Remember John Gotti's attorney Bruce Cutler? Cutler and his team used to meet Gotti at the Ravenite Social Club, where they were caught on tape in an FBI wiretap. A federal court finally barred Cutler from representing Gotti in the 1990s, accepting prosecutors' argument that Cutler and his associates were "in-house counsel" to the Gambino crime family.
The term "in-house counsel" could also apply to Scott Walker's attorney, Eric McLeod, and his law firm, Michael Best & Friedrich. Every time Walker and his gang of right-wing Republicans get into legal trouble, they turn to The Firm.
McLeod is Scott Walker's special counsel, defending him against legal challenges over his infamous law cutting off collective bargaining rights for public employees. (So far, Michael Best has been paid more than $294,000 for work on the collective bargaining law, the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reports.)
McLeod also spent two years doling out free legal advice to ethics-challenged Republican Supreme Court Justice Michael Gableman. Gableman, for his part, took a very favorable view of Michael Best clients who appeared before the Supreme Court, supporting their side again and again.
And then there's the whole redistricting racket. Michael Best was home to the special, top-secret conference room where Republicans met to draw their redistricting maps, remaking Wisconsin's political landscape.
On Tuesday, a federal court rejected the arguments of Michael Best attorneys who have been trying to keep lobbyist and former GOP Rep. Joe Handrick, a consultant during the redistricting process, from being deposed, and insisting that documents about the process are privileged and off-limits to Democrats who are suing over the new maps. The three-judge panel in Milwaukee took a stern tone with McLeod and the rest of the team for continuing to hide information.
"Quite frankly, the Legislature and the actions of its counsel give every appearance of flailing wildly in a desperate attempt to hide from both the court and the public the true nature of exactly what transpired in the redistricting process," the panel wrote in its order.
The court ordered the attorneys to cover costs so that these would not be passed on to taxpayers. The taxpayers, by the way, are already out $400,000 to Michael Best to pay for those secret redistricting sessions.
Redistricting is just one of many duties Michael Best attorneys have shouldered for Wisconsin's Republican cabal.
McLeod got in a little hot water recently when he told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel that he had a standard billing arrangement with Gableman, and that Gableman paid his bills. The firm's own general counsel had to write a letter clarifying that Gableman never paid.
After receiving an estimated tens of thousands of dollars worth of free legal help, Gableman supported Michael Best clients in five out of nine cases, more than any other judge. In two cases he cast the deciding vote in favor of people represented by Michael Best.
One of those was the collective bargaining case, which decided the fate of Walker's new law. Gableman joined the 4-3 majority that allowed the collective bargaining law to take effect — a win for Walker's attorney and Gableman's, Eric McLeod.
It is not a stretch to look at it this way: Michael Best got its man on the court, a corrupt judge got free legal advice in return for favors, and the taxpayers end up paying a whole lot of billable hours to Michael Best to represent Scott Walker, keeping it all in the family.
Puts a whole new spin on the phrase "Open for Business," doesn't it.
Of course, no one has uncovered proof of an explicit quid pro quo. Gableman and friends deny any pay for play. But their interests are clearly entangled. Gableman and Walker can't help but feel grateful to their team of insider lawyers. At the very least, there is the strong appearance of impropriety. Perhaps that's why McLeod stepped down from Walker's judicial selection committee last week.
By any reasonable standard, a sitting judge who has received a lot of free help from a law firm with business before him should also recuse himself — especially when he is staring right at his own attorney during oral arguments.
But this is an intimidating and powerful network of people we are talking about. Gableman's new attorney, Viet Dinh, is a former assistant attorney general in the Bush administration and the founder of the neocon firm Bancroft LLC in Washington, which Democrats jokingly refer to as "a place for torture." He knows all about power and secrecy. He helped write the Patriot Act.
This article originally appeared in the Isthmus of Madison. Reprinted with permission.
If you liked this article by Ruth Conniff, the political editor of The Progressive, check out her story "Tommy Thompson's Secret Talks with Walker."
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