Monday, January 30, 2006

GOVERNOR DOYLE DEMOTES WHISTLEBLOWER

Demoted state DOT lawyer files claim, blames Doyle
By PATRICK MARLEY
pmarley@journalsentinel.com

A state Department of Transportation official on Monday accused Gov. Jim Doyle or a top aide of having a direct hand in demoting him after he released a public document to the media.

Jim Thiel, formerly the DOT's lead attorney, says the actions of Doyle or his chief of staff, Susan Goodwin, or both were "substantial factors" in his demotion last month. He does not detail what he accuses Doyle or Goodwin of doing.

Thiel made the accusations in a notice of claim filed with state Attorney General Peg Lautenschlager. The claim is a precursor to a lawsuit.

After 31 years as chief legal counsel, Thiel was pushed out of that position last month by Transportation Secretary Frank Busalacchi.

His demotion came just days after he released a memo to the Journal Sentinel under the state's open records law. The document shows a report on consulting costs was finished in April - seven months earlier than department officials had claimed.

Doyle and Goodwin were unavailable for comment Monday because they were preparing the "state of the state" speech Doyle is to deliver Wednesday, said aide Melanie Fonder.

Neither was involved in Thiel's demotion, Fonder said.

"The governor has confidence in the secretary, and it was the secretary's decision," she said.

Thiel said Monday he had evidence implicating Doyle or Goodwin in the decision to demote him but declined to reveal what it was.

"I don't want to tip them off, but I have a couple independent sources of information that indicate that (the decision) likely came from the governor's office," he said.

The claim does not seek specific damages. But Thiel said Monday that he wanted his old job back and suggested a monetary award was in order.

"I enjoyed going to work every day for 31 years," he said. "This has not been easy for me. Something's wrong here.

"They didn't follow their own rules. There ought to be some sort of message sent.. . . Maybe the only good answer is the ballot box."

If Thiel filed and won a lawsuit, the most he could recover under state law is $250,000.

Thiel also is pursuing administrative remedies through the Wisconsin Employment Relations Commission.

The attorney general's office received Thiel's notice Monday.

Records investigation

Lautenschlager is investigating the Department of Transportation on allegations of open records violations in a related matter. In that case, she is looking into claims that the department took seven months to turn over to a state employees union a report that says state engineers cost 18% less than consultants.

That study runs counter to the findings of Doyle's budget office that outside engineers are cheaper.

DOT officials have denied the charges about the delays, saying that the report was not completed in April, as the union believes. They have also said union officials agreed to give the department more time to turn over the report, essentially rescinding their numerous requests for it.

On Dec. 10, a Friday, Thiel responded to an open records request by giving the Journal Sentinel a November memo that says the report on consulting costs was finished in April and presented to the Department of Administration at that time.

He told the Journal Sentinel that Busalacchi approved the release of the memo. But after he sent it out, Thiel said, Busalacchi's top assistant, Randy Romanski, became upset that the release had not been cleared with him.

At 8:10 a.m. the following Monday, Dec. 13, Busalacchi removed Thiel as chief DOT counsel. He gave no explanation for the move but told him he would retain his $112,579 salary.

In a letter that day, Busalacchi said Thiel would be given "high-level attorney assignments." No such assignments have been made, Thiel said.

Reduced role

The day after the demotion, Deputy Secretary Ruben Anthony Jr. told Thiel not to attend meetings of the department's board of directors or meetings on the Marquette Interchange rebuilding project, the claim says.

The latest organizational chart for the department shows a new chief counsel above Thiel. That position has yet to be filled.

Under the new chart, Thiel is at the same level as his former deputy, Joe Maassen. Thiel is shown with three attorneys beneath him but no other staff. Maassen is shown overseeing four attorneys, as well as four support staff.

Busalacchi has denied the demotion was related to the release of the memo, saying he simply wanted an attorney he felt more comfortable with. Last month, he described Thiel as an "adequate attorney."

That contrasts sharply with the review Anthony gave Thiel in June.

"Jim is a great attorney," it says. "He is dedicated and works extremely hard. He and his staff are very proactive and prompt. Jim and his staff have provided good advice and counsel."

There is nothing critical of Thiel in the review.

Busalacchi, Anthony and Romanski declined comment Monday through Peg Schmitt, the Department of Transportation spokeswoman.

In addition to Doyle and Goodwin, Thiel names several people as being responsible for his demotion: Busalacchi, Anthony and Romanski; Karen Timberlake, the state director of employee relations; and Patricia Almond, state administrator of merit recruitment and selection.

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