Emails from his government account support allegations that Sauk County’s former highway czar solicited private favors from contractors.
The emails — which the Baraboo News Republic obtained through a public records request — show that in February, then-Highway Commissioner Steve Muchow asked a contractor for tickets to a NASCAR race in Las Vegas.
An attorney with expertise in ethics cases that involve public officials said the emails may have legal consequences for Muchow, who already is under investigation by the Wisconsin Department of Justice.
A state law says local government officials may not use their positions for private benefit. It also is illegal for people to offer — and for officials to solicit — anything of value that may influence their decision-making or that could be considered a reward. The law is incorporated into the county’s code of ethics.
“I don’t think there’s any question this is something of benefit,” said Madison attorney Kevin Kennedy, who served as Wisconsin’s chief elections official for more than 33 years. “NASCAR tickets aren’t cheap, and he’s clearly doing that in the course of his official communications.”
Allegations that Muchow solicited tickets from county contractors were among numerous employee complaints that prompted a personnel investigation in April. His retirement ended the probe.
Muchow did not return messages seeking comment for this story, but has previously denied any wrongdoing.
‘I got some from Lakeside’
The newly obtained emails show Muchow had just completed an order of heavy-duty trucks Feb. 22 when he asked Truck Country salesman John Di Novella if he could get “deals on Nascar tickets.”
Muchow wrote that he and others planned to attend a construction trade show in Las Vegas, and wanted to attend a race that coincided with the event. The event he cited was March 7-11.
Di Novella told Muchow he would look into it. Two days later, he wrote that his company did have tickets, but that they already were taken.
Muchow responded a half-hour later that he found tickets elsewhere, but first replied with “Cancel that order I got some from Lakeside.”
Di Novella replied to that message with “Damn Hank!”
Di Novella may have been referring to Lakeside International truck salesman Hank Wieland. Documents show the county has purchased trucks from that company, and that Wieland once attended a bid opening at the Highway Department in West Baraboo.
The email exchange does not indicate whether Muchow wanted to cancel the truck order from Truck Country or pull back his ticket request, or whether the “some from Lakeside” he got was trucks or tickets. It is possible the exchange was in jest.
In a phone interview, Wieland denied that he ever did any favors for the former highway commissioner. When asked if he ever gave Muchow NASCAR tickets, Wieland said, “I don’t think so.”
Di Novella said he did not recall his exchange with Muchow. After the newspaper provided him with copies of the emails, he said he never would have provided tickets for free.
“I never had any tickets for him but if I did, he would have paid for them,” Di Novella said. “I don’t know if or how he ever got any.”
Kennedy, the former state official, said there may be legal consequences even if Muchow paid for the tickets. If they were not available to the general public at the time, then Muchow may have benefited due to his position, Kennedy said.
Criminal violations of the state’s code of ethics for local officials are punishable by fines of up to $5,000, one year in jail, or both, Kennedy said. District attorneys also can prosecute violations as civil forfeitures, which are punishable by fines of up to $1,000 and carry a lower burden of proof.
DOJ still investigating
The emails support employee allegations that they overheard Muchow soliciting tickets by phone. Those allegations were among numerous others that he used his position for private gain.
In June, Sauk County Sheriff Chip Meister declined to open a law enforcement investigation, saying evidence gathered during the incomplete personnel probe was insufficient to warrant further inquiry.
In a letter to Sauk County Administrative Coordinator Alene Kleczek Bolin, the sheriff took aim at the employees who came forward. He criticized them for listening in on Muchow’s phone conversations and copying county documents that they turned over to administrative officials.
“If this practice were allowed to continue in this, or any other county department, it could be troubling to the integrity and records management programs the county has in place,” Meister wrote.
In August, the News Republic published a story disclosing that Muchow and Meister are part of a social group that meets for breakfast monthly. The story included a firsthand account of the two men dining together at a North Freedom restaurant.
The day that story appeared, Meister asked the Wisconsin Department of Justice to review his determination that there should be no law enforcement probe. The DOJ later confirmed that it had opened a criminal investigation.
In an email last week, DOJ spokesman Johnny Koremenos confirmed that the probe still is ongoing, but declined to say whether investigators will look at potential violations of the state’s ethics code.
The Sauk County Ethics Inquiry Board also could investigate the allegations against Muchow if someone were to file a formal complaint. The county’s ethics code spells out the process for that to occur.
The ethics board has the power to compel witness testimony and issue subpoenas. If the board is able to substantiates allegations, it can refer matters to the county board or to the district attorney.
Sauk County Corporation Counsel Deb O’Rourke declined to say whether the emails suggested a possible violation of the county’s ethics code. She referred the newspaper to the county and state ethics codes.
“An examination of such is very fact-specific,” O’Rourke said in an email.