Deals Vince Biskupic made as a prosecutor and judge raise questions of fairness in Wisconsin’s justice system

The Scandal

Vince Biskupic
Wisconsin Watch found that as a judge, Vince Biskupic offered stays or furloughs in 31 cases if defendants complied with his conditions, which ranged from education to treatment requirements. Here, he speaks during a 2017 hearing at the Outagamie County Government Center in Appleton, Wis. Danny Damiani/USA TODAY NETWORK-Wisconsin

Episode 7 Transcript

In 2002, Vince Biskupic was a Republican candidate for attorney general, the top prosecutor job in Wisconsin, running on his nearly eight years as Outagamie County’s district attorney.

On his now-defunct campaign website, Biskupic listed several people he had successfully prosecuted. Among them: Ken Hudson for the murder of Shanna Van Dyn Hoven; Mark Price and Richard Pease for the murder of Michael Fitzgibbon; James Thompson and Jonathan Liebzeit for the murder of Alex Schaffer; “serial rapist” Joseph Frey; and Kelly Coon for the murder of 2-year-old Amy Breyer. [[{“fid”:”1712106″,”view_mode”:”embed_landscape”,”fields”:{“format”:”embed_landscape”,”alignment”:”right”,”field_image_caption[und][0][value]”:”%3Cp%3EAn%20article%20about%20Vince%20Biskupic%E2%80%99s%20campaign%20for%20Outagam”,”field_image_caption[und][0][format]”:”full_html”,”field_file_image_alt_text[und][0][value]”:”Newspaper article announces Biskupic’s running for district attorney”,”field_file_image_title_text[und][0][value]”:false},”type”:”media”,”field_deltas”:{“5”:{“format”:”embed_landscape”,”alignment”:”right”,”field_image_caption[und][0][value]”:”%3Cp%3EAn%20article%20about%20Vince%20Biskupic%E2%80%99s%20campaign%20for%20Outagam”,”field_image_caption[und][0][format]”:”full_html”,”field_file_image_alt_text[und][0][value]”:”Newspaper article announces Biskupic’s running for district attorney”,”field_file_image_title_text[und][0][value]”:false}},”link_text”:false,”attributes”:{“alt”:”Newspaper article announces Biskupic’s running for district attorney”,”class”:”media-element file-embed-landscape media-wysiwyg-align-right”,”data-delta”:”5″}}]]

His Democratic challenger was Peg Lautenschlager, former U.S. attorney for the Western District of Wisconsin. Scot Ross, who was the communications and research director for Lautenschlager’s campaign, recalls that Biskupic ran as a “law and order” candidate.

But shortly before the election, something would happen to undermine that tough-on-crime image.

The Lautenschlager campaign had received a seven-page single-spaced memo from an apparent whistleblower who detailed troubling allegations against Biskupic — including deals that gave “the impression that justice is for sale in Outagamie County.”

The memo included this line: “Far too often, defendants with money are treated differently than defendants who are poor and indigent.”

The Democratic Party of Wisconsin filed an open records request with Biskupic’s office seeking records of the alleged deals, which allowed some suspects to avoid charges by paying money. The “donations” went to a “crime prevention fund” in Biskupic’s office or directly to survivors groups and law enforcement associations. Biskupic refused to release the records, so the Democrats sued. And the Wisconsin State Journal filed a similar request for records.

In 1997, five years before Biskupic ran for state attorney general, a panel appointed by the Wisconsin Supreme Court urged judges to reject plea deals that included these kinds of payments. And in 2000, a new law went into effect, making it illegal for prosecutors to dismiss or amend charges in exchange for donations to crime prevention organizations.

But Biskupic’s deals had a twist: : He threatened to charge people but agreed to withhold charges in exchange for “donations.”

The deals also lacked transparency. These “deferred prosecution agreements” looked like official Outagamie County Circuit Court documents, but they were not filed with the court.

Judge: Release the records

The judge who heard the open-records lawsuit filed by the Democrats, Waupaca County Circuit Judge Philip Kirk, was very familiar with such deals, having served on that Supreme Court-appointed panel.

“He (Kirk) started by saying, ‘I don’t know if you know this or not, but I was on a panel that discussed whether or not these crime prevention funds were appropriate or not appropriate — and I think that they are not,’” Ross recounts.

In an interview, Kirk said allowing such deals had the potential to turn into a “goat rodeo.” Allowing people to buy their way out of trouble would create a chaotic and unequal system, he said, an “unmitigated disaster for the state court system.”

Biskupic agreed to turn over the heavily redacted records to the State Journal, and Kirk ordered him to give the documents to the Democrats as well. The release generated a flurry of negative news coverage including a front page story in the State Journal on Nov. 1 — four days before the 2002 election.

A Wisconsin State Journal front page story on Nov. 2, 2002 broke the news that Outagamie County District Attorney Vince Biskupic had been soliciting payments to a crime-prevention fund and local organizations in exchange for agreements not to prosecute in
A Wisconsin State Journal front page story on Nov. 2, 2002 broke the news that Outagamie County District Attorney Vince Biskupic had been soliciting payments to a crime-prevention fund and local organizations in exchange for agreements not to prosecute individuals he may have otherwise charged with a crime. Wisconsin State Journal clipping

Pace University law professor Bennett Gershman explains why such deals would be so controversial.

“It’s one person who’s wealthy can buy his freedom and somebody who’s poor can’t,” says Gershman, a former New York state prosecutor specializing in official corruption. “It’s just mind-boggling that, that a prosecutor would have something like that, that kind of operation going.”