Monday, April 14, 2008

Shhh, it's a secret IV

I'm beginning to wonder what JB Van Hollen's office is teaching local governments about handling open records requests.

Van Hollen's office is still stonewalling in the Tyler Peterson case.

The state Department of Justice says it needs more time to consider whether it will release autopsy reports on Tyler Peterson and the six people the Forest County sheriff's deputy shot and killed while off-duty back in October.

More than a month after the Journal Sentinel requested full copies of the reports, and six months after the initial media inquiries, the department has yet to conclude whether to make them public under the state Open Records Law.

There is no longer an ongoing criminal investigation in the case because the lone suspect took his life, according to the attorney general's findings.

In a letter responding to a Journal Sentinel request submitted March 4, an attorney in the office said he had not yet balanced the privacy interests of the crime victims and their families vs. the public's right to the information in the pathologists' reports.

Autopsy reports are routinely released in the vast majority of cases.

The autopsy report on Peterson is of particular interest, given the assertions by Attorney General J.B. Van Hollen that the 20-year-old shot himself three times in the head during a confrontation with tactical officers roughly 10 hours after he massacred a group of friends in his former girlfriend's Crandon apartment.

To date, the attorney general has released no medical or pathological reports detailing Peterson's wounds and verifying the conclusion that Peterson took his life after being wounded by a law enforcement sniper.


Patrick at Badger Blogger comments:

These strange actions made many question what was going on, was Van Hollen covering something up, or is he just incompetent? I’m no conspiracy nut, but one has to wonder.

In February, Van Hollen released the final report of the incident, but he refused to release autopsy reports. This once again makes people wonder if there is a cover-up. With the Department of Justice claiming that Peterson shot himself in the head three times, but there being conflicting reports of the number of shots being fired, people want to know if these medical reports support the Justice Departments claim. The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, who did an outstanding job covering this story, has been fighting with Van Hollen to get these reports released, but today, they report that he has turned down their request again.

The paper also raises the interesting fact that two of the primary administrators have abruptly left the DOJ’s criminal investigation section, including the highly regarded Jim Warren. it has been wondered for months if these surprise retirements from the DOJ had something to do with the handling of this case. The news report also adds that the report released to the media in February was edited by Deputy Attorney General Ray Taffora, Van Hollen’s top appointed aide.

The issue of DAG Ray Taffora* editing the documents was addressed recently by a Wisconsin State Journal article:

In an e-mail to colleagues, obtained by the State Journal under Wisconsin 's open records law, special assignments bureau director Carolyn Kelly said if the changes suggested by Deputy Attorney General Ray Taffora "are simply wording or spelling, fine. "

But, Kelly wrote, "We need to be very careful to protect our agents so they are free to report investigations without interference and so their reports are accurate and impartial. "

The report summarized evidence collected after off-duty Forest County sheriff 's deputy Tyler Peterson shot and killed six people and wounded another Oct. 7, and the subsequent law enforcement response. Peterson later committed suicide by shooting himself in the head three times.

Department spokesman Kevin St. John said the changes sought by Taffora were minimal -- mainly providing additional detail and clarifying the chronology of events the morning of the shootings -- and were incorporated into the report released Feb. 7.

Department officials, however, are unable to find Taffora 's original recommendations to support that statement and have refused to make him available for an interview.

Weeks after the report was reopened but before it was released, Kelly was suspended. Her lawyer, Dan Bach, has said the suspension was related to e-mails she exchanged with co-workers, including some in which she expressed frustration with how the department was being run under Attorney General J.B. Van Hollen.

It 's not clear whether her Dec. 19 note was among that group of e-mails.

The day before Taffora received a copy of the report to review, Jim Warren, the chief of the Division of Criminal Investigation submitted his resignation.

Later in the same article,

Kust 's report was reopened Dec. 18, records show. That day, Taffora sent an e-mail to Virgil and Warren -- whose resignation wasn 't effective until the following month -- saying he was sending them his "hand-written comments " on the report.

Those notes were not included in the records the department released to the newspaper. The department has been unable to locate them, records custodian Steven Means said.

'Handgun or pistol'

St. John said Taffora 's recommendations were reflected in the final version of Kust 's report, which does not differ substantially from Kust 's earlier version, according to a review of both drafts.

Still, Taffora 's request prompted Kelly to write Warren, Virgil and Kust, arguing only Kust could make changes to the report.

"If it changes meanings or outlooks then (B)rad must agree with the change, " Kelly wrote. "If he doesn 't then it doesn 't go thru. Even spellings and what not must come from him, not be changes we make. "

Virgil replied to Kelly in a later e-mail that day that Taffora had requested a change "to identify the supervisors who contacted DCI requesting assistance " and to clarify that the weapon used in the suicide was a "handgun or pistol. "

Taffora also made recommendations Virgil characterized as "stylistic, " which she said she would recommend not be made.

Other changes made to the report after Taffora looked at it included providing a more detailed timeline of events, St. John said. A street name was also corrected.

It 's unclear if other political appointees recommended changes to Kust 's report.

The newspaper asked St. John for an opportunity to interview Taffora, Virgil and Kust. St. John said the department would not authorize them to answer questions about the Crandon report.
Surely Van Hollen and his team realize that sooner or later they are going to have to release everything, whether because they are legally bound or find themselves required to do so because of public pressure.

On April 7th, the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel had more on how the Crandon case continues to eat away at the department of justice:
On Dec. 5, Deputy Attorney General Ray Taffora -- the top political appointee at the agency -- asked Warren for an update on the Oct. 7 shooting in Crandon that drew widespread media attention. Warren responded that day that the lead agent on the case would finish his summary soon and that Forest County District Attorney Leon Stenz had already received the bulk of the investigative reports.

That didn't sit well with Taffora.

On Dec. 6, Taffora responded: "We need whatever has been sent to the DA. I thought it was clear from a previous Administrators meeting that we were to see the report(s) BEFORE they went to the DA. We should see whatever hasn't been sent to the DA as yet BEFORE it goes to him. I want to make sure we know what these reports say so we are in a position to coordinate with the DA any release of documents/public comments that may occur."

Two weeks later, after Taffora received the reports, Taffora forwarded notes and comments to Warren. Warren then alerted Kelly, the supervisor in charge of the Crandon investigation.

Kelly showed skepticism toward the idea of Taffora weighing in on the report, telling another supervisor, Tina Virgil: "Supervisors may not change agents reports, only the agents can. If his suggestions are simply wording or spelling, fine. If it changes meanings or outlooks then (Brad Kust, the lead investigator) must agree with the change. If he doesn't then it doesn't go thru.... We need to be very careful to protect our agents so they are free to report investigations without interference and so their reports are accurate and impartial."


(*In the interest of full disclosure, Ray Taffora was the attorney for the Wisconsin Coalition for Voter Participation. I was the organization's president.)