Copyright © 2007, Isthmus Publishing Co.
The federal prosecutors who put Georgia Thompson in prison, on charges later overturned by an appeals court as lacking in merit, repeatedly offered to go easy on her if she were to implicate others in the administration of Wisconsin Gov. Jim Doyle.
"They said she would have to testify before the grand jury against [former Department of Administration Secretary Marc] Marotta and Gov. Doyle," says Stephen Hurley, Thompson's attorney.
Did they specifically name Doyle?
"We knew what they were talking about," says Hurley, making his first public comments on the conduct of prosecutors in the Thompson case, which in recent weeks has become the subject of national media attention and congressional inquiry.
According to Hurley and co-counsel Marcus Berghahn, U.S. Attorney Steven Biskupic and others in his office made offers of leniency prior to filing charges against Thompson and again before the start of her trial.
"I began to get the impression that the indictment was being used to squeeze her," says Hurley, noting that these overtures continued even after Thompson's sentencing.
"It was the only time in my career that, after the person was sentenced, the prosecutor has called to renew the discussion," says Hurley, who's been a criminal defense attorney for more than three decades. "I've never had that happen before."
These offers, though not necessarily indicative of improper conduct, suggest that Biskupic and his staff prosecuted Thompson as part of a larger agenda, with potential political overtones.
Biskupic, in an interview with Isthmus, declines to comment on his office's negotiations with Thompson's attorneys: "It would be unethical for me to discuss for any case whether a plea was offered."
But wouldn't asking Thompson to implicate others substantiate suspicions that the prosecution was launched with other targets in mind? "She was the only one charged," replies Biskupic. "The trial was about her conduct. [And] the verdict came down as guilty."
Hurley refuses to weigh in on Biskupic's motives, saying that to do so would be to indulge in "the same kind of undocumented speculation he used to convict Georgia."
John Burr, a former Dane County assistant district attorney and past president of the Association of State Prosecutors, is not so reluctant.
"You can't tell me it was not politically motivated," says Burr, speaking without knowledge of the plea negotiations reported by Thompson's lawyers. "The powers that be over there thought they were going to go all the way to the governor."
Biskupic's office, says Burr, prosecuted Thompson to get to Doyle and others. And, "When they didn't find anything, they were stuck with it. It blew up in their faces."
Thompson, 57, was convicted in June 2006 of using her position as a state purchasing agent to improperly steer a travel contract to a firm whose executives had met with state officials and gave money to Doyle's campaign.
There was no proof that Doyle or anyone else pressured Thompson to steer the contract to the eventual winner, Adelman Travel, or even that she was aware of the company's contacts and contributions. Testimony at trial suggested Thompson wanted to see the contract go to a Wisconsin company and believed Adelman, the ultimate low bidder, was the superior provider.
The case was nonetheless seized on by the campaign of Republican Rep. Mark Green and others to paint Doyle as corrupt. Doyle defeated Green in the November election.
Thompson had served nearly four months of an 18-month sentence when the 7th Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals last month threw out her conviction and ordered her immediate release, with one judge calling the case against her "beyond thin."
Since then, Thompson has gotten a new state job at her old salary of $77,300 a year and been awarded $67,161 in back pay. It remains unclear whether the state will reimburse Thompson for her legal costs, for which she cashed in her state pension and sold her Westport home.
The appellate court's stunning reversal occurred amid allegations that the firings of eight U.S. attorneys were politically motivated. Biskupic himself was at one time on a list of prosecutors whose "performance and loyalty to the president," as he put it, was called into question. Members of the Senate Judiciary Committee have quizzed U.S. Attorney General Alberto Gonzales on Thompson's case and demanded that he produce relevant documents.
Joe Bonfiglio, a spokesman for Judiciary Committee member Sen. Herb Kohl, says Gonzales' office, to date, "has not been forthcoming with any of the materials we requested." Discussions are ongoing.
Others, meanwhile, have rallied to Biskupic's defense.
Former state Attorney General Peg Lautenschlager and Deputy Attorney General Daniel Bach have attested to the integrity of the decision to prosecute. Testifying before Congress early this month, a high-ranking former U.S. Justice Department official hailed Biskupic as "an absolutely straight guy" and "a person of great integrity." And last week, Gonzales said it was "ludicrous" to suggest politics played a role in Thompson's prosecution.
Even the 7th Circuit Court of Appeals, in its written ruling, conceded that Biskupic may have made a good-faith effort to apply a flawed law, even as it labeled his attempt to treat Thompson's alleged conduct as a federal crime "preposterous."
But what if the prosecution was primarily a means to wound a sitting governor in the heat of an election? Wouldn't it then make a kind of twisted sense?
Hurley says he never understood why Thompson was charged: "If one accepts the government's theory, which is that she was just put up to this by her bosses, then why go after her?"
Biskupic counters that the evidence supported the charge, saying, "This trial was about her conduct and her conduct only." But Biskupic, in his closing argument, sought to tie Thompson's conduct to the conduct of others.
"Mr. Hurley keeps saying there is not a shred of evidence," Biskupic told the jury, before listing a series of events involving other players, including Doyle and Marotta. "She's the link. She's the one who made this happen. What a terrible coincidence for her that she is in the middle of all this...."
This line of argument apparently worked. One juror later told a reporter that "nobody in the jury room had any doubt whatsoever" that Doyle and others were involved - a conclusion not supported by any evidence.
Before charges were filed, relates Hurley, "the government said more than once that [Thompson] might be able to avoid prosecution if she gave information about those higher up." Biskupic took part on at least one occasion, says Hurley, adding that prosecutors "wouldn't commit to what they would do" until they heard what evidence she had to offer.
Each time, Hurley talked it over with his client and apprised Biskupic's office that she had no information to provide.
Co-counsel Berghahn, producing contemporaneous notes taken on yellow legal paper, says Assistant U.S. Attorney Scott Campbell made a more specific offer on May 29, 2006, shortly before Thompson's trial was set to begin. In exchange for her grand jury testimony, Thompson could plead guilty to two misdemeanors, which under operative sentencing guidelines meant she could avoid jail time. Campbell gave a three-day window in which to accept.
The next day, May 30, Campbell purportedly called again, and spoke to both of Thompson's lawyers. Hurley made a tongue-in-cheek counteroffer ("How about a municipal ordinance violation?") and quarreled with the government's insistence that Thompson committed a crime. But Campbell, according to Berghahn's notes, said the prosecution would proceed: "We do not fundamentally doubt our case."
Another round of overtures occurred just after Thompson was sentenced. Berghahn says that on Sept. 25, 2006, the Monday after the Friday sentencing, Campbell "offered that the government would give her appropriate protections and considerations in exchange for her assistance." Specifically, the office would file a Rule 35 motion to reduce her sentence on grounds of cooperation.
Berghahn says he asked whether the government wanted Thompson to talk "about higher-ups and whether they exerted influence," and Campbell affirmed this. Berghahn replied, "I don't think Georgia has anything to give you guys," but agreed to take the offer to her.
Two days later, on Sept. 27, Campbell called back, joined by Assistant U.S. Attorney Greg Haansted on speaker phone. According to Berghahn, they restated their offer, saying there was "no downside" for Thompson and "we can help her." Berghahn informed the prosecutors that Thompson had nothing to tell.
A day or two later, Biskupic's office called again, and spoke to Hurley. This time, says Hurley, Biskupic joined his two assistants in offering to seek a sentence reduction in exchange for Thompson's testimony.
"I got very testy," Hurley recalls. "I said, 'I don't know how many times I have to tell you: She has nothing to say. You've already called Marcus twice. You must think I'm some sort of shill for the Doyle administration."
Hurley says Biskupic "got apologetic," saying something along the lines of, "No, we don't think that."
Frank Tuerkheimer, a former U.S. attorney for the Western District of Wisconsin, says there is "certainly nothing untoward or unusual about prosecuting somebody because you think they can lead to higher-ups." This is "totally standard" in cases involving drugs or white-collar crime.
"In principle, there is nothing wrong with it," says Tuerkheimer, speaking without specific knowledge of the overtures made by Biskupic's office. "There's no question in my mind that Biskupic was after Thompson to get higher-ups."
The problem wasn't the tactic used but that "Biskupic had a theory of criminality that was ridiculous" - that Thompson was acting at others' behest. Says Tuerkheimer, "It just bothers you 'cause the woman got screwed."
Tuerkheimer is also troubled that Thompson was jailed pending her appeal, which he thinks should not have happened. She was not a flight risk and had legitimate grounds for appeal, as the 7th Circuit's ruling bore out.
So why did Biskupic's office insist on locking her up? Tuerkheimer's take: "It appeared to me that they were trying to pressure her to talk."
Biskupic says his office offered appropriate legal arguments, and a judge agreed. In federal cases, he explains, the presumption is against allowing defendants to remain free pending appeal.
"We tried to handle the case like we handled other cases," he says. "People can make all the speculation they want, but in my opinion this case was all about the facts and the law."