Submitted by Brendan Fischer on
Another top official to Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker during his tenure as Milwaukee County Executive has been sentenced to two years in prison for embezzling funds intended for families of veterans. The sentencing appears to close a chapter in the ongoing "John Doe" investigation into corruption and misconduct in the Walker County Executive's office, but the book remains open.
"You have no true regret, remorse, or repentance," Milwaukee County Circuit Judge David Hansher told Tim Russell in announcing the sentence today. "You don't even have any shame."
Judge Hansher's sentence exceeded what had been recommended by Milwaukee Assistant District Attorney Bruce Landgraf.
Russell pleaded guilty to stealing more than $20,000 from a nonprofit that managed funds for Walker's annual "Operation Freedom" picnic for veterans and their families. He had asked the judge for leniency because he claimed at least some of the money was not stolen, but was instead paid out as "consulting" fees and other forms of payment. The judge didn't buy it.
"How naive do you think that I am, and the public is, to believe this?" Judge Hansher asked.
Russell Given Control of Funds so Operation Freedom "Would Remain a Scott Walker Event"
In 2009, Walker shifted financial control of the Operation Freedom funds from the local Alonzo Cudworth American Legion Post, which had been running the event without a problem, to a new nonprofit called the Heritage Guard Preservation Society, which was controlled by Russell.
Russell told the judge that the goal of shifting the Operation Freedom funds from the local American Legion to Russell's nonprofit was so "it would remain Scott Walker's event and not the County Executive's event ... even after [Walker] was no longer County Executive."
Prosecutors noted that Russell held "exclusive control" of the Heritage Guard, and the fraud arose because Operation Freedom funds were not subject to outside audit or accounting. (Similar criticisms have been lodged against the Wisconsin Economic Development Corporation, a quasi-public economic development corporation created under Walker which lost track of $12 million in 2012).
Russell was Walker's Deputy Chief of Staff during his time as County Executive, and had been expected to receive a high-ranking job in his gubernatorial administration, until the embezzlement became public. Prosecutors alleged Russell used his political influence to transfer funds to the Heritage Guard nonprofit.
"Brazen Act of Greed"
"In my experience, white collar criminals start small, and get more bold as time goes by," Assistant District Attorney Landgraf said during the sentencing hearing. But Russell's case, he said, was "remarkable because he started big."
Russell used the funds for a Caribbean cruise and a trip to Hawaii. He also embezzled funds to fly to Atlanta and visit then-presidential candidate Herman Cain's campaign headquarters. "I assume he wanted to get involved with the Herman Cain campaign," Judge Hansher observed.
Cain's campaign was led by Mark Block, who had previously directed the Wisconsin chapter of Americans for Prosperity. If Russell had joined the campaign he would have been in good company -- Block was previously fined and barred for three years from political campaigns in Wisconsin as a result of an election board investigation into illegal coordination between a campaign he led and a non-profit group. Block is also reportedly under investigation for spending $40,000 of tax-exempt charitable funds to pay for Cain's presidential bid. The Center for Media and Democracy filed a formal IRS complaint in the matter.
Russell was handcuffed and taken into custody immediately following the hearing.
John Doe Investigation Continues
Russell is the fourth Walker aide or associate convicted of misconduct in office as part of the ongoing John Doe investigation.
Walker's former Deputy Chief of Staff Kelly Rindfleisch (who succeeded Russell) was sentenced in November to six months in jail and probation for doing political fundraising while at her county job.
Kevin Kavanaugh was sentenced in December to two years in prison after stealing more than $50,000 from Operation Freedom and other funds intended to benefit veterans and their families. Walker had appointed Kavanaugh to the county Veterans Service Commission.
Additionally, Walker's constituent services director, Darlene Wink, was sentenced in January to one year's probation for doing campaign fundraising in 2009 while working in her taxpayer-funded county job.
Judge Hansher criticized Russell for alleging in his pre-sentence hearing that the John Doe investigation, which is overseen by former state Appeals Court Judge Neal Nettesheim, was politically motivated. "I don't think a single person in the state of Wisconsin thinks that Neal Nettesheim would let politics affect how he ran the John Doe," he said.
In the course of the investigation, prosecutors uncovered evidence that Russell's longtime partner Brian Pierick allegedly seduced a 17-year-old boy. Evidence also showed Pierick allegedly used the screen name "Walker04" to procure online porn involving young boys. Pierick has been charged with child enticement and exposing genitals; his jury trial is scheduled to begin January 29.
Learn more about this complicated case, the players, the charges and the convictions in Sourcewatch.
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