Bruce Murphy
Murphy’s Law

Could Bob Ott Be Investigated For Ethical Conflicts?

By - Jan 24th, 2002 02:49 pm
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Milwaukee County is beginning to resemble the plot of And Then There Were None. One by one, top officials are disappearing from the courthouse. The latest to leave is Corporation Counsel Robert Ott, and as with the others, there are lots of questions revolving around his resignation.

County Executive Tom Ament has named Ott as one of three officials who failed to provide information about the pension plan to him and the county board. Some county supervisors have accused Ott of lobbying them to pass a plan that would have gained Ott a $1.3 million backdrop payment had he continued on the job until 2008. “I believe he had an ethical problem,” says Supervisor Roger Quindel.

Ott denies these charges, though. “I never attended one meeting in Ament’s office about what should be in the non-rep package [of pension benefits],” Ott says. “I didn’t lobby board members. If anybody asked or had a question, I explained what I knew.”

Ott, however, has admitted he was among those who suggested County Board Chair Karen Ordinans replace Supervisor Robert Krug as head of the Personnel Committee, which oversaw the pension plan. Krug had headed the committee for four years and was very knowledgeable on the subject. His successor, Supervisor Kathleen Arciszewski, seems shaky on the details and has still offered little explanation for why she approved the huge payouts in the pension plan. “These are questions that the pension study committee should have asked,” she told me, shifting the blame to others.

Some lawyers in town are privately suggesting Ott might be subject to disciplinary action by the state Board of Lawyer Regulation for a conflict of interest, because he provided legal counsel to the county board on an issue that would personally benefit him. The board, which is an agency of the Wisconsin Supreme Court, investigates any written complaints of ethical conflicts brought before it.

“The general rule on that is if the potential conflict is revealed to the client and the client still wants advice from him, then its okay,” says Howard Eisenberg, Dean of the Marquette Law School. Certainly, board members would have known their lawyer, Ott, stood to gain something from the pension plan. But supervisors all say they had no idea how huge the benefit would be for Ott, Ament and others. In short, they were not aware of just how huge the potential conflict was for their lawyer.

“One can make the argument that if the extent of the conflict was not known, then the board really didn’t consent to the conflict,” says Eisenberg. “It’s a subjective determination.”

Ott had initially refused Ament’s request that he resign, but as revelations continue to pile up about the corporation counsel, he may have decided it was better to leave now before he faces more allegations.

Mueller Time

Several sources tell me veteran PR man H. Carl Mueller was hired to advise Ament last week. Mueller, who did not return my calls, is a former chief of staff to Mayor Norquist, with long experience handling political problems. It was doubtless his advice that led Ament to do interviews with talk show hosts Mark Belling (WISN) and Eric Von (WMCS). These were good choices, as Belling and Vonn have been less critical of Ament than WTMJ’s Charlie Sykes and the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, which has called on Ament to resign.

But Ament, who has never faced a controversy like this, handled the Belling interview poorly. After previously telling the media the big pension payout had been a surprise to him, Ament admitted that he thought he would gain a lump sum payment worth probably more than a year’s salary but less than $500,000. In short, Ament thought he would get anywhere between $124,000 (his current salary) and $500,000, in addition to an annual pension payment of $136,800 and paid-up health insurance for life. Is there a citizen in Milwaukee County who thinks any public official deserves this kind of golden parachute?

Another huge mistake: Ament also said he would challenge any duplicate signatures or other irregularities in the recall petitions. In short, he’ll grab any technicality he can to stave off a recall. Gee, I wonder if this will anger the many citizens who are working on the recall effort?

Short Take

For those wondering just what Ament was thinking when he approved the pension plan, Webster’s Dictionary offers a possible answer. Here is the definition of Ament: “in psychology, a person who has a mental deficiency; feeble-minded person.” This is actually the second definition of the word, which comes from the root “amens,” senseless or mad. I am indebted to Todd Robert Murphy for the tip.

Keep those cards and and e-mail coming.

This article was originally published by Milwaukee World.

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