Police Scam Artists
Why does the cop’s union protect officers who rip off taxpayers?
To understand the sleaze factor in the Milwaukee Police Association, you need to start with the role of Bradley DeBraska, its disgraced former president. Three years ago, DeBraska was convicted of a felony charge of forgery and identity theft and given six months in jail. DeBraska had forged the signature of former Common Council President John Kalwitz to a document in order to win a suit to regain $21 million for the police pension fund. In short, DeBraska tried to steal money from the taxpayers to fatten the police pension.
You might think the police unions would avoid DeBraska, feeling he might give the public the wrong impression of them. Nope. The Milwaukee Police Supervisors’ Organization has retained DeBraska as a paid consultant since at least March 2012, as the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel’s Dan Bice has reported. And it appear he still runs a charitable fund, the Police Officer’s Defense Fund, as Fox 6 has reported.
But here’s the kicker: DeBraska is also helping cops who are about to be fired to apply for duty disability and thus continue to get paid when they should have been thrown out of the department. It’s just the kind of legal loophole DeBraska has been a master at exploiting in the past.
DeBraska may not have been involved in that case, but the JS cites documents showing he worked with Rudolfo Gomez, Jr. and other officers attempting to get duty disability. Gomez who was charged with felony misconduct in office for allegedly hitting a handcuffed prisoner, but can make that investigation moot because he cleverly applied for duty disability before any disciplinary action was taken. So even if he is fired, he too will collect 75 percent of his salary for life.
DeBraska also assisted in the application of Anthony Bialecki, who was criminally charged for shooting an unarmed man, 26-year-old Domonick Washington, in 2009. In the ultimate example of chutzpah, Bialecki filed for duty disability, citing this shooting as the cause of his mental stress. But he actually filed this claim four years after the shooting, and just two weeks after he was charged with a misdemeanor for buying Percocet without a prescription.
The message to taxpayers, as with the county pension scandal, is that we are suckers who are there to be fleeced by government workers. But in this case its impact is more insidious, because this duty disability claim can be used to reward criminal cops who are a menace to the community. That gives a message to others on the force that they can evade punishment if they commit crimes.
How can the law possibly protect bad cops in this way? State law says the police union would have to agree to any changes in the process by which duty disability claims are filed as part of collective bargaining. Odds are this law was successfully lobbied for by DeBraska. Going back many years the union has done end runs around city government to get special protections from the state legislature that it did not negotiate through collective bargaining. Those laws were often championed by lawmakers from both parties.
Another example: the union got state legislation passed allowing suspended cops to continue collecting their salary and benefits until their case is settled. This gives these officers every incentive to fight and delay the case forever, driving up the legal costs while the officers continue to get paid, all at the taxpayers’ expense.
Going back years, the police union would endorse candidates for the state legislature, for judicial positions, you name it. But as former Milwaukee Mayor John Norquist once charged, the endorsements often come not because the candidates support “law and order,” but because they have signaled they will support the wonderful benefits police receive. That can be very helpful when appeals regarding these benefits come before these judges.
Thus DeBraska and the police union were able to successfully sue to grab more money from the city pension system. This was back in the go-go 1990s, when stock market gains were making every government giddy. Both Milwaukee County and the State of Wisconsin cashed in, passing laws providing lucrative increases for employees. Given that taxpayers would still have to pay a guaranteed level of benefits to employees even if the stock market tanked, it was outrageous to enrich themselves this way.
That’s what Norquist essentially argued, and so DeBraska and the police and fire unions fought him to ratchet up pension payments to members.
Later, as one of his last acts as union chief, DeBraska cleverly negotiated a city contract that granted him and two others a retroactive boost in their pensions, as Bice has reported.
As any reporter who has interviewed DeBraska will tell you, he is very impressive: articulate, knowledgable on all aspects of policing and union laws, and cool under fire. From the point of view of grabbing benefits for officers (and attacking police chiefs), the union has probably never had anyone more skilled as a leader. Indeed, he is so indispensable he continues to help officers looking to milk the taxpayers.
Update 2 p.m.November 12: Mayor Tom Barrett‘s office informs me that he wrote a letter to union leaders asking them “to join me in publicly denouncing this scam and to assist me to make appropriate changes to protect our pension funds from such illegitimate claims.” That was November 7; the mayor has yet to hear back from any of them.
-I have previously criticized JS reporters Gina Barton and John Diedrich for some of their coverage of the police. So I should note their coverage of the whole police disability claim issue has been terrific, a first-rate example of watchdog journalism.
–Bill Lueders offers an eyebrow-raising analysis of Gov. Scott Walker’s autobiography, which shows Walker shared a top ten list mocking public employees with his staff. Publicly Walker had only criticized union bosses (but not those with the police and fire unions, who supported him for governor), but these jokes bespeak a contempt for all government workers. The fact that Walker would disclose this himself, apparently thinking that all people would approve of these jokes, is stunning. Is this his view of every teacher and police officer and park ranger and librarian, and garbage worker and college professor across the state? Wow.
-One thing I left out of my recent column on Superintendent Gregory Thornton is the work of the PR person he has hired, media manager Tony Tagliavia. Never has MPS been more proactive about getting out positive messages. It’s certainly critical for the system to address its critics and shortcomings, but also important for its reputation and staff morale to get out the good news. Tagliavia is doing that quite well.