John La Fave and “The Wire”
Embattled Register of Deeds may have borrowed a scheme from the HBO drama.
John La Fave, the recently retired Milwaukee County Register of Deeds, finds himself at the center of an FBI investigation. Could it be in part because he’s borrowing an idea from television drama “The Wire“?
The five-season show ran on HBO from 2002 until 2008, highlighting the institutional rot that the War on Drugs brought to Baltimore. Written by former crime reporter David Simon, the drama, ranked as third best television show of all time in TV (The Book), tells a story that goes far beyond Baltimore.
La Fave might have been inspired by something he saw on the show: the need to create an illusion to generate more cash for real work.
According to a recently unsealed search warrant affidavit, La Fave engaged in a practice where two county vendors would bill La Fave’s office for work not performed. Superior Support Resources reportedly billed the county for $2.3 million for work not performed from 2010 through 2017. Iowa-based Fidlar Technologies was also involved in a similar scheme. La Fave would later direct the funds be spent on work, primarily redacting and indexing records, with other vendors.
The program detailed by the affidavit sets up a scenario where La Fave, an elected official, was concerned about the Milwaukee County Board and County Executive cutting his office’s budget because he didn’t spend every penny allocated.
While the search warrant executed February 6th included any records of hotel stays, airfare, massages and meals for La Fave and other county employees, it does not appear that the reported scheme was undertaken for great personal gain.
The scheme is similar to one executed by homicide detective Jimmy McNulty (portrayed by Dominic West) in the fifth season of “The Wire.”
Facing a drastic budget cut at the police department, the fictional McNulty ties ribbons on the hands of recently deceased homeless individuals and fakes their strangulation creating the illusion of a serial killer.
McNulty’s scheme causes “the bosses” to send resources to his investigation for a non-existent serial killer. The detective then falsifies overtime sheets and establishes an illegal wiretap on a drug kingpin’s phone. The scheme, unknown to all but a few close associates, boosts department morale, funds the investigation of a violent drug dealer and pads the wallets of co-workers McNulty doesn’t even know. McNulty doesn’t personally profit and the department gets back to what he calls “real police” work.
The scheme is ultimately uncovered, McNulty’s case against the drug kingpin falls apart when the illegal wiretap is discovered and the detective is quietly pushed out of the department while the mayor runs for governor.
But if La Fave was borrowing from “The Wire,” he apparently forgot to watch the third season premiere.
In the episode, drug lord Stringer Bell has aligned the city’s drug dealers on a bulk purchasing plan for heroin and runs meetings according to Robert’s Rules of Order. But his desire to be a legitimate businessman reaches its limit quickly when he finds one of his lieutenants writing down meeting minutes. Slapping the notebook out the lieutenants’ hands, Bell, played by Idris Elba, shouts “N*gga, is you takin’ notes on a criminal f*ckin’ conspiracy? What the f*ck is you thinking, man?”
La Fave, according to the affidavit, sent a number of emails exposing his desire to deceive taxpayers and Milwaukee County officials on what he was spending money on, including the one quoted above. As Bell noted, perhaps not so eloquently: if you’re going to commit a crime, don’t write it down.
The now-retired Register of Deeds, who has not been charged to date, has relocated to Florida. Executives at both Fidlar and SSR have claimed they’ve done nothing wrong. But, the affidavit says SSR received a five percent fee (which would total $115,000) for performing the accounting trick.
“The Wire” doesn’t offer guidance on what happens next. The show ended. But the LaFave investigation is ongoing.
The 2019 Milwaukee County budget lists the Register of Deeds department as having 26 full-time positions and a $1.47 million budget. It is projected to return $3.1 million to the county as a result of earning revenue of $4.6 million from fees.
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