Outside legal experts say Sauk County Sheriff Chip Meister was incorrect — and acted improperly — when he determined that criminal allegations against a member of his social circle were not worthy of investigation.
In a June 16 letter, Meister advised the county’s top administrative official that a law enforcement probe into employee allegations against former Sauk County Highway Commissioner Steve Muchow was not necessary.
Two county employees who requested anonymity because they feared retaliation said the sheriff had a conflict of interest. They said Meister and the former highway czar are members of a social group that meets monthly for breakfast, which proved to be correct.
On Friday morning, Meister and Muchow were seated at a table with several other men inside a North Freedom diner. The group was eating breakfast and talking.
The sheriff did not act as though his social outing with Muchow was a concern. When approached outside the restaurant and asked about his meal with the retired highway commissioner, Meister laughed.
“We do that every month,” he said.
When the discussion turned to his decision to discourage a criminal investigation of the man he had just dined with, the sheriff ended the conversation. “Whatever,” he said as he rolled up the window of his vehicle and drove off.
La Crosse attorney Jim Kroner, who has practiced law since 1979 and has expertise in criminal cases, said law enforcement officials should “err on the side of recusal” in matters that involve public employees within their governmental orbit.
The proper procedure often is to forward the matter to an outside agency for consideration, Kroner said, especially if the official has a personal relationship with the accused.
“People who know each other well enough to meet for a regularly scheduled monthly meal and socializing among friends should not be making recommendations about whether to investigate or prosecute each other for criminal activity,” Kroner said. “It creates the appearance — if not the reality — of impropriety.”
If the person accused of wrongdoing is exonerated by a friend, Kroner said, the public is left to wonder whether they escaped accountability. And that leaves both individuals under suspicion.
Mauston attorney Daniel Berkos, a former prosecutor and current chair of the Wisconsin State Public Defender Board, said sheriffs “almost always” refer criminal allegations against fellow county officials to outside agencies.
“It is possible that an outside agency could come to the same conclusion, but it eliminates any appearance of impropriety,” Berkos said, adding that he believes Meister should not have made an investigatory decision regarding the highway commissioner.
Attorneys: Probe is warranted
In April, county administrative officials opened a personnel investigation into allegations against Muchow.
Highway department staff alleged he misrepresented financial information, manipulated bids, used county resources for personal reasons, misused county business relationships, falsified timecards and mistreated employees.
The 25-year highway commissioner gave notice in late April that he would retire, prompting officials to drop the personnel probe. Muchow has denied any wrongdoing.
On June 12, Sauk County Administrative Coordinator Alene Kleczek Bolin asked the sheriff to review the allegations for potential criminality. And four days later, Meister had concluded there should be no law enforcement investigation.
Meister focused on allegations outlined in a report prepared by a private accountant that the county hired as part of its personnel investigation. In a letter to Kleczek Bolin, he said only two allegations — both which involved employee timekeeping manipulation — constituted potential criminal behavior.
The sheriff determined that evidence gathered during the incomplete personnel investigation was not enough to substantiate the claims, so a law enforcement investigation was unnecessary.
The Baraboo News Republic asked Berkos and Kroner, the two out-of-county attorneys, to review the accountant’s report as well. Both disagreed with the sheriff’s determination, and said they saw multiple allegations worthy of a criminal probe.
“That report suggests possible violations of the Wisconsin statute prohibiting misconduct in public office that are worthy of further investigation,” Kroner said. “The behavior may or may not be criminal, but warrants further investigation.”
Kroner said employee claims that Muchow manipulated information to get around financial policies and used county material for personal reasons are particularly worthy of review by law enforcement.
He also pointed to information in the report that alleges Muchow did not pay sales tax on personal purchases made under the guise of highway department business.
“If that allegation is true, it’s clear to me that sales tax is owed,” Kroner said. “Whether or not that means a crime has been committed, I don’t know.”
Berkos said he also saw possible violations of the state’s misconduct in public office statute. And he questioned portions of the sheriff’s letter in which he said the county would need to audit billings and review past policies to prove allegations.
“That is exactly what investigations do,” Berkos said. “What he is saying is that he is not going to look beyond the face of the complaint to find facts that either support or debunk the claims.”
Sheriff defends decision
In an email Thursday — less than 24 hours before he met with Muchow for breakfast — the sheriff defended his decision. He said most of the allegations against the former highway commissioner represented possible ethical or personnel infractions, but were not criminal.
Miester said he and his chief deputy reviewed documents separately, and both reached the same conclusion. They would have asked for an outside review of the matter if they believed the criminal allegations could be substantiated, Meister said, “but other law enforcement agencies are not going to investigate policy violations or poor management practices.”
Sauk County District Attorney Kevin Calkins said none of the allegations contained within that accountant’s report had been referred to his office. And he would not comment on whether he saw any potential criminality.
“I would need to see full investigative reports before coming to any conclusion,” Calkins said in an email.
If the sheriff and the district attorney are not willing to pursue the matter, it could be taken up by the Wisconsin Department of Justice.
“Anyone can contact DOJ and ask them to investigate,” Berkos said. “I think (the accountant’s) report gives them plenty to go on.”