Bruce Murphy
Murphy’s Law

Schimel’s Spoils System

DOJ gag order on his employees shows the impact of ending civil service protections.

By - Sep 18th, 2018 10:50 am
Brad Schimel. Photo from the State of Wisconsin.

Brad Schimel. Photo from the State of Wisconsin.

Government employees work for us, the citizens whose taxes pay their salaries. But since Gov. Scott Walker and Republican legislators ended civil service protections for state employees in 2016, the system was radically changed. All employees are now political staff who serve the party in power. 

Thus we had the news last week that Wisconsin Attorney General Brad Schimel is requiring everyone who works at the state Department of Justice — all 757 staffers — to sign a nondisclosure agreement. 

It’s essentially a gag order. The agreement stipulates that employees may not reveal “confidential information”, which “includes but is not limited to” criminal justice information, intellectual property, health information or proprietary health information, none of which is defined. 

The agreement defines “confidential” so broadly as to mean “anything that Brad Schimel or his managers say it is,” Madison attorney Lester Pines, a Democrat, told the Wisconsin State Journal.

The agreement, moreover, is legally binding even after employees leave the Department of Justice and even after they leave the state. I guess they’re gagged till they die. 

Such agreements have “a chilling effect on state employees talking about what their agencies are doing,” Pines charged. 

And this gag order had never before been required of DOJ employees. Ed Wall, a former administrator of the Justice Department’s Division of Criminal Investigation, told the State Journal he had served in the department under four attorneys general — two Democrats and two Republicans — and never was asked to sign a non-disclosure agreement. Former Democratic official Jim Doyle told the newspaper he “never asked anyone… to sign a non-disclosure agreement as either Attorney General or Governor.”

Journal Sentinel reporter Dan Bice, who broke the story on the gag order, noted it was created in May 2017, just a month after Josh Kaul entered the race for Attorney General, but  DOJ spokeswoman Rebecca Ballweg denied there was any connection to this.

The State Journal follow-up story noted that DOJ officials began pushing all employees who hadn’t signed the secrecy agreement to do so on “the same day” Wall, the former top criminal investigator for DOJ, “released a tell-all book” that accused Schimel “of botching a response to alleged abuses at the state’s youth prison.”

Whatever the reason for it, this is an unprecedented move to muzzle DOJ employees that was unlikely to be deployed back when employees were protected by civil service protections. And employees have little choice but to sign. By August 10, all but 129 of the department’s 757 employees had signed secrecy agreement. 

“DOJ employees have been very cooperative in returning the signed form,” Ballweg told Bice. Probably because they’re afraid of getting fired. 

Schimel may also prefer to have all employees gagged as he struggles with an embarrassing issue: he recently announced that after three years of countless delays, his office has finally finished processing the backlog of 6,800 untested rape kits.

Except that all 6,800 kits haven’t been tested. We’ve since learned from Schimel that the number tested was actually 4,100, because some victims didn’t give permission for the testing of some kits. This would mean victims said no in 2,700 cases. Schimel also noted results for testing of 1,267 cases “are still pending,” as a Journal Sentinel story noted.

Which is to say the testing all of the rape kits hasn’t been completed. And the continuing changes and discrepancies in the numbers claimed by Schimel might explain why he’d rather not have staff sharing any information with the media. 

Add to that the growing backlog under Schimel for DNA testing, gun testing and drug testing and you can see why he might benefit from as much non-disclosure as possible. The delays have gotten so bad that Milwaukee Circuit Judge David Borowski has blasted the DOJ crime lab: “For it to take more than three months, almost four months to have a DNA result on a homicide case, is completely unacceptable,” he told the Journal Sentinel.

Beyond the issue of Schimel’s dreadful management of the crime lab is the impact of his gag order on the proper functioning of government. The message it sends is that employees serve the top politician and must be politically loyal at all costs, rather than serving the mission of the department and the citizens of this state.    

Some of this is inevitable when one party controls all power in the state Capitol. Even before the civil service system was dismantled, Gov. Walker had turned the state Department of Workforce Development into a PR machine that spins the jobs numbers rather than providing objective data.

Since the end of civil service the staff of the state Department of Natural Resources have been muzzled and prevented from testifying to legislators. The staff of the Wisconsin Economic Development Agency tried to hide the details of the Foxconn contract from members of the WEDC board — and of course, the public. The Department of Transportation stopped publishing “two valuable, long-standing reports on transportation revenue, debt, and spending” to obscure the truth about Walker’s roads spending — and only relented after long-time Republican (and Urban Milwaukee’s Contrarian columnist) George Mitchell exposed this. 

Schimel’s mistake was making more explicit what is now implicitly known in all departments of state government. Wisconsin is now run as a “spoils system,” as 19th century reformers derided it, where the party that wins control can hire political loyalists and demand such loyalty of all employees. The spoils system began to be eliminated more than a century ago through civil service protections which still operate in federal government and nearly every state in the union. Wisconsin was a leader in that movement, following the motto “The Best Shall Serve the State,” and creating a civll service system in 1905, which was maintained and never questioned by 26 governors, including 17 Republicans, for 110 years.

Now Wisconsin has become a rotten exception, and Schimel is the new poster boy for how a spoils system can corrupt government. For all the talk about Act 10, the most radical legislation passed in the Walker era has been the dismantling of the civil service system. Not one a word about it has been spoken in the race for governor. Which should worry Republicans. After all, a spoils system can just as corruptly serve a Democratic regime. 

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Categories: Murphy's Law, Politics

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