Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Wisconsin AG should let light shine on his Kratz actions

Editorial originally published by the (Madison, WI) Capital Times on September 29, 2010.

We did not fully recognize what a serious mess Attorney General J.B. Van Hollen had created for himself until after our call last week for an independent investigation of Van Hollen’s handling of the Ken Kratz affair. Our editorial questioned why the state’s top law enforcement officer sat for almost a year on information that suggested the Calumet County district attorney, who has announced that he will resign soon, had abused his position by sending sexually aggressive text messages to a domestic violence victim.

Van Hollen’s office was made aware of the concerns regarding Kratz in the fall of 2009, yet the attorney general did not tell the governor, who has the authority to remove “for cause” officials who have engaged in misconduct. Van Hollen’s office also kept the public in the dark about the Kratz matter, despite the fact that the DA’s abusive behavior was of a nature that might reasonably have been expected to be repeated.

Those expectations were confirmed after the veil of official secrecy was finally removed. Other women did indeed come forward with details of similar incidents involving Kratz.

So why did Van Hollen, who before the scandal broke highlighted the support of fellow Republican prosecutor Kratz in his campaigns against Democratic foes, preside over an investigation that was opened and closed within days and that did not even question Kratz? And why did the attorney general then fail to take the necessary steps to ensure that the DA would not harass other women?

We began asking these questions in an editorial last week, which suggested that the attorney general should, for the sake of his own reputation and that of his office, invite an independent investigation of his handling of the Kratz scandal.

We, of course, pointed out that Van Hollen enjoyed the presumption of innocence. But we argued that, as the state’s chief law enforcement officer, the attorney general has a higher responsibility to ensure that questions about his conduct -- especially when it involves issues as important as the protection of domestic abuse victims -- are resolved.

Van Hollen’s response was to try to claim he had done everything by the book.

Even though his spokesman had just hours earlier suggested that Van Hollen was not personally involved, the attorney general went on television to do an interview in which he suggested that he had led a full-court press on the case that involved “dozens” of his staffers. At the same time, he tried to blame other agencies for failing to act.

In fact, Van Hollen seemed to be pointing the finger at everyone but himself. He even engaged in the classic politician’s move of claiming that he had kept the Kratz information secret in order to avoid jeopardizing the legal proceedings related to the domestic violence case in question. The only problem is that the case was resolved in April -- meaning that Van Hollen sat on the information for five months after his excuse for keeping it secret had disappeared.

Bizarrely, Van Hollen claimed credit for arranging for Kratz to quietly report his conduct to the Office of Lawyer Regulation, which is supposed to investigate and discipline attorneys. The office just as quietly found no grounds for acting against Kratz.

Van Hollen is now criticizing the Office of Lawyer Regulation for laxness, but that accusation applies to the attorney general himself as well as the OLR. Van Hollen’s excuses are as unsatisfying as they are self-serving.

That is why we called for an independent investigation.

And, of course, that is also why Van Hollen is now attacking us. His claim is that our call for an independent inquiry is nothing more than an embrace of partisan criticism.

Politicians of both parties, when they get in trouble, have attacked The Capital Times since the paper was founded as an independent progressive voice in 1917. That’s because politicians don’t like to be held to account. Democratic Attorney General Bronson La Follette didn’t like it when we led the chorus that questioned his management of the Department of Justice. Democratic Attorney General Jim Doyle didn’t like it when we went after him for what looked to us like inappropriate fundraising. Now Republican Van Hollen doesn’t like it when we say that an independent inquiry is needed to resolve questions about his handling of the Kratz case.

Over the years we have complimented and criticized Van Hollen. In 2006, he met with our editorial board and sought our endorsement, and we wrote well of him. We have praised him since his election, and we will do so again whenever his actions merit plaudits.

But it has long been the position of this newspaper that the office of state attorney general must always be recognized as independent and credible. Van Hollen’s handling of the Kratz case has raised questions not merely about him, but about the independence and credibility of the Department of Justice.

Van Hollen cannot talk his way out of trouble. He needs to accept that an independent inquiry is called for, and the sooner he accepts that, the better -- for Van Hollen and for the Department of Justice.

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