Blog war embroils Milwaukee County employees

    A war is breaking out in the Milwaukee County blogosphere, with dueling political agendas between conservatives and liberals.

    A tit-for-tat sequence began in May when Darlene Wink, who was Milwaukee County Executive Scott Walker’s constituent services coordinator, resigned after admitting to commenting on blog sites in support of Walker’s bid to be governor while she was on the clock working for the county.

    Milwaukee County Supervisor John Weishan Jr. then made an open records request to view the Internet browsing history on the computers in Walker’s office to determine if other county employees were using the computers to assist Walker’s Republican gubernatorial campaign.

    “News reports that a public county employee and taxpayer-funded resources in your county office were used to advance your gubernatorial campaign raise serious questions about whether this behavior is part of a broader pattern of illicit activity,” Weishan wrote in his open records request to Walker. “The only way to be sure laws are followed and taxpayer dollars are protected is with a thorough review of official county documents and records, as well as a comprehensive examination of how employees who draw taxpayer-financed salaries in your office are spending their time.”

    In response to that request, Cheryl Berdan of the county executive’s office sent a letter to Weishan on Wednesday, telling him that to provide the information, the county executive’s office would need to charge hundreds of dollars.

    Berdan said Walker’s office would need to charge $420 to $840 to cover the costs of the initial search, plus 15 cents per copy to duplicate the records, and an additional fee of $93.27.

    “Upon receipt of the amount cited, the computer search will commence,” Berdan wrote.  “If the amount is short of the amount actually expended, you will be invoiced further. If there is a balance remaining, it will be refunded to you. Or, you may choose to revise your request.”

    UPDATE: In a followup e-mail this morning, Fran McLaughlin, director of communications for Walker’s office, said the county executive’s office expects the charges for the records search to be paid personally by Weishan, not the county.

    Weishan said he considered the matter to be county business, not personal.

    "I did send the open records request on my office overhead, with the Milwaukee County symbol right there," Weishan said. "If they want to interpret that as a personal thing, but I see it as I was looking into county business with people violating the county work rules."

    Weishan said he is weighing his options, which include pursuing a resolution by the Milwaukee County Board next week to order Walker to release the information. A two-thirds majority of the board would be needed for such a resolution to pass.

    Weishan said his other options would be to pay for the search fees from his office’s budget or to personally pay the fees.

    "Regardless of whether it’s from my office or just a citizen, the barriers they are putting up are extreme," Weishan said.

    Milwaukee County Board spokesman Harold Mester said, “The Supervisor is concerned that the County Executive is using inflated costs as barriers to keep people from having access to what’s going on in the Executive’s office … And the Supervisor would have preferred to just inspect the records.  They don’t necessarily have to provide hard copies.”

    After Weishan’s request was filed, Citizens for Responsible Government (CRG), conservative activist group, filed a complaint with the Milwaukee District Attorney against Christopher Liebenthal, a county employee who writes two liberal blogs (“Cognitive Dissidence” and “Whallah!”) under the name “Capper.”
    CRG network leader Orville Seymer alleged that Liebenthal wrote blog entries on county computers on county time.

    Liebenthal, who has been active in the liberal Milwaukee County First group and AFSCME Local 48, and has been critical of Walker.

    The District Attorney’s office has confiscated Liebenthal’s work computer.

    “If he is guilty of bilking the taxpayers, Liebenthal should man up and quit,” said Chris Kliesmet, executive administrator of CRG. “The taxpayers should not be subsidizing his campaign blathering on work time. Liebenthal regularly whines about overworked, underappreciated government workers, but, he has time to write political columns at all hours of the day and night. This is may be one reason why people don’t think government workers have it so bad.”

    When asked to comment, Liebenthal’s attorney, Michael Maistelman, told BizTimes, “Chris never blogged during his work hours. The complainant should have reviewed Chris’s time records before filing a frivolous complaint. All I can say is none of this is true. Chris was on vacation time and furlough time. This is all much to do about nothing.”

    The episode took another twist when a comment was posted at Boots & Sabers, a conservative blog, stating that the District Attorney’s office investigation had uncovered the use of pornography and blogging on Liebenthal’s computer.

    That comment was a lie, according to Maistelman, who then wrote an e-mail to Owen Robinson, author of Boots & Sabers, stating, “I represent Chris in this matter and I can categorically inform you that after speaking with Assistant District Attorney (Bruce) Landgraf and showing him this post, that it is false and rises to the level of defamation and libel.”

    Maistelman demanded that the comment be removed from the blog commentary. The comment was then removed from the web site.

    A source close to the flap, who asked not to be identified, said, “All of this is related. It’s all back-and-forth. It’s political retaliation.”

    Steve Jagler is executive editor of BizTimes Milwaukee.

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