Tuesday, December 23, 2008

A more complete picture of State Rep. Jeff Wood

Dan Bice of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel fills in the blanks on some of Wood's history with alcohol. Among the incidents was an attempted theft of a leather jacket, passing out at a McDonald's and then getting belligerent at a detox center, and the sexual assault of a 15-year-old girl.

In 1989, Wood and a 22-year-old buddy were accused of sexually assaulting a 15-year-old girl whom they picked up at an underage drinking party in Chippewa Falls. The criminal complaint quotes Wood, then 19, as saying he had oral sex and intercourse with the girl in the back of his friend's car. Wood then took over the wheel while his friend went to the back seat with the girl.

Under a deal with prosecutors, Wood pleaded no contest to a misdemeanor count of contributing to the delinquency of a minor, was put on a year's probation and was ordered to perform 50 hours of community service and pay court costs. The charge was expunged from his record after a year.

The incident was raised during his 2002 campaign, but Wood dismissed the matter by saying he didn't have sex with the girl.

In a follow-up interview, Wood told Bice to direct questions about these past incidents to Wood's attorney, one he hasn't hired yet and that he told a radio station he had no intention of hiring.

Despite the night of dangerous driving under the influence and the arrest for drug possession, despite the past arrests for driving under the influence, Tom Giffey of the Eau Claire Leader-Telegram wants to punish Wood by having him receive treatment for his alcoholism.

Some might demand that Wood resign his seat in the Assembly too. Someone who makes such bad decisions - Wood was also convicted of drunken driving for incidents in 1990 and 1991 - shouldn't be in a position to make decisions on the behalf of the public, the argument goes. We're sensitive to this reasoning. Nonetheless, Wood's behavior, while dangerous and regrettable, didn't pertain directly to his job. Unlike other officeholders - again, Blagojevich comes to mind - he isn't accused of trying to make underhanded deals or sell his influence to the highest bidder. Instead, he's accused of doing something far too many people in Wisconsin do: getting behind the wheel after drinking too much.

Everybody else is doing it, why not Wood? Perhaps we might arrange a debate between Giffey and Mike Nichols of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, who has a different position with the state in mind for Wood.

Stenzel is still alive. He is now 84 years old. His attorney, Jerome Buting, told me that the man is now nearly totally blind. No matter what, said Buting, Stenzel will continue to "pay his own personal debt" because he still feels terrible.

If his original sentence stands - something Buting is now trying to get a judge to amend - he will remain in prison until about a week before Wood's term expires.

Bill and Kathy Szeflinski, the parents of the children who were killed, don't take a position on whether Stenzel should be let out.

Personally, I wish someone had the power to get both Wood and Stenzel out of the places in which they sit. Barring that, if Wood wants to insist on sitting in a state building for the next couple of years, maybe he can volunteer to serve some of Stenzel's time.

By the way, for those editors that want to punish Wood by making him write legislation, Michael Horne took a look at some of the more interesting legislation pushed by Wood in recent years. The Assembly Democrats seem to have embraced the troubled Wood and have given him three committee assignments. I wonder how Democrats within the caucus feel about cozying-up with a three-time DUI, drug-possessor, with a history of sexual assault of a minor? And given the more complete picture of Wood's character, do Tom Giffey, any of Wood's Assembly colleagues, or for that matter any of his constituents, still feel he should continue to be a holder of elective office?