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Wednesday, March 14, 2007

Are we swiftboating Annette Ziegler?

by folkbum

The political lexicon lacks a great deal of flexibility (the -gate suffix's being attached to every potential scandal a generation later is just one example of how stale the vocabulary is), but swiftboat, I think, is a welcome and reasonable addition to the party. If used correctly, that is.

The word, of course, comes from the "Swiftboat Veterans for Truth" organization, a group ironically dedicated to spreading demonstrably false stories about John Kerry during the 2004 election season. I like Wikipedia's definition: "By using credible-sounding sources to make sensational and difficult-to-disprove accusations against an opponent, the campaign leverages media tendencies to focus on a controversial story." In other words, as happened in the 2004 campaign, gather a bunch of veterans who, though they served in Vietnam on a switftboat never actually served with Kerry; have them question Kerry's service; then let the media's faux-balance desire for "he said-he said" journalism take over, thereby legitimizing the false statements.

In the end, swiftboating is just a media-savvy version of "When did you stop beating your wife?" It's all about smear, and not so much about truth.

Washington County Judge Annette Ziegler has--on this blog, elsewhere on the internet, and in the traditional media now, too--been severely criticized for lapses in her ethical judgment. Some of the criticisms, such as perhaps the Wal*Mart case flap, are pushing it (which is why I haven't touched the Wal*Mart flap lately, since I tend to dwell in the realm of Things That Matter). But other allegations, in my opinion, have merit. Consider, for example, some of the non-Wal*Mart examples listed by One Wisconsin Now:
According to Ziegler's own Statement of Economic Interest filings with the State Ethics Board, Ziegler's husband J.J. Ziegler has worked for West Bend Savings Bank as a paid director and she has claimed income from the bank for renting property to them. (3) (4 [pdf])

In addition, state and Washington County Register of deed records show that Ziegler has received $3.1 million in loans from West Bend Savings Bank, including a $2 million loan during her campaign for our highest court. (2 [pdf]), (5), (6 [pdf])

Ziegler has also heard 46 cases involving West Bend Savings Bank.

In the cases involving her husband's bank, Ziegler has ruled in favor of West Bend Savings Bank with well over $100,000 in cash settlements, home foreclosures and seized vehicles.

When questioned by the Wisconsin State Journal, Ziegler's campaign manager Mark Graul, initially told the paper that Ziegler's practice in cases involving the bank was to disclose the conflict and "offer to the parties to recuse herself" or to have them waive the requirement and allow her to continue. (7)

The Wisconsin State Journal reported that, "He insisted she had notified the parties and gotten approval to continue presiding over the cases." (7) [. . .]

[I]t wasn't the truth. A Wisconsin State Journal report revealed that in 46 cases involving West Bend Savings Bank where Ziegler was the sitting judge, there are "no indications that Ziegler withdrew from West Bend Savings cases, and no notices to the parties of any conflict." (8)

The defendants in 4 cases looked at by the Wisconsin State Journal told the paper the Washington County Circuit judge did not withdraw from the cases - nor did she disclose her conflict - as required by Supreme Court rules governing the conduct of Judges in Wisconsin. (7) [. . .]

To date, Ziegler has offered no evidence that she disclosed the conflict to any of the parties in the cases. Instead, Ziegler has said she relied on a "gut check" rather than court rules about conflicts in deciding to hear the cases. (8)
Or consider this specific story, from a Linda Clifford press release:
Jeanie Kidd appeared before Ziegler last year as a defendant against West Bend Savings Bank. Kidd's case is one of 46 that Judge Ziegler has heard that involved the bank. Ziegler's husband is a paid member of the bank's board of directors and the Ziegler family leases the bank space. In addition, the bank has loaned Ziegler over $3 million.

Because Kidd resided out of state, she requested a postponement of the hearing on seizure of her automobile. Judge Ziegler denied the request and ordered Kidd to appear at the hearing by telephone. At the time of the hearing, the bank failed to show. Although a statute allowed dismissal for the bank's failure to appear, Ziegler instead adjourned the hearing for the benefit of the bank. At the adjourned hearing, judgment was awarded to the bank.

In at least nine cases, Ziegler faced the opposite scenario where a defendant failed to appear while West Bank Savings did. In each of these instances no continuance was granted, Ziegler instead ruled in the bank's favor.
Setting aside the source of that information, the underlying facts of this and other cases are not in distpute--not by Ziegler, not by Graul (any more), not by the documentary evidence available from the courts. What is described here is accurate and true to the greatest extent that everybody involved can prove.

Which is why I'm surprised to see someone call this a swiftboating, particularly someone who tends to run to the liberal side:
What I really hate, and have to suck it up anyway is the way professional journalists, strategists, career statesmen and good old boys are masquerading as "citizen bloggers" to orchestrate old-fashioned mud-slinging campaigns. Okay, so some party people were freaked out at the "new Power" that bloggers had with the Dean business and the Dan Rather thing and all that. Even if it works in your favor, it's a rogue element - uncontrollable if it genuinely comes from The People.

So get a bunch of Good Old Boys in there - not the shaggy t-shirt crowd that bloggers were to start, but established journalists and seasoned power boys in their 50s and 60s who know the ropes and can hopefully steer things in a coordinated direction. But most importantly, protect the status quo. Edge out the uncontrolled rogue elements with flashier sites and greater posting frequency and that so-lovely air of entitlement. Whatever.

Funny thing is - I wonder how long till the Republicans get a private investigator to set up a blog where s/he can disseminate the stuff they dig up about Democratic candidates. The guys who did the swift-boating of Kerry believed they were following a higher cause too, that they had a sacred mission to keep an Undesirable out of office. They would have said they were just "telling the truth". Yet, though I am a "liberal" I think it is quite obvious that the Republican judge in this "non-partisan" race is being swift-boated too from the point of view of HER supporters. The definition you use depends on the side you are on and all words have no solid meaning anymore. All wars are sacred, all words are partisan - it's quite a gift we have all been given by the power-obsessed among us.
I think that somewhere in there Jody's making a point about groups like Progressive Majority or even One Wisconsin, which I think might distill, as Dave Diamond suggests, into something like a complaint that bloggers are being ruined by partisan influences, or something. But it's the accusation of swiftboating that hangs in my craw: I have not heard "HER supporters" toss around that word and, in fact, the more considered (and more lawyerly) among them concede that Ziegler was wrong on many of those cases.

So are we swiftboating Annette Ziegler? Does what's happening here rise (sink?) to the "When did you stop beating your wife?" level of political discourse?

Perhaps I'm biased and defensive, as one who broke parts of this story, but I say no. For starters, unlike the claims of the "Swiftboat Veterans for Truth," the only allegations I have made--and the only allegations made in the media, as led by the Wisconsin State Journal--are ones supported by the evidence at hand. There is no crime or shame in, as the Journal Sentinel editorial board did, saying, "Here's what we know based on facts in evidence; can you explain it?" to a campaign or to a candidate--a far cry from the insinuations or falsehoods of a true swiftboating.

In fact, the only aspersions I see being cast around are things like Jessica McBride's laughable "media bias" claims. (And I mean laughable; McBride reprints her shockingly indignant email to the managing editor of the Wisconsin State Journal and his answers. I was embarrassed for her.) That and Jody's assertion that me and my baggy-shirted colleagues are getting strung along by The Powers That Be.

Until someone can show me that somehow every shred of documentary evidence we have is wrong, that every defendant now complaining that Ziegler never disclosed her conflicts is lying, or that Ziegler somehow doesn't own stocks in the numbers that put her in violation of a judicial ethics review panel's ruling, I will not back down from this, and I will not assent to being called a swiftboater.

I won't go so far as Gregory "Deke Rivers" Humphrey and call for Zielger to drop out of the race. I won't even go so far as Bruce Murphy and suggest that now she's unelectable (I won't underestimate the power of the state's business lobby and all the TV airtime they can buy). But I also won't let clear ethical lapses and clear violations of an enforceable code of judicial conflict go without comment. Even if it means trading in my baggy shirt.

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