Jeramey Jannene
City Hall

27-Page Complaint Blasts City Attorney

Tearman Spencer and top deputies face new complaints of misusing public funds, kickbacks and more.

By - Jun 1st, 2022 05:59 pm
City Attorney Tearman Spencer speaks at a Feb. 2022 press conference. Photo by Jeramey Jannene.

City Attorney Tearman Spencer speaks at a Feb. 2022 press conference. Photo by Jeramey Jannene.

City Attorney Tearman Spencer and a number of his top deputies face a 27-page complaint that alleges a variety of violations including embezzlement, cash kickbacks, waste and abuse, knowingly making false statements and fraudulently signing names of attorneys in documents filed with courts.

That’s according to a May 16 email from city inspector general Ronda Kohlheim to members of the Common Council.

Kohlheim, in her email, said the complaint was submitted by a “confidential source.” It was also submitted to the Office of Lawyer Regulation, Milwaukee County District Attorney’s Office, Milwaukee Police Association and a handful of city departments.

Spencer told Urban Milwaukee he can’t respond to what he doesn’t know and that “it would be prudent to let the Inspector General conduct their investigation.”

But he has a history of not assisting in those investigations. Kohlheim noted his non-response to a 2021 investigation into the Fire & Police Commission’s demotion of then-police chief Alfonso Morales.

The detailed complaint was not provided to Urban Milwaukee. The council, should it choose, could give Kohlheim subpoena power to complete an investigation if members of the City Attorney’s office don’t cooperate with an investigation.

The inspector general is a relatively new position that reports to the Common Council and cannot formally discipline individuals.

The complaint appears to have been written by someone familiar with the inner workings of the City Attorney’s office. Kohlheim’s summary repeats some points that have been widely discussed, including retaliation, harassment and the creation of a hostile work environment, while advancing new claims.

The new claims include backdating various documents, withholding information from departments, fraudulently signing of attorney names on documents filed with the courts and failing to complete conflict of interest checks. According to Kohlheim’s summary, the complaint also alleges a number of poor practices related to settlements.

The office has been subject to high turnover since Spencer took over in 2020. Twenty-seven attorneys have left the office since Spencer was hired, including some that were hired since he was elected. The office is authorized to have 40 attorneys.

Spencer initially blamed the turnover issue on his replacing 36-year-incumbent Grant Langley. In October 2021 he added the media, Common Council and low pay as additional reasons people are leaving. The city has a whole is experiencing high turnover, though not at the rate of the City Attorney’s office.

It is unclear what accusations in the complaint involve Spencer himself. Also named are special deputy Celia Jackson, deputies Yolanda McGowan and Todd Farris and contract assistant city attorney Lynnette McNeely.

One summary point from the claim, “hiring of friends and/or associated with no notice at the City’s expense,” appears aimed at Jackson and McNeeley. The two are members of a three-person non-profit board, with McNeely hired in recent months to support the Department of Neighborhood Services.

A report by Kohlheim would attempt to ascertain the validity of the claims.

That’s what Alderman Ashanti Hamilton, who chairs the Judiciary & Legislation Committee, would like to see before proceeding.

“I think it’s extremely important for us to get an understanding about what’s happening over there so that we can really formulate a way of responding to that, if it is the responsibility of the council to actually respond,” said Hamilton.

The former council president said the public is owed a conversation about what is happening given the number of outside attorneys hired and settlements. “It has to be a public conversation,” said Hamilton. The alderman has served as a moderating voice in defense of the City Attorney’s office since 2020. But on Wednesday he said he was open to seeing what the report might say.

“Everything is on the table and that’s why [the inspector general] position is important, so that there is an independent investigation,” said alderman. “We want to act out of knowledge.”

But at least two of Hamilton’s colleagues, and Spencer’s most outspoken critics, don’t expect much to come of the report.

“The reality is the inspector general doesn’t have authority over that office and if they don’t cooperate, which he hasn’t in the past, there are no consequences,” said Ald. Michael Murphy.

“I don’t think so,” said Ald. Robert Bauman when asked if anything would come of the report. He said while the subpoena power might exist in theory, it could cause an issue when used on an independently-elected official.

Categories: City Hall, Politics, Weekly

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