Bruce Murphy
Murphy’s Law

The Return of County Cronyism

Or maybe it never went away. Push for 36% salary hikes echoes mentality behind infamous county pension plan.

By - Apr 15th, 2024 06:48 pm
County Treasurer David Cullen, County Clerk George Christenson and Register of Deeds Israel Ramón.

County Treasurer David Cullen, County Clerk George Christenson and Register of Deeds Israel Ramón.

Back in 1947 legendary Milwaukee Journal reporter Richard Davis described Milwaukee County government in scathing terms, as a place run by a “clique” whose “needy friends… can be placed in jobs for convenience all around.”

That kind of cronyism, of insider dealing to reward each other, was a key driver of the infamous Milwaukee County pension scandal, which would ultimately cost Milwaukee taxpayers more than $1.3 billion. Officials I interviewed after I broke the pension story in October 2001 described county government as an “old boys and old girls club,“ a kind of “family” with “so many people who think their function is to protect their friends” in the courthouse.

Thus, even though board members knew the constitutional offices of county clerk, county treasurer and register of deeds were unnecessary and were on record urging the Wisconsin Legislature to eliminate the positions, they continued to give generous pay raises to those officers. Then-supervisor and later Milwaukee alderman Mark Borkowski told me all three positions required so little work they should be combined into one, as did then-county treasurer Dorothy Dean.

But that was more than 20 years ago. Today, with so much turnover of positions and a reduction of the county board to part-time pay, it felt as though the old cronyism that once ran the courthouse had dissipated. One possible sign of this was that the county paid far more — $130,000 — to the fourth constitutional officer, county clerk of courts, for a job that is considered truly full-time, while the other three constitutional officers were paid just $91,484.

Then came this year’s push to increase the pay for these three officers by an unprecedented 36%, for jobs that county insiders knew were essentially sinecures. The smarmy process by which this proposal was pushed was exactly the sort of thing Davis described more than half a century ago.

County insiders suggest that the three men holding these positions —  County Clerk George L. Christenson, Register of Deeds Israel Ramón and Treasurer David Cullen — approached the County Department of Human Resources — to push for a raise. The department then complied, issuing a report in February recommending that all three officers get an 11.5% salary hike, increasing their pay to $102,004.

While the report claimed to be a “market rate analysis,” it did no analysis of comparable positions in the private sector, probably because these are elective positions for which there is no market rate and which have never had a problem attracting candidates to run for them. County Clerk Christenson himself described the report’s recommendation as arbitrary: “they just came up with a number.” The report read like a lazy way to end the bother of these three guys pushing so hard for a raise.

But the three men weren’t satisfied with a $10,520 raise and wanted more. Much more. And as Urban Milwaukee’s county reporter Graham Kilmer documented, they lobbied for an even bigger raise. A spokesperson for Milwaukee County Executive David Crowley told Kilmer that “the three constitutional officers requested and had a formal meeting” with the human resources department “to dispute the administration’s original compensation recommendation.”

But the department would not go further than an 11.5% hike so the three men began lobbying the county board for more. Ramon admitted this, but claimed he was merely explaining that county ordinances required that the constitutional officers must receive pay in line with the salaries of other county department heads.

But if that was so, why had they long been paid less than other county department heads and less than the clerk of courts? And why hadn’t the Milwaukee County Corp Counsel, the office whose attorneys advise county officials on proper interpretation of the law, suggested a salary hike for constitutional officers was needed?

Making this all the more suspicious: the three men began pushing for the raises right after the resignation of Milwaukee County Corp Counsel Maggie Daun, a smart, no-nonsense attorney who was likely to have seen through the whole thing. (Daun, who is now a talk radio host and executive for Civic Media, has criticized the proposed raises on the air.) This left Ramón, who is an attorney, to offer his interpretation of county laws, and boy, did he succeed. Sup. Tony Staskunas amended the proposal, increasing the raise to 36% by 2028, eventually bringing their pay from $91,483 to $124,513. And nearly the entire county board voted for this stunning pay raise, with only Sup. Sheldon Wasserman voting no.

Staskunas and Sup. Shawn Rolland both said the salary hike was required by county ordinance, with Rolland saying he was advised this by County Clerk Christenson, who was quoting Ramón. But why would you accept the second-hand legal interpretation of someone who stood to personally benefit? Why did no one on the board check with the Acting Corporation Counsel Scott Brown for his opinion?

On April 5, some two weeks after the board approved this massive salary hike, Brown issued a memo that flatly contradicted Ramón’s assurance that this was required by county law. A review by the Office of Corp Counsel “has found no authority in statute, ordinance, or caselaw that requires that the County adopt a specific salary for the positions of the Register of Deeds, County Treasurer, and County Clerk,” the memo stated.

It’s a safe assumption that County Executive Crowley, who vetoed the 36% hike and supported the 11.5% hike, pushed Brown to do the legal analysis. Crowley’s spokesperson told Urban Milwaukee that “This situation raises ethical concerns regarding any County employee, including constitutional officers, using their special access, power, and influence to lobby for their own compensation.”

The board had called a special meeting to consider overriding Crowley’s veto, but in response to Crowley’s comments, and Urban Milwaukee’s story documenting the brazen lobbying by the three men, the board reversed its vote and approved the lower figure. But if the county ordinance doesn’t require any salary hike, then what’s the justification for the 11.5% salary hike, other than that three officers wanted more money?

Adding more of a stench to the entire affair was the fact that this came after the county successfully lobbied for a sales tax hike from state legislators, after repeatedly assuring that Milwaukee officials would be wise stewards of the taxpayers’ money. The 36% raise would have cost taxpayers more than $99,000 per year. As Wasserman noted, in voting against the proposal, the parks system has massive financial needs that surely take priority over these raises.

How then could all the other board members, like pliant sheep, reward the three officials for “using their special access, power and influence to lobby” for a pay hike? It certainly looks like classic county cronyism.

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Categories: Murphy's Law, Politics

5 thoughts on “Murphy’s Law: The Return of County Cronyism”

  1. 45 years in the City says:

    Thank You Sup. Wasserman for standing up in opposition to this nonsense.

    Speaking of obsolete elected positions, I vaguely remember from my younger years that County Coroner was an elected position – and a partisan one. I could never figure out the benefits of a Republican coroner vs. a Democratic one. My memory might be incorrect, but I believe there were no medical qualifications required to serve as an elected coroner.

    The structure of county government is a relic of the 19th century and is particularly unsuited for a fully incorporated county such as Milwaukee.

  2. CraigR says:

    So why hasn’t our legislature gotten rid of these useless positions? They could take a break from legislating conservative social issues and actually get something useful done. I guess their “stick it to Milwaukee” attitude includes this. My extra sales tax will help pay these three’s 11% bump in pay.

  3. 45 years in the City says:

    My household has received (unsolicited) “newsletters” from both the County Clerk and County Treasurer. There’s no statement that these were a campaign expense, so I’ll assume these were printed and mailed at taxpayer expense.

    They contain basic information such as a county telephone numbers, promotions for “free days” at various attractions affiliated with the county, etc. The editorial content has some information about unclaimed funds, where/how to vote, etc. The rest of these four page glossy newsletters contain self-promoting text and photos (i.e.: “your treasurer/clerk in action, around town, holding babies, etc.”).

    This is the sort of thing that would more appropriately come from supervisors (who have constituents), not one of the constitutional officers.

    I struggle to see any real value in this for citizens.

  4. Ronski says:

    Mr. Bruce Murphey,

    I have just read through your article on the return of County Cronyism for the third time and have a story that can verify that cronyism does actually exist in the Milwaukee County court system. My event concerned an eviction procedure that was falsely produced by attorney Basil Loeb and his client Jennifer Sundburg, through numerous lies and deceit, the two of them even committed Wisconsin State felonies by filing false financial claims with the courts; claiming that his client never received rental payments for several months, even though attorney Loeb himself had received these payments himself, and then cashed the checks seven days after filing the false documents with the court. I have filed numerous complaints with the governor of Wisconsin, Tony Evers, several senators, the Attorney General of Wisconsin, the District Attorney John Chisolm, and many, many others and can provide copies of all the submissions, but not one of them is willing to uncover the abuses of power presently transpiring throughout the Milwaukee County Court system. Here’s is the letter submitted to John Chisolm;

    Attn. John Theodore Chisolm, Et al 11:35 hours
    821 W. State St., Room 405
    Milwaukee, WI 53233
    414 278 4646, fax 414 223 1955 certified # 7017 3040 0000 7618 5036

    With this correspondence I am attempting to seek justice for criminal violations committed against me in the Milwaukee County court system beginning on June 06, 2022 and ending on February 15, 2023 with the Milwaukee County Court Case number 2022SC013923. The perpetrators being Basil Martin Loeb of Schmidlkofer, Toth, Loeb & Drosen at 949 Glenview Avenue, Wauwatosa, Wisconsin 53213, and his client Jennifer Victoria Sundberg of 220 Benson Road North Carolina 27529; with at least two Milwaukee County Officials apparently assisting and/or ignoring the felony criminal actions committed by these two individuals. Nowhere in all the evidence files submitted to the court system to this date, has the perpetrator /plaintiff/Jennifer Victoria Sundberg, nee Kurszewski; ever denied in all our emails, that we, meaning myself, Ronald John Kurszewski, and his daughter Jennifer Sundberg, denied the fact that they did indeed have a verbal agreement in effect pursuant to Wisconsin State Statute 704.17 (3).

    From the very beginning it seemed obvious that Attorney Basil Loeb and Jennifer Sundberg began their apparent conspiracy to commit fraud, (Wisconsin State Statute 939.31, Conspiracy), by falsely claiming eviction status under Wisconsin State Statute 704.19 (3), instead of correctly and honestly claiming the eviction under Wisconsin State Statute 704.17 (3), attorney Loeb in court further claiming none of my evidence documents/files were relevant. The false claims from the plaintiff and her attorney continued by jointly claiming they had not received rental payments for the periods June and July of 2022, in addition to providing a false amount claimed on the water bill.

    Please see attached letter dated January 19, 2023 which was submitted to Judge Rosa Barillas on that date. This letter proved beyond a doubt that Attorney Basil Loeb and Jennifer Sundberg were working in collusion with each other to conspire to commit fraud against the defendants in case 2022SC013923; in order to obtain a favorable financial ruling from Judge Barillas to tentatively triple their own monetary gains. This procedure is generally carried through wherein the judge doubles the amount of money requested by the attorney, and in this case would have allowed the plaintiff and her attorney to then triple the amount of rent money requested, while Loeb and Sundberg were already in possession of these rent checks, and attorney Loeb had already cashed the July 2022 rent check. Judge Barillas was made aware that attorney Loeb and his client Jennifer Sundberg had committed several felonies but declined to read or accept the two criminal complaints that I tried to submit under the provisions of Wisconsin State Statute 950.105; “standing”.

    Since the start of the case it has been stated in submitted court documents that the plaintiff, Jennifer Sundberg, for a period of over five years, had continually and intentionally violated Wisconsin state statutes 704.07(2), Repairs, untenantability; 704.08, Check-in-sheet; Wisconsin Laws residential practices; ATCP 1.33, costs upon frivolous claims; ATCP 134.03 Rental agreements and receipts,(2, a & b); and ATCP 134.04 Disclosure requirements, (1) (a), 1 and 2. The abovementioned violations further led to a violation of Wisconsin State Statute 704.17 (3), Lease for more than one year, further resulting in violations of Wisconsin State Statute 100.264, Violations against elderly or disabled persons. Mrs. Sundberg has made a false statement pursuant to Wisconsin State Statutes 946.31, Perjury and 946.32, false swearing; On May 21, 2022 Mrs. Sundberg provided false information to the Wisconsin Consumer Protection Investigator Officer, Daisy Collin. Among the numerous lies she perpetrated to Ms. Collin was that I had not paid any rent for the years 2018, 2019 and 2020, this amount was not included in the summons filed on June 01, 2022: The Internal Revenue Service can provide more information in this matter.

    Although attorney Loeb was not involved in the plaintiff’s false statements to Ms. Collin, it appears that he has implicated himself in this matter, apparently in collusion with his client by submitting false information on October 14, in his document number 21 and also on January 19, 2023 in his document number 23 concerning the rent due for June and July, and the water bill; clearly a conspiracy to commit fraud against the defendants, falling under the category of Wisconsin State Statute 939.12; Crime defined and 939.31, Conspiracy.

    Case # 2022SC013923 Chronological Case details

    June 06, 2022 28 day notice and affidavit of service falsely filed under Wisconsin State Statute 704.19 (3)
    Agreement was made pursuant to Statute 704.17 (3).

    June 23, 2022 Video conference via Zoom held by Joe Riepenhoff, court official; the case summary falsely claiming that the defendants appeared by phone means, they appeared by Video, as did attorney Basil Loeb, which was correctly stated. Defendants restricted from recording the court hearing, which was contested and rescheduled for July 21, 2023.

    June 24, 2022, complete evidence packets filed by defendants, (apparently not read by Judge Swanson)

    July 08, 2022, additional evidence filed by defendants, (apparently not read by Judge David Swanson)

    July 21, 2022, Document 21, filed by Attorney Loeb, claiming that the evidence the defendants submitted was irrelevant to the case, which Judge David Swanson obviously adhered to without reading the evidence files that were previously submitted by the defendants.

    July 21, 2022, 2nd contested court hearing, 1:30pm; via Zoom conference with Judge David Swanson presiding over the defendants, plaintiff and her attorney. All parties were sworn in under oath; however Judge Swanson refused to allow the defendants to question the plaintiff, stating that his refusal was because it was an informal hearing. Although all the evidence that was submitted by the defendants proved beyond all reasonable doubt that there was indeed a verbal lease agreement between the defendants and the plaintiff with no end date, which was to be terminated at the time of the death of the defendant, the Judge never questioned the validity of the agreement from either party. Judge Swanson further stated that there is no such thing as a lease agreement with no end date, and further silenced and refused to hear the defendants further testimony.

    (NOTE: Please see attached documentation of legal Wisconsin lifetime agreements dated from May 29, 1919, March 25, 1932, and April 14, 1957, stating therein; “LIFE LEASE”, It is stipulated and agreed as follows”, Upon death of second party this agreement and mortgage securing same are to be null and void. All of the above obligations to be performed by 2nd parties and to continue until the death of the surviving 1st party).

    The evidence submitted by the defendants also proved without a doubt that the rent had been fully paid until July 31, 2022, (this check later deposited by attorney Loeb); however, Judge Swanson denied the defendant’s request to extend the writ of restitution, and ordered the defendants to vacate the premises in five days, by midnight July 26, 2022, which was complied with under great hardships. While Judge Swanson was conversing with attorney Loeb during the video conference he shut the defendants out of the meeting, which only lasted about five to ten minutes in its entirety. It was obvious at this point that Judge Swanson was extremely biased against the defendants and he had not bothered to read the evidence submitted by the defendants. (Court reporter Fatima Rogue: Again the defendants not allowed to record the Zoom hearing)

    August 04, 2022 change of address notification correctly filed by the defendants; not on September 9, 2022 as falsely claimed in the court case details.

    October 14, 2022, Attorney Loeb filed false claims of itemization of rent and water bill, without providing a copy to the defendants. In this document Attorney Basil Loeb and his client Jennifer Sundberg falsely claimed damages as follows: Water Bill $ 325.27; Unpaid rent for June 2022, $700.00; and from July 1 through July 26, 2022, $587.00, totaling $ 1,612.27. At this point in time the plaintiff and/or her attorney, Basil Loeb were already physically in possession of the rent checks, (# 4588 & 4595), for the months of June and July of 2022 for $700.00 each. The amount from the water bill was actually $294.73.

    October 17, 2022 contested hearing for rent and damages held via Zoom conference, with court official Maria S. Dorsey presiding over the defendants, plaintiff and her attorney Greer Black, all appearing via video. When Judge Dorsey became aware that the defendants had proof that the plaintiff’s claims were falsified she questioned attorney Black about the location of the rental checks, he denied all knowledge of these payments and said that attorney Loeb had not told him of the rental payment checks. The hearing was then adjourned to an in-person hearing January 19, 2023 at 3:00pm in room 400-A, at the courthouse. Please see attached letter dated October 7, 2022. (Again the defendants were not allowed to record this Zoom hearing)

    January 19, 2023, Thursday; in person private court hearing, 3:00pm in room 400-A, Milwaukee County Courthouse, with court official Rosa M. Barillas presiding over the defendants, the plaintiff and her Attorney Basil Loeb. There were no court reporters, no video cameras, and only a sheriff’s deputy allowed in the room during the hearing. On the same date as this hearing Attorney Loeb filed another false modified itemization of damages claiming less money than he had originally claimed and so stated this to Judge Barillas. When Judge Barillas became aware that Attorney Loeb had already deposited the July 2022 rent check in his own bank account and was actively trying to extort even more money with his false claims, she denied all the false rent damages that Attorney Loeb and his client Jennifer Sundberg had submitted. She further denied the claim to the entire water bill and prorated the amount to reflect the evidence I had supplied.

    Judge Barillas then stated that she was awarding $ 294.73, prorated for the water bill to the plaintiff, in addition to the court costs, but provided no specific amount for the court costs. After January 31, 2023, Judge Barillas then awarded Attorney Loeb an additional $60.00 in attorney’s fees, which was not part of her award as stated on January 19, 2023. This seems to be another case of a judge biased against the defendants by financially rewarding the attorney, even after she had been made aware that the attorney and his client had committed several felony violations.

    Judge Barillas did appear to read through my evidence files and cover letter dated January 19, 2023 that were hand delivered to her in court on that date. However she adamantly refused to accept two criminal complaints against Attorney Loeb and his plaintiff/client, Jennifer Sundberg. Judge Barillas then returned all the evidence files back to me after rendering her verbal decision and failed to incorporate these evidence files into the case file history; case # “2022SC013923”: On February 08, 2023 the defendant personally filed these additional evidence files with the Milwaukee County Clerk’s Office. The notice of entry of Judgment from Judge Barillas was not entered into the case file until February 07, 2023, and finally delivered to the defendants by the USPS on February 10, 2023, but only after the defendants made multiple telephone calls on a daily basis to the County clerk’s office to obtain a copy of the judgment. This apparent intentional delay in filing could have easily led to a violation of Wisconsin State statute 799.26, which could have placed the defendants in contempt of court, however the judgment was not marked as full satisfaction until February 15, 2023, when attorney Loeb finally submitted the full satisfaction of judgment on that date. This does not appear to be a coincidence.

    January 20, 2023, 11:46am, Friday; the day after the hearing: Email from Basil Loeb stating in it;
    “Hi Ron, I do not have the $700 check for July 2022. Even if I did, I would not deposit it. If you want to send me a check for $294.73 we can call this a day. Thank you. Basil”

    I responded the same date at 13:45 hours with; “Mr. Loeb, I realize that you are no longer in possession of the July 2022 rent check which I hand delivered to Kimberly Rajala on June 01, 2022 at 09:35; and on that same date, one hour and twenty-five minutes later, you said would not be deposited; but this check was in fact deposited into your account at Park Bank on October 21, 2022: This was seven days after you filed for damages in your document number 21 on October 14, 2022, claiming that you or your client had not received that rental payment. I do have a copy of the canceled check that you deposited.

    The conundrum I face now with sending you a check for $ 294.73, is that after having a false document previously submitted against me in a court of law, as so noted above, what will prevent the exact same thing from happening again? I myself would prefer to take care of the remaining financial amount due, but with no guarantee other “than we can call it a day”, I am hesitant and would prefer to receive the court order after January 31, 2023. After receiving the court notice I will pay the amount you request along with the other amount ordered by the court immediately the next day or shortly thereafter; in person at the courthouse and get the transaction notified and obtain a receipt as evidence that the court order has been fulfilled: I have other business to attend to so I can do it all in one trip then.

    Truthfully and honestly,
    Ronald Kurszewski

    Attorney Loeb’s response at 13:48 hours; “You owed the rent for June 1-July 26, 2022. I was unable to deposit the check while the eviction was pending for litigation reasons. Once the eviction was granted and you and Nicholas vacated the premises, I deposited the one check that was in my possession in order to mitigate Ms. Sundberg’s damages as required by law”

    Thank you.
    Basil Loeb

    Even before Judge Barillas had rendered her final decision it appears that Attorney Loeb was trying to extort an additional $294.73 from the defendants. When I pointed out to him that he had already cashed the July 2022 rent check on October 21, 2022, which he had previously stated would NOT be deposited, he replied that he was unable to deposit the check while the eviction was pending for litigation reasons”, however, the eviction was granted on July 26, 2022, and he filed his first false claim document # 21 on October 14, 2022, a week before depositing the July rent check.

    Attorney Loeb also stated/lied in this Email that I owed the rent for June 1-July 26, 2022: He failed to mention that he had received check # 4588 on May 10, 2022 for the June 2022 rent, and check # 4595 on June 01, 2022 for the July 2022 rental period that ended on July 26, 2022 with the forced physical illegal eviction. Both checks were in the amount of $700.00. In both of attorney Loeb’s false itemization of damages he had claimed $587.00, prorated for the July 2022 rental period. Judge Barillas disregarded this fact and rather than deduct the $113.00 from the total in her financial award to the plaintiff, she apparently awarded the overpayment to the attorney along with her award of $60.00 for attorney’s fees after specifically claiming she was holding me responsible for the water bill and court costs only. Again I claim this judge was also biased against the defendants.

  5. jrockow says:

    If it looks like cronyism, sounds like cronyism, and bilks taxpayers like cronyism, it’s cronyism.
    Good article, Bruce.

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