Bruce Murphy
The Chatter

The Trial of Chris Abele

Sued by Shepherd Express editor Lou Fortis, Abele goes on the stand for allegedly stealing a film festival.

By - Jun 12th, 2012 11:05 am
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It was back in April, 2008, that Shepherd Express publisher Lou Fortis and philanthropist Chris Abele got into an argument over the Milwaukee International Film Festival. Founded in 2002 by the Shepherd, much of its funding came from Abele’s Argosy Foundation. It was a juicy dispute, but not necessarily front page news. But now that Abele is the Milwaukee County Executive the controversy is far more newsworthy. Indeed, it has resulted in a suit that’s now before Circuit Court Judge Angela Bartell.

The festival’s two key supporters, the Argosy and Herzfeld foundations, had cut off funding after questions about the festival’s management arose. The fact that the festival advertised heavily in the Shepherd Express but did not have an independent board overseeing it presented an obvious conflict of interest. Fortis was willing to give up the festival for a payout that some sources pegged at $250,000, but Fortis told me was “just over $100,000.”

But the two sides never came to any agreement and after Fortis laid off the film festival’s staff, Abele quickly hired them and restarted and renamed what’s now called the Milwaukee Film Festival. It has gone on to great success and is planning its fourth annual festival this fall.

Meanwhile, Fortis responded by suing Abele and two staff members of the festival in October 2009. The complaint charges that Abele “turned to unlawful measures as a way to gain control of the festival,” and demands compensatory damages for, among other things, “damage to business and reputation” of Fortis and the Shepherd Express.

The case has dragged on for 32 months with all kinds of depositions being taken. Fortis declines to discuss it. Abele once told me a long list of charges had been dismissed, and questioned how the non-profit Fortis ran could suffer “lost future profits,” as the complaint charges. But Abele’s not talking now.

I’m told a long list of Milwaukee county judges declined to take the case, given that Abele, as county exec, helps decide the budget for the courts. Bartell, a retired Dane County judge, is thus hearing the case, which began its deliberations Monday, with testimony by Fortis. Abele is scheduled to testify Wednesday. The whole thing has the makings of a wonderful movie.

Right Wing Rising

The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel recently added Christian Schneider, a senior fellow at the conservative Wisconsin Policy Research Institute, as a regular Sunday columnist for its Crossroads section. This is actually the second WPRI senior fellow doing a Sunday column for the paper: Mike Nichols, a former JS staffer who went to the WPRI, has done a Sunday JS column for years.

When Ricardo Pimentel was JS editorial page editor, he was scrupulous about balancing right and left-wing commentary. His successor David Haynes is clearly not as concerned. There is no regular left-wing columnist for the Sunday Crossroads, much less two on staff with a left-wing advocacy organization. If there were even one, the outcry from talk radio would be hellacious.

Meanwhile, conservatives affiliated with a group called Businesses for Wisconsin Jobs are working to try to spread Milwaukee and Madison’s conservative talk radio programs to other parts of the state. They are using the documentary “Liberty or Lies,” a very sympathetic portrayal of talk radio made by Brian Farley, to sell other stations on the idea of adding right-wing radio. They have already placed Vicki McKenna’s Madison-based talk show on WMEQ in Eau Claire and have hopes of finding other stations in northern and western Wisconsin.

Farley has written about the Wisconsin effort for “heartlander,” an online publication put out by the conservative Heartland Institute, where he writes about his film’s impact without letting readers know he created it. Yep, its oddly incestuous. In the story, Jerry Bott, director of programming and operations at WISN radio in Milwaukee, nakedly assesses the impact of talk radio: “Hosts on conservative talk radio affect public opinion by making a convincing case that conservative principles are powerful, proper and effective. This has an effect on public opinion…which, in turn, provides a fertile environment for conservatives seeking public office to be elected.”  I thought radio was a business, not an advocacy project.

Where is Stuart Carlson?

Though the JS is fine with its two conservative fellows, it decided it didn’t like a liberal-leaning editorial cartoonist. Several years ago the paper dumped the talented Stuart Carlson, leaving it with no local editorial cartoonist. Carlson is still in syndication, doing cartoons on national topics only. He’s also begun drawing a new comic, with text by former JS editorial page staffer Jerry Resler, called Gray Matters, about (natch) growing old.

CEO Pay Craziness

A few weeks ago the JS ran a strong national AP story on CEO pay, but was careful to package it in a sober fashion. Not so the Boston Globe, which ran an additional sidebar that really dramatized America’s new Gilded Age.  The Globe story noted the typical American worker would need to work for 3,498 years to earn what the top paid CEO, David Simon of Simon Property, got last year: $137 million. A minimum wage worker would have to labor for 9,096 years to earn that much money. If Simon were paid per hour, and even assuming he worked 60 hours per week, his pay would be $43, 964 per hour. I’d like that job.

-My last column,  Why Walker Won, generated lots of thoughtful comments.

-Come celebrate the 4th anniversary of UrbanMilwaukee.com and meet me and special guest, Milwaukee County executive Chris Abele. Celebration starts tomorrow, June 13, at 5 p.m at Ryan Braun’s Graffito. RSVP here.

Categories: The Chatter

6 thoughts on “The Chatter: The Trial of Chris Abele”

  1. Steven Blackwood says:

    I have to wonder why I continue to subscribe to the MJS. It certainly makes no effort to reflect my view to any great extent. Plus they hide the affiliations of some of their op-ed writers. I no longer have Sunday’s Crossroads section but a writer from WPRI wrote a column claiming that Citizens UNITED had NO effect on the just past Recall. Many of the points the writer made were undoubtedly valid but MJS, while calling WPRI conservative also, very misleadingly, called them non-partisan. Oh, please, what are the odds that the writer voted for Barrett. Zero?

  2. Brien Farley says:

    Thanks for the mention of “Liberty or Lies” and my article about Businesses for Wisconsin jobs, Bruce. Once again, you have the distinction of being the only Milwaukee media figure who does not self-identify as “Conservative” writing about any of this stuff. Point being, I think you may be the only Milwaukee media figure not self-identified as “Conservative” who is aware of things beyond the daily allotment of pablum regularly sold as “news” in this town. Good for you! I wish there were more like you.

    As for my not mentioning that I created “Liberty or Lies” in the article… I don’t know that it would have made any difference if I did. Do you?

  3. Jim Huston says:

    Bruce: glad to see you’re back commenting on Milwaukee affairs — and taking a close look at JS news and opinion. I feared you were gone forever when you no longer showed up on Milwaukee Magazine’s blog list. JLH

  4. I too am a follower from Milwaukee Magazine days. Is there an email notification system for Murphy’s Law columns?

  5. Dave Reid says:

    @Louis At the bottom of the page you can subscribe to a daily email from Urban Milwaukee. Thanks!

  6. Bruce Thompson says:

    There are columnists who have a fresh viewpoint on matters and are worth reading whether or not they tend liberal or conservative. And then there are ones who are simply propagandists. The answer to conservative propagandists, like Schneider, is not to find an equally biased propagandist on the left. It is to find columnists who have something interesting to say.

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