Bruce Murphy
Murphy’s Law

Let’s Not Whitewash Bob Donovan

Journal Sentinel offers sanitized version of Bob Donovan's run-ins with the law.

By - Mar 28th, 2022 04:30 pm
Robert Donovan. File photo by Jeramey Jannene.

Robert Donovan. File photo by Jeramey Jannene.

Last week the Journal Sentinel offered a story on mayoral candidate Bob Donovan that went out of its way to downplay the mayoral candidate’s past run-ins with the law. Considering that Donovan is running, as he did in 2016, as the tough-on-crime candidate, that seems questionable.

Notably, the story tells as that in 2005 “federal authorities dropped a misdemeanor charge” against Donovan, then an alderman, for failing to disclose his ties to a non-profit. To reinforce the idea that Donovan did nothing wrong, the story quotes him saying “I’m not ashamed to say I did a lot of praying,” and adds that “To this day, he wears a Saint Jude lapel pin, the patron saint of lost causes.”

In fact, as I wrote for Milwaukee Magazine in December 2005, the alderman paid a fine under a settlement that then-U.S. Attorney Steven Biskupic described as a “middle ground” agreement akin to a misdemeanor charge, while Donovan insisted the agreement proved his innocence. 

But Donovan had signed “a compromise of the pending charge,” as the agreement was described. Just as a felony can be reduced to a misdemeanor, Donovan’s misdemeanor charge (of fraud) was reduced to a non-criminal penalty. If he was completely innocent, why did he agree to several penalties? These included the following: 

-Donovan agreed to pay the City of Milwaukee $2,500 “as a penalty for failure to provide appropriate oversight for the activities of Milwaukee Alliance,” a non-profit group Donovan helped found;

-Donovan agreed to henceforth provide no funds for the Milwaukee Alliance, refrain from supporting funding for the group and prohibit any aide from assisting the group;

-Donovan agreed that for two years he would take no role in the operation of a non-profit receiving federal funds; 

-Donovan acknowledged that if he engaged in any criminal activity or failed to appear for any required court appearance, the agreement with the U.S. Attorney would be null and void. 

Back in 2002 I wrote a piece for Milwaukee Magazine reporting that Donovan had used his position as alderman to help get $50,000 in foundation grants to create the Milwaukee Alliance, whose initial mission was to connect community groups, churches and businesses to the city. That is, by definition, what an alderman is paid to do anyway. So why was Donovan using foundation money to create this group, and why was the Alliance in turn paying for the heat and electricity for the neighborhood alderman’s office Donovan maintained? 

More troubling questions were raised by Journal Sentinel reporter Georgia Pabst, who reported that Donovan had pushed to get a federal grant for the Milwaukee Alliance, though he was its non-paid president and chairman, and his grown stepdaughter was a part-time employee of the Alliance for four months. By the time this was reported, Donovan had resigned as president and chairman and moved his aldermanic office out of the building, in response to conflict-of-interest concerns raised by federal officials.

Biskupic’s case against Donovan found that Alliance employees were doing constituent services for his aldermanic office. The brief also charged that alderman’s wife Kathy Donovan had received nine checks of $300 each from the Alliance, that there was a blurring of interests between the Alliance and Donovan’s campaign fund, and that records regarding payments to his wife were falsified.

As it turned out, Donovan in 2002 had disclosed his ties to the Alliance in a confidential letter to the City Ethics Board. This made it difficult to prove Donovan knowingly tried to defraud. But he showed incredibly poor judgment by partly supporting his family and aldermanic office with government and foundation funding from a non-profit group he helped win grants through his position as an alderman. In signing the agreement with Biskupic, Donovan admitted as much. 

The Journal Sentinel story of last week also reported on Donovan’s earlier offense: “In 1992 he (Donovan) was cited for disorderly conduct in an incident in a University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee bathroom and agreed to pay a $93 fine.” Only if you clicked on a link to a 2016 story by Dan Bice would you learn that “Donovan was observed by a UWM police officer ‘peeking through a hole the size of nickel in a partition between two restroom stalls’ for about 10 minutes, the police record stated. The report said: ‘Donovan stated that he has frequented Mitchell Hall restroom for years for the purposes of either watching men masturbate, or to have sex with men in the restroom.'”

Thankfully, times have changed since 1992 and many voters might give Donovan a pass for what he did back then. But shouldn’t the information be fully revealed and let voters make that decision?

Meanwhile, the Journal Sentinel did a profile of Acting Mayor Cavalier Johnson, Donovan’s opponent in the race for mayor. The story quoted Ald. Ashanti Hamilton, whom Johnson succeeded as Common Council President. “I don’t think he was ever in the position, really,” Hamilton said of Johnson as council president. Johnson was “always focused” on the mayor’s office, Hamilton claimed.

In fact, if you ask any City Hall insiders, they would tell you Hamilton didn’t work very hard as council president and Johnson did. But apparently the reporters didn’t bother to check this or to give Johnson a chance to respond. Quite a contrast to the kid-gloves treatment of Donovan’s legal problems.

If you think stories like this are important, become a member of Urban Milwaukee and help support real, independent journalism. Plus you get some cool added benefits.

More about the 2022 Mayoral Race

Read more about 2022 Mayoral Race here

4 thoughts on “Murphy’s Law: Let’s Not Whitewash Bob Donovan”

  1. What is more disturbing is what Mr. Donovan would do as a mayor. He has already announced that he will have referendums and strike forces on what he and his supporters do not like. While beginning with laudable targets like automobile theft, these models of harnessing populist anger could gradually turn on anything he and his supporters dislike. With considerable influence, including money, from people and groups outside the city of Milwaukee, when might Mr. Donovan form a strike force or referendum against certain voting practices? Library materials? Subjects to teach in schools? Public transit? Public parks? Certain groups of citizens? Selected businesses? Rather than seeking to build a community, Mr. Donovan seeks to separate, punish, and express his anger (he calls himself “a fighter”) against those that do not agree with him or who he perceives as having wronged or shamed him, including the people who will not vote for him. Mr. Donovan’s past may be troubling, but it may be the harbinger, when given power, of a far more destructive agenda.

  2. Polaris says:

    Well, heck, we all slip up once in a while, but…the police report said: “Donovan stated that he has frequented Mitchell Hall restroom for years for the purposes of either watching men masturbate, or to have sex with men in the restroom.” 😉

  3. GodzillakingMKE says:

    Donavan is the Trump candidate.

  4. hillard says:

    I got to say, rehashing the stuff from the 90’s feels…icky. I think there’s plenty of reasons to not vote for Bob Donovan without bringing this into it. I don’t think it is fair given the repression of the era in which it occurred and the homophobic practices of law enforcement at the time.

Leave a Reply

You must be an Urban Milwaukee member to leave a comment. Membership, which includes a host of perks, including an ad-free website, tickets to marquee events like Summerfest, the Wisconsin State Fair and the Florentine Opera, a better photo browser and access to members-only, behind-the-scenes tours, starts at $9/month. Learn more.

Join now and cancel anytime.

If you are an existing member, sign-in to leave a comment.

Have questions? Need to report an error? Contact Us