A panel on Wednesday cleared two Sauk County Board members who were accused of violating ethics rules by carpooling to meetings and collecting reimbursements.
“It eases my mind that we’ve come to closure on a frivolous complaint,” Supervisor Jean Berlin of Hill Point said after the Sauk County Ethics Inquiry Board unanimously decided to dismiss a complaint that was filed against her in September. “All that it’s been is retribution toward us.”
A complaint filed against Berlin and fellow Supervisor Bill Wenzel of Prairie du Sac alleged six separate violations of the county’s code of ethics. The ethics board dismissed each of them Wednesday, finding there was no basis to support the allegations.
As the hearing drew to a close, the person who filed the complaint, former Supervisor Eric Peterson of Merrimac pledged to continue pursuing the matter.
“If you want me to make another complaint, I can,” Peterson told ethics board members. “I’ll do it and have you here another four months.”
Peterson resigned from the board in 2017 before moving to a new home outside his district. During his time as a supervisor, he was aligned with the board’s conservative wing, and was a political rival of Berlin and Wenzel.
Following the April 2018 election that resulted in a shift in power, Berlin and Wenzel voted to elect Supervisor Peter Vedro of Baraboo as the board’s new chairman.
The two supervisors believe the ethics complaint was political payback for ending Supervisor Marty Krueger of Reedsburg’s 12-year reign as chairman.
Peterson alleged Berlin violated the county’s ethics code by claiming mileage reimbursement for meetings she had been driven to by Wenzel.
Berlin said the 50-mile reimbursement she claimed was actually less than the 60-mile round trip she made to and from Wenzel’s home so that they could carpool. She said she got rides to the evening meetings because she does not like driving at night.
During Wednesday’s hearing, Peterson cited a state law that says board members shall receive mileage for the “most usual traveled route” to meetings. He argued that detours for the purposes of carpooling were not permissible.
However, Sauk County Corporation Counsel Daniel Olson said the county did not adopt the state law’s language into its own ordinance. He said nothing in the county’s own rules prohibited what Berlin did.
Berlin’s attorney, Diane Welsh of Madison, said none of the instructional materials or training that Berlin received as a new supervisor informed her that she could not be reimbursed for miles driven prior to carpooling.
During Wednesday’s hearing, ethics board member Michael Zeihen of Rock Springs, a former IRS investigator, asked Peterson if he had any evidence that Berlin was lying, and had not actually driven to Wenzel’s home prior to the meetings.
Peterson seemed to misunderstand the question, and believed Zeihen was asking him to prove that Berlin did travel to Wenzel’s. He repeatedly answered that Berlin openly admitted to making the trips in a September Baraboo News Republic article about the ethics case.
“She admitted it in the paper, and if the paper is correct, and I guess everybody thinks it’s, you know, it’s got a record winning (sic),” Peterson said. He submitted the news article as evidence, and sought to question its author as a witness in the matter.
Zeihen gave up on that line of questioning after it became apparent that Peterson did not understand what he was asking.
The ethics board determined there was no reason to believe Berlin had intentionally defrauded taxpayers. The board also found there was no evidence that Wenzel offered her rides with the expectation of influencing her vote, as Peterson alleged.
“He didn’t make any money on this,” said ethics board member Catherine Ankenbrandt, a Baraboo attorney. “Neither one of them made any money, as far as I’m concerned.”
Throughout the hearing, Peterson alleged that Berlin and Wenzel have been unethical because they are openly involved in a romantic relationship. He referenced the April meeting at which Vedro was elected chairman, alleging that Wenzel instructed Berlin on how to vote.
Peterson said their relationship was an abuse of public trust, even if there is no official law or ordinance that prevents supervisors from being romantically involved. “I just don’t think it’s proper or ethical for her to be going over to your boyfriend’s house and then driving from there,” he said.
Wenzel said after Wednesday’s hearing that he was “happy that common sense prevailed” and that it was “pretty evident” to him the allegations were intended as political retribution.