whaley-Smith to a child trying to sneak around his father, the county board. Supervisor Gerry Broderick, a non-committee member, joined the meeting and declared that “we find ourselves having to zealously guard our policy-making authority.”

Even under the old, badly-separated powers between board and executive, Whaley-Smith and the lawyers arguably were simply carrying out the policy directive of the January resolution. But under the new state law clarifying the powers of board and executive, the board role in land sales is limited to prevent micro-managing.

But his success getting the budget amendment passed was just another reminder of Abele’s clout with the legislature, and clearly rubbed salt in the wounds of supervisors still angry about the reduction in their powers. So they lashed out not at Whaley-Smith, who testified that he led the way in contacting Stone, but at Walker, for not disclosing the decision of outside counsel (who technically report to her) to board members.

No, it doesn’t make much sense. It’s an emotional decision by board members frustrated at how they’ve been outflanked by Abele, and so they are taking out a staff member they see as too loyal to him. They might be right that Walker is closer to Abele than to them, but they’ve provided no evidence this has affected her performance on the job. And once she’s gone, Abele has the right to appoint his choice for the next corporation counsel, so how exactly will that change anything?

In one of emails to me, Jursik wrote this: “I think Abele came into his job without having good advisors around him, ones that understood how county government worked.  He has gotten better on this count, but there are still problems and Walker is one of them.”

She recently described the Abele administration to the Journal Sentinel as “so smug and so beyond themselves.”

But there is little Jursik and the board can do right now to punish Abele. So they’ve apparently decided to take out their frustrations on Walker.

Editors’ Note: An early version of this story was entitled “The Political Lynching of Kimberly Walker,” which some readers complained was excessive. Upon reflection, we agree, and we changed the headline.

21 thoughts on “Murphy’s Law: The Curious Case of Kimberly Walker”

  1. Steven Blackwod says:

    I know nothing about what is going on with this issue, but, I have to say, what an unfortunate title for this article.

  2. stacy says:

    I noticed this in my personal life. After being downsized some people are just too short to take the high road.

  3. John says:

    Wow, the editors really are on vacation. In what world did Bruce Murphy think that title was appropriate?

  4. capper says:

    Indeed, I don’t know which is worse – that unfortunate title or the fact that Murphy has flat out lied to his readers.

    Emails show that Bau was sending reports to the county executive’s office. In accordance to the law at that time, it means either there were no negotiations or the county executive was in violation of two laws – negotiating with the unions which he alleges were decertified and being involved in negotiations when the executive was barred from such activities. The latter stems from the pension scandal Murphy loves to bring up.

    Secondly, Kimberly Walker should be glad that no one has reported her to the ethics board, the DA’s office and/or the state bar. Actual lawyers have come out and said that she cannot fill the role of corp counsel anymore. The fact that she was soliciting a way to avoid open records requests are unethical at best, and very well could be illegal. In short, instead of setting up a secret router like Tim Russell, she was offering to be the secret router.

    I’m surprised that Murphy, as a former reporter and editor, would even condone such a thing.

  5. Bruce Murphy says:

    Thanks for your comment, Capper. We would certainly want to correct any factual errors in the story. What are those errors?

  6. capper says:

    I did put two or three of them in my previous comment. Bau was the source of the information from the closed meeting. The fact that the county exec knew about them showed that there were either no negotiations or he was in violation of the law. And thirdly, Walker’s email was pretty explicit on what she was soliciting. And should we also mention that every other corp counsel has managed to serve both the board and the executive without this folderol? Of course, we haven’t had executives quite like Abele before, unless you count Scott Walker.

  7. Bruce Murphy says:

    Capper, those are some interesting thoughts as to Fred Bau, etc. but the story is about Kimberly Walker and you have accused me of lying about the grounds for her firing. We do try to be accurate, so if you can specify any factual error we would certainly run a correction.

  8. capper says:

    You brought up the alleged negotiations, and played a red herring that it might have been Walker that leaked to the county executive, when the emails clearly show that it was Bau.

    If you are going to bring up the subject, you should be completely factual about it. If not, why bring it up?

  9. bruce Murphy says:

    Capper, I have no idea who leaked to the county executive and made it clear there were several people who could have, including Bau. If I ever do a story about Bau, I’ll be glad to consider your contention that he was the source of the leak.

  10. capper says:

    Bruce, let me assist you: http://media.jsonline.com/documents/bice8.pdf

    As you can see, Bau included Amber Moreen, Abele’s Chief of Staff in a blind copy. But I am sure that you were aware of that.

  11. Patricia Jursik says:

    You asked twice for answers, and I replied twice. The reply required that you connect the dots. This is called circumstantial evidence. As you point out, Noth got it. Since you seem to require a bright scarlet letter to document the “truth”, your story refused to connect the dots. As a result, Noth was required to file a false disclaimer in his earlier piece and your story continues the bias.
    Thanks for changing the original title, for the record I too thought it was outrageous.
    Patricia Jursik

  12. Bruce Murphy says:

    Capper, thanks again, I’ll keep that in mind should I ever do a story about Bau.

  13. Bruce Murphy says:

    To Supervisor Jursik: You actually responded to me several times and I’m appreciative of the time you gave me. Noth’s Op Ed is there for readers to compare to my story. It’s certainly a full-throated defense of the board. As to the one correction in his story, it involved his mistaken claim that Walker had admitted in documents that she tended to champion Abele’s policies over those of board. If you or anyone else can supply such documents, we would of course remove the correction.

  14. JR Hayslett says:

    Hey, Abele and the state Repubs want the county to spend less, maybe this was a good place to start.

  15. Dohnal(Wis. Conservtive Digest says:

    Is there no end to the embarrassment that this board cost Milwaukee county??? They need to know that if you want to effectively govern you must move on after you lost a battle, not continue the battle and make yourself look like an ididon. but that take maturity and Dimmti—– does not have it.

  16. Bruce Thompson says:

    Capper,
    I reread Bruce M’s article and your comments and I still cannot figure out where you think he lied. Maybe I am missing something, but the letter from Bau strikes me as supporting Bruce’s point that the board’s apparent belief that Walker leaked the information was unfounded.

  17. capper says:

    Outside of Murphy’s column, that was never an issue seriously considered. Murphy only brings it up as a red herring.

  18. capper says:

    Dohnal,

    Using that train of thought, I presume you are against Act 14, since that was Abele’s temper tantrum to not getting his way.

    I also presume you are against the state taking the Act 10 rulings to the Supreme Court, since they lost. Twice.

    I also look forward to your complaint of all the anti-choice laws being passed around the country because they lose Roe v. Wade decades ago.

    The fact remains that to remove all of the problems you’ve been complaining about would require the simple end of the county executive position.

  19. Bruce Thompson says:

    Capper,
    It appears that you are either unwilling or unable to identify the specific statements that you consider lies.

  20. capper says:

    Or that you and the other Bruce refuse to accept the truth even when you’re faced with it.

  21. jimspice says:

    I was interested to see what the original headline was, then sated my curiosity with a quick glance at the URL. Yikes.

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