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Democratic district attorney candidate finds support on the right

Verona Swanigan speaks to reporters in front of the Federal Courthouse in August 2014.  (Photo by Mike De Sisti, Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel)

Verona Swanigan, a Democratic candidate for Milwaukee County district attorney, has received personal support from right-wing political activists and has appealed to Republican voters in her bid to unseat current District Attorney John Chisholm, also a Democrat.

A number of speculative pieces have been written by local media tying Swanigan to Eric O’Keefe, director of the Wisconsin Club for Growth, and Craig Peterson, a local political operative with well-documented ties to O’Keefe and a growing interest in local politics. O’Keefe and his organization are key players in an ongoing battle over a secret John Doe investigation launched by Chisholm in 2012.

Though Democratic State Rep. Fred Kessler, who has endorsed Chisholm, could not point to any direct connection between the Swanigan campaign and O’Keefe and Peterson, he said it is out for the ordinary for the two to be supporting her campaign. “They are clearly supporting a candidate running in the Democratic Party, even though they are Republicans,” Kessler said.

Swanigan’s latest campaign finance report shows O’Keefe made a $5,000 donation — close to the maximum of $6,000 — to the campaign on July 12. Reports show that Peterson has personally given $250 and provided more than $2,600 of in-kind donations over the course of her campaign. Peterson’s group Milwaukeeans for Self-Governance has also purchased advertising space on billboards and paid for radio and TV ads criticizing Chisholm, according to recent reports and sources. Peterson and a group called Citizens for Urban Justice also helped Sheriff David Clarke fend off a tough primary challenge in 2014.

“When it comes to people who are involved in this campaign … people can not blame me for [Chisholm] creating enemies — it’s not my fault,” Swanigan said. “I’m not associated with them; I don’t have Eric O’Keefe’s phone number; I don’t hang out with Eric O’Keefe; I don’t owe Eric O’Keefe anything.”

Swanigan said after pieces were written as early as April tying her to O’Keefe she made some calls to find out who he was.

Swanigan and Peterson have been friends since 2011. Peterson called Swanigan “brilliant” and “an incredibly competent, talented person.” Peterson, who knows Swanigan’s father as well, said they have never spoken about her ideology but that she is “one of the least partisan people I’ve ever met.”

Peterson described himself as a Libertarian but said he has worked more with Democrats over the years, and that he supported David Riemer when he ran against Scott Walker for county executive in 2004. Peterson said he and O’Keefe are “not part of the status quo on the Republican side, nor the Democrat side” and that their interest is to “get talented people involved in government who have ability, desire and interest in changing things for the better.”

“Throughout this campaign Ms. Swanigan has attacked the John Doe investigation, which is exactly what the right wing has wanted her to do,” said Chisholm spokesperson Garren Randolph. “She’s ignored the progressive progress in Milwaukee. She’s funded by the right wing. Her stance on every key issue is right-wing. Saying she’s not beholden to the right wing is ridiculous.”

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Verona Swanigan is challenging Milwaukee County District Attorney John Chisholm in the Democratic primary on August 9. (Photo credit: Mark Hoffman, Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel)

Verona Swanigan is challenging Milwaukee County District Attorney John Chisholm in the Democratic primary on August 9. (Photo credit: Mark Hoffman, Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel)

John Doe II

Both O’Keefe and Peterson have been outspoken critics of Chisholm’s decision to pursue a secret “John Doe” investigation into whether Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker’s campaign cooperated with independent groups, including the Wisconsin Club for Growth, during a 2012 recall election.

After an initial John Doe probe into Walker’s Milwaukee County Executive’s office resulted in the convictions of six aides and associates, a second secret investigation was launched, questioning whether Walker had illegally coordinated with outside groups to raise funds for the recall campaign. In response, Wisconsin Club for Growth sued six individuals involved in the investigation, including Chisholm and the judge overseeing it.

The suit, filed in February 2014, alleged the probe violated the group’s free speech rights. In August 2014, the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel reported that, according to briefly unsealed emails, the Walker campaign encouraged donations to Wisconsin Club for Growth starting as early as April 2011 and that, afterward, the organization received more than $1.5 million in personal and corporate donations.

Walker, O’Keefe and others have contended that candidates and outside groups can collaborate on messaging because the club’s ads do not explicitly tell people who to vote for or against. Prosecutors dispute that. In a decision last summer, the Wisconsin Supreme Court said, in a 4-2 vote, contrary to longstanding Wisconsin rules and U.S. Supreme Court precedent, that the actions of Walker and Wisconsin Club for Growth were legal, and Chisholm’s investigation was not.

Critics have contended David Prosser and Michael Gableman, two of the justices voting in the majority, should have recused themselves because groups involved in the lawsuit helped elect them. Craig Peterson said, under that view of the law, which he called “flawed,” Justice Shirley Abrahamson would have had to recuse herself as well because of donations she took from the liberal Greater Wisconsin Committee (GWC) in 2009, which is supporting Chisholm with ads like this one. In 2009, the GWC also spent more than $3.5 million against Prosser, Gableman and Justice Annette Ziegler, who also voted to stop the probe.

Peterson added, “He (Chisholm) did not like the fact that conservatives had free political speech.”

“He (Peterson) doesn’t think he has to report his spending anywhere because he’s got one of these dark money groups,” said Sachin Chheda, partner at Nation Consulting, a group working on Chisholm’s campaign.

Federal Communications Commission records show Peterson has spent more than $130,000 on hundreds of ads on WISN (1130 AM/Channel 12), WKKV (100.7 FM), WJMR (98.3 FM) and WTMJ (620 AM), both in support of Swanigan and criticizing Chisholm, since June 27. The records, which list Milwaukeeans for Self-Governance as the advertiser, were paid for by Peterson’s agency, Zigman Joseph & Associates.

Records from WTMJ radio showed the Chisholm Campaign has spent $7,500 on about 30 spots.

Kessler said he believes the election is really about Peterson and O’Keefe trying to remove Chisholm because of his involvement in the controversial investigation. “I think what they’re trying to do is persuade Republicans to cross over and vote [in] a Democratic primary in order to defeat a district attorney who has caused some embarrassment to the Governor, and may end up, ultimately, charging the Governor,” he said.

Swanigan said she has not seen the details of the case, most of which have remained sealed, and would “have to see the evidence” in order to have an opinion on it. She said, were she to be elected and see the case, she would “abide by what the law says” but that, currently, based on the ruling, the focus should be on Chisholm.

“What the media [should be] doing is reading that 300-page opinion and asking him why the Wisconsin Supreme Court said, ‘You didn’t have probable cause to do this investigation.’ That’s what the question should be,” said Swanigan.

Chisholm and other prosecutors are in the process of appealing the decision to the United States Supreme Court. A U.S. District Judge recently questioned the Wisconsin high court’s rationale for shutting down the investigation.

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Attorney Verona Swanigan, organizer Corey Kirkwood and Craig Stingley, father of Corey Stingley, stand together before a December 2014 conference at the District 5 Police Station.

Attorney Verona Swanigan, organizer Corey Kirkwood and Craig Stingley, father of Corey Stingley, stand together before a December 2014 conference at the District 5 Police Station. (Photo by Jabril Faraj)

The issues

Swanigan said that her campaign is about “the fact that the crime in this community is out of control.” She said it’s unfortunate the media has chosen to focus on where her finances are coming from.

“No one’s asked me … about the real problems in our community,” Swanigan said.

“The media does not seem to care to hear the stories of all the people that have contacted me since I’ve put my hat in this ring,” she added.

Swanigan criticized Chisholm for using coercive prosecution in some cases, and being too lenient in others. In 2012, Chisholm brought felony charges against four white Milwaukee Police Department (MPD) officers related to illegal rectal searches performed in District 5. Two officers who admitted involvement in the searches were not charged or fired after testifying against another officer, Michael Vagnini, who pled no contest to eight charges and served a 26-month prison sentence. At least five other officers were forced to resign, but did not serve jail time, and at least nine additional officers involved in improper searches were neither criminally prosecuted or disciplined by MPD.

Peterson said his opposition to Chisholm predates his relationship with O’Keefe and stems from high profile cases involving Derek Williams, Corey Stingley and Dontre Hamilton. In all of those cases, Chisholm declined to indict the individuals involved.

Chheda said he was also critical of those decisions and he wishes “we had more accountability for police who did wrong.” He said Chisholm explained he did not pursue those cases because he did not believe he could win a conviction.

“I may disagree with that decision, you may disagree with that decision, but he confronts those decisions transparently and head-on,” Chheda said.

Randolph said Chisholm has “dedicated his career to keeping the community safe while also respecting each citizen and their dignity.”

Wisconsin incarcerates black men at a higher rate than any state in the country, a statistic that is driven by Milwaukee County, where one in eight black men of working age have served time. According to a 2013 study by the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, black male incarceration increased primarily between 2000 and 2008 as the result of mandatory minimum sentencing and three strikes laws.

Chisholm, whose tenure began in 2007, has effectively stopped charging low-level drug possession cases, according to Chheda. Chheda also noted Chisholm has invested in providing services to the victims of family violence, in an effort to confront violence head-on.

“Those are real, substantive, substantial, tangible things that have happened in the last 10 years under John Chisholm,” Chheda said.

Swanigan, who represented protesters arrested during a demonstration in late 2014, is licensed to practice law in five states, is a member of the National Bar Association and claims to have never lost a case. Swanigan, who holds a Master’s Degree in Forensic Psychology, is running on a platform that calls for tougher treatment of violent offenders and proactive solutions to low-level crime, particularly for at-risk youth. Swanigan, who calls herself a “conservative Democrat,” has been dogged by personal attacks, questions about previous professional dealings and has openly appealed to Republicans (video), as well as central city Black voters.

“My opponent has created his own enemies and he’s now suffering the repercussions of creating his own enemies,” said Swanigan. “It has nothing to do with me. It has nothing to do with my ethics; it has nothing to do with my morals; it has nothing to do with what I intend to do for this community.”

Swanigan said she intends to bring integrity and “ethical behavior” to the district attorney’s office. “What I intend to do is to bring … proper prosecution into that office — balanced prosecution into that office — that is fair for everyone.”

“I think she tells people what they want to hear,” said Chheda. “I think she’s a Trojan horse for the right wing.”

In the end, what this campaign comes down to is who people believe is working for them, according to Chisholm’s campaign spokesman. Randolph said the election is “about the people of Milwaukee County having a D.A.’s office that they can trust.”

Update (Aug. 8, 2016, 4:41 p.m.): This story was updated with numbers on Peterson’s radio and television advertising spending, based on available Federal Communications Commission records.

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