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Monday, December 29, 2014 |  Madison, WI: 20.0° F  Overcast
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Profiles in cowardice
Three examples of spinelessness in public places

One warning sign was the way he phrased the issue, prior to the roll call: "A yes [vote] means you agree with me. A no means you don't agree with me."

The speaker was state Rep. Robin Vos (R-Racine), the chair of a Legislative Special Committee I served on last fall. The committee was charged with looking into whether to expand the availability of expungement, which wipes away all record of a criminal conviction. It included lawmakers, prosecutors and representatives of interest groups.

I was there in my role with the Wisconsin Freedom of Information Council. As such, I opposed expanding expungement, and most committee members came to favor an alternative approach. In three long meetings with major staff support, we developed a proposal to let most first-time misdemeanor offenders avoid a criminal conviction.

The charges would remain public but offenders would not suffer the consequences of a criminal record - including, in some cases, being legally denied housing or jobs.

Vos' you're-either-with-me-or-against-me remark came during our third meeting, on Dec. 19. The issue at hand was whether this break should be available to people who fight the charges against them and are found guilty anyway.

Vos thought it shouldn't, a not-unreasonable position. But when the roll call was taken, most committee members voted the other way.

"We're all done," Vos announced. "Thank you for your service." People laughed, and Vos agreed to keep going. But, as it turned out, he really wasn't kidding.

Next we discussed what crimes ought not merit this break. We agreed to exclude gun crimes and some crimes against children. But the committee's prosecutors, of all people, argued against denying this option for crimes of domestic violence, saying it gave them a tool to leverage life changes, and thus served to better protect spouses.

Vos opposed this narrow list of exceptions; the majority voted in favor. After more discussion, he adjourned the committee, saying he was unsure whether it would meet again. It hasn't.

At this meeting and in an e-mail afterward that he ignored, I urged Vos - a decent and impressive fellow, I thought - to put forth a bill that he could support, since committee members would likely go along. Our areas of disagreement were not that great.

Instead, the hard work of this committee and the Legislative Council staff was wasted, and legislation that could help thousands of people went nowhere, because the committee chair didn't get his way.

That this sort of thing is probably common in the state Legislature makes it no less dispiriting.

** **

Are you a landlord who hates black people and openly discriminates against them? Are you such a blatant bigot as to actually tell a white prospective tenant, "[T]he person before you was a nigger, and I don't want to rent to her"?

If so, you're in luck, because the Fair Housing Center of Greater Madison will do everything in its power to keep you from being found out.

Last week, The Capital Times ran an op-ed piece by Carousel Bayrd, a Dane County supervisor and member of the Housing Center's advisory board. In it she relates that a Madison landlord made the above statement to her.

Bayrd, pressed for details, says the incident happened "about a year ago" when she was a volunteer tester for the Fair Housing Center, but that confidentiality rules prevent her from saying more. Erika Sanders, the group's program services director, says the same thing.

"That case settled," asserts Sanders. "I'm not going to tell you anything further about it."

Complaints were lodged against this landlord with federal housing officials and the state Division of Equal Rights, both public agencies subject to disclosure laws. But finding a given case is next to impossible without knowing a name, and Sanders refuses to provide it, saying secrecy was part of the settlement agreement.

"The majority of our settlements have some form of confidentiality built into them," says Sanders. "For better or worse, that's how settlements are obtained in fair housing cases."

In other words, the Fair Housing Center agrees to keep quiet about bigoted landlords in order to leverage deals. That undercuts the one reason nonprofit groups like this merit taxpayer funds: Sending a strong public message that being a bigot has consequences.

Jeff Scott Olson, a prominent local civil rights lawyer, says settlement confidentiality clauses would "very rarely" be so sweeping as to prevent disclosure of even the parties' names. Normally, "You could say, 'We filed a case, our claim was this, our evidence was this.'"

Sanders blames it on the victim: "Our complainant agreed to the settlement. We have to abide by her wishes."

Yeah, no doubt protecting the creep who denied her housing is what this person wants most of all.

** **

Local peace activists who have long sought a face-to-face with Wisconsin Sen. Herb Kohl would like to know: When was the last time he appeared in Madison at a public forum, where his constituents could ask him questions?

Steve Burns of Wisconsin Network for Peace and Justice did a LexisNexis search and found no such events. So he called JoAnne Anton of Kohl's Milwaukee office, asking for a list. She declined to provide this information, purportedly calling this "not something we do."

In a response letter last week, Burns speculated that this reaction meant Kohl has not held a public listening session here since the Iraq war began: "In that time, the senator's constituents have not had the opportunity to question him publicly about his October 2002 vote to give George W. Bush the authority to invade Iraq, or his subsequent votes to provide more than $400 billion in funding to continue a war that most of his constituents oppose."

Burns, in this letter, went to the admittedly "absurd" length of making a Freedom of Information Act request for Kohl's schedule. Anton promptly denied it, citing the office's exemption from FOIA. (For both letters, see the related documents at right.)

What a sad reflection this episode is on Sen. Kohl, and the sorry state of our democracy.

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