MILWAUKEE — Tim Russell, an aide to Gov. Scott Walker when Walker was Milwaukee County executive, pleaded guilty Thursday to one felony count of stealing tens of thousands of dollars from a veterans’ fund in exchange for prosecutors’ pledge to drop two other counts against him.
The plea agreement by Milwakee County Assistant District Attorney Bruce Landgraf makes no mention of Russell’s cooperation in any other cases except his own. Landgraf said he will ask for no more than 30 months’ incarceration and 30 months’ extended supervision, a total of five years. The prosecutor said he also agrees not to file any other charges against Russell, including misconduct in public office charges.
Russell left the hearing immediately upon its conclusion in Milwaukee County Circuit Court. His attorney, Parker Mathers of Milwaukee, told reporters after the proceeding Russell is looking forward to bringing the case to an end.
Russell, 49, of Sun Prairie, was charged in January with two felonies and a misdemeanor for allegedly stealing money from a fund for veterans and from the campaign committees of two Milwaukee County Board candidates.
A former Walker campaign worker and former deputy chief of staff for Walker in Milwaukee County, Russell had been scheduled to go on trial Monday. He is one of four former aides and associates of the governor who have been convicted of crimes while working for Walker in Milwaukee County or on his 2010 campaign for governor. Two others also have been charged as a result of the probe, which has been going on for more than two years.
The governor on Monday said he is “absolutely” confident he is not a target of the investigation.
Expensive trips, personal items
According to the criminal complaint, Russell took money meant for veterans, wounded soldiers and families of those killed in action and from the two campaign committees. He spent it on expensive trips, personal items and to renew Walker’s gubernatorial websites, prosecutors charged.
Russell “stole more than 50 cents of every donation dollar deposited” into a veteran’s group’s account in 2010, the complaint said.
The agreement calls for Russell to repay $28,000, Landgraf said in court.
Russell faces up to 10 years in prison and a $25,000 fine when he is sentenced by Judge David Hansher, who is not obligated to follow the plea deal worked out between Landgraf, Russell and Mathers. The original charges held penalties of up to 14 years in prison and $45,000 in fines.
Under the agreement, Landgraf agreed not to charge Russell for signing the name of a former officer of the Heritage group on corporate documents without the knowledge of that person.
“This agreement is intended to be a full and final settlement of all criminal conduct alleged in the criminal complaint,” according to the plea agreement dated Tuesday. “This agreement also extends to all conduct that might have been charged by the Milwaukee County District Attorney’s Office as misconduct in public office.”
Landgraf specifically cited the state law that prohibits a public official from soliciting campaign contributions or political services on state property or while working for the state. Russell was not charged with any such activity, however.
Responsible for unofficial network?
Russell also allegedly was responsible for an “unofficial networking system” installed in the office of Kelly Rindfleisch, who succeeded him as Walker’s deputy chief of staff, according to the criminal complaint filed against Rindfleisch.
The system, located 25 feet from Walker’s office, was “routinely used by selected insiders within the Walker administration … for both official and unofficial purposes (and) was never disclosed to county employees outside a closely held group within the Walker administration,” the Rindfleisch complaint said.
She was convicted of illegally raising campaign funds for lieutenant governor candidate Rep. Brett Davis, R-Oregon, while working in Walker’s office. Davis now runs the state’s Medicaid program for Walker.
Rindfleisch was sentenced earlier this month to six months in jail, but Hansher has allowed her to remain free until she has exhausted her appeals. Russell was not charged for his alleged role in setting up the secret communications system.
Tip launches investigation
The scheme to loot the funds from the preservation society came to light in 2008 after Walker’s then-chief of staff, Tom Nardelli, learned the Milwaukee County Zoo had not been paid for hosting a veteran’s picnic in July 2007. Walker has said he and Nardelli were the ones who notified authorities about the missing money.
That tip eventually spawned the secret John Doe investigation launched in May 2010. It spread to include illegal campaign activity within Walker’s Milwaukee County office; theft of other veterans’ funds and fraudulent and excessive campaign donations by a wealthy Walker campaign supporter.
The investigation also led to unrelated child pornography charges against Russell’s partner, Brian Pierick. That case is scheduled to go to trial Jan. 29 in Waukesha County.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.