Ethics panel dismisses complaint against Sauk County Board members

Former Sauk County Board member Eric Peterson of Merrimac speaks to the county's Ethics Inquiry Board during a hearing in February, regarding complaints he filed against two other supervisors.  

The Sauk County Board voted Tuesday night to deny reimbursing legal fees accrued by two supervisors who successfully defended themselves against an ethics complaint in 2018.

The complaint brought by former Supervisor Eric Peterson alleged improper mileage reimbursement requests were made by Supervisor Jean Berlin of Hill Point and former Supervisor Bill Wenzel of Prairie du Sac. The complaint, filed in September 2018, alleged Wenzel and Berlin carpooled to county board meetings, but claimed mileage reimbursements.

A county ethics panel cleared both Wenzel and Berlin of any wrongdoing in February. The following month, Wenzel resigned from the Sauk County Board when the Wisconsin Department of Justice filed child pornography charges against him in Sauk County Circuit Court. He has pleaded not guilty to the charges and the case remains open.

At the time of the ethics inquiry, both Wenzel and Berlin hired lawyers to defend them, which cost them $4,408, according to an invoice sent from Pines Bach LLP of Madison.

Berlin submitted a written request for reimbursement of legal fees in May. She did not participate in the discussion.

State law allows counties to reimburse board members for legal defenses, as long as the defense is deemed necessary and reasonable, according to Sauk County Corporation Counsel Daniel Olson. The statute does not require reimbursement.

“In terms of reasonable to the cost, this is outrageous,” said Supervisor John Deitrich of Reedsburg. “In terms of necessary, what would have happened if they were found guilty of an ethics violation? There is no fine, there’s no jail time, there’s no dismissal or recommendation to impeach them from their seat. It fails the two basic sniff tests.”

Supervisor Tim McCumber of Merrimac said he holds an insurance policy for claims like the one lodged against the supervisors, which would cover similar legal fees.

“There is insurance available for this,” said McCumber. “Really nothing comes of this, had it been something that rose to a standard of legality, which possibly would have gone to the (district attorney), and it would have been reasonable to hire an attorney, and then my insurance would have paid for that. I just don’t think it’s our responsibility to bail them out.”

McCumber said approving the reimbursement could set a dangerous precedent.

“If we are going to arm our supervisors with the full financial backing of Sauk County, what’s to keep any of us on the up and up and honest in any of our dealings?” McCumber said. “We would always have the bankroll to fight any citizen who brought up an ethics complaint again. I think we’re treading some really dangerous waters if we pay this.”

Supervisor Chuck Spencer of Baraboo, urged the board to remember that taxpayer money would be used to reimburse the fees, and challenged the supervisors to pay fees themselves.

The board denied reimbursement in a 15-12 roll call vote.

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