Columbia County will hire an attorney to investigate the management of two county departments, the county board’s Executive Committee decided Monday.
After a 30-minute, closed-session discussion, the committee unanimously approved retaining Andrew Phillips of the Milwaukee law firm von Briesen and Roper to look into questions regarding the county’s Veterans Service Office and the Department of Health and Human Services.
Corporation Counsel Joseph Ruf said no one has suggested that anyone working in the departments might be engaged in criminal wrongdoing.
He said sources, whom he declined to name, have brought undisclosed concerns about both departments to the attention of County Board Chairman Vern Gove of Portage, and the committee hired outside counsel because conflicts prevent the Columbia County corporation counsel’s office from looking into those concerns.
“To my knowledge, there were no violations of the law,” Ruf said.
Ruf confirmed Monday that Richard Hasse, who has been Columbia County’s veterans service officer since 2012, has been on paid administrative leave since September. The assistant veterans service officer, Rebekka Cary, has overseen the office since then. Ruf said Gove officially appointed her as acting veterans service officer as of Jan. 1.
Hasse, reached by social media message, declined to comment Monday and referred the matter to his attorney, whom Ruf identified as Colin Good of the Madison firm Hawks Quindel. Good did not respond to a voicemail.
Health and Human Services Director Dawn Woodard also did not respond to a voicemail Monday.
Hasse and Cary are the sole employees of the Veterans Service Office. According to Ruf, “volunteer veterans” and veterans service officers from other counties have assisted with the office’s clerical and administrative work, such as answering phones, and services to the county’s veterans have not been interrupted or delayed.
No one in the Health and Human Services Department has been placed on leave, Ruf said.
Woodard has led the department, which Ruf said has about 60 employees, since 2011. She was the department’s division administrator for behavioral health and long-term support when she was chosen, from a field of five finalists, to replace Erik Pritzl at the department’s helm. Pritzl left Columbia County to head the Health and Human Services Department in Dodge County.
Ruf said he could not say whether Woodard, or anyone else in the department, is a focus of the inquiry.
In both departments, Ruf said, the focus is on management issues.
“The investigation concerns management, not any particular employees,” he said.
Phillips is no stranger to Columbia County. According to his law firm’s website, Phillips is “outside general counsel” for the Wisconsin Counties Association. He is involved, on behalf of the association, in an ongoing lawsuit in which several Wisconsin counties, including Columbia County, are suing manufacturers of opium-based drugs in the hope of recovering some costs the counties incur for dealing with people addicted to opioids.
Ruf said Phillips will conduct the inquiry, and is expected to report on his findings to the Executive Committee on March 11.
The veterans service officer and the director of health and human services are two of the four department-head positions for which a vote of the full county board is required for hiring or dismissal. The others are corporation counsel and highway commissioner.
In January 2012, three top employees of the Highway Department were fired, and Commissioner Kurt Dey was allowed to resign, after about three months of investigations into the department’s operations. The Wisconsin Department of Justice did not file criminal charges against anyone but county board leaders at the time concluded, based on an 800-page report from the Columbia County Sheriff’s Office, that the four had violated county policies.