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April 17, 2007

U.S. Attorney put innocent woman in jail, kept job

Adam Cohen revisits the jailing of an innocent Wisconsin civil servant and the U.S. Attorney who put her in jail and kept his job.

The conviction of Georgia Thompson has become part of the furor over the firing of eight United States attorneys in what seems like a political purge. While the main focus of that scandal is on why the attorneys were fired, the Thompson case raises questions about why other prosecutors kept their jobs.

The United States Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit, which heard Ms. Thompson’s case this month, did not discuss whether her prosecution was political — but it did make clear that it was wrong. And in an extraordinary move, it ordered her released immediately, without waiting to write a decision. “Your evidence is beyond thin,” Judge Diane Wood told the prosecutor. “I’m not sure what your actual theory in this case is.”

Members of Congress should ask whether it was by coincidence or design that Steven Biskupic, the United States attorney in Milwaukee, turned a flimsy case into a campaign issue that nearly helped Republicans win a pivotal governor’s race.

There was good reason for the appeals court to be shocked. Ms. Thompson, a 56-year-old single woman, seems to have lost her home and spent four months in prison simply for doing her job. Ms. Thompson, who spent years in the travel industry before becoming a state employee, was responsible for putting the state’s travel account up for competitive bid. Mr. Biskupic claimed that she awarded the contract to an agency called Adelman Travel because its C.E.O. contributed to Mr. Doyle’s campaign.

To charge her, Mr. Biskupic had to look past a mountain of evidence of innocence. Ms. Thompson was not a Doyle partisan. She was a civil servant, hired by a Republican governor, with no identifiable interest in politics. She was only one member of a seven-person committee that evaluated the bidders. She was not even aware of the Adelman campaign contributions. She also had a good explanation for her choice: of the 10 travel agencies that competed, Adelman submitted the lowest-cost bid. [NYT]

Yet Biskupic continues to serve at the pleasure of the president.

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Comments

It's worth noting that Georgia Thompson was convicted by a jury. I'm not certain whether this is a story about a political prosecution, or about a criminal justice system that doesn't protect the innocent well in lots of different cases.

If we're going to assume a conflict-of-interest when a company seeks a state-contract after the CEO donated to the governor, then such companies shouldn't be allowed to seek state contracts.


Or better yet, we should have a campaign system in which individual-donations to candidates are exactly $5, with 100-to-1 public matching funds. $5 can't sway a contract.

If we're going to assume a conflict-of-interest when a company seeks a state-contract after the CEO donated to the governor, then such companies shouldn't be allowed to seek state contracts.


Or better yet, we should have a campaign system in which individual-donations to candidates are exactly $5, with 100-to-1 public matching funds. $5 can't sway a contract.

Jeralyn Merrit at TalkLeft has the best theory for what went on: The prosecutors thought they'd charge Thompson with something -- anything, really -- and use the pressure to get her to implicate Governor Doyle. This happens in drug prosecutions all the time -- you charge someone very low in the food chain and get them to implicate a higher up, even if that means they make shit up to get off. Jailhouse snitches are used the same way.

In any event, Jeralyn posits, Thompson was either too stubborn or too honest to make up a story about Doyle to get off and the Milwaukee USA was stuck with a bullshit case and decided to punish Thompson's lack of cooperation by making her defend against it. Trouble was, they won a conviction, which meant their conduct was reviewed by a higher court.

The question I have never seen answered was why the case was prosecuted in Milwaukee. Thompson and Doyle were both in Madison -- the jurisdiction of a different US Attorney. All of the supposed criminal conduct also happened in Madison. WTF?

the jurisdiction of a different US Attorney

True, dat. There's also the fundamental question of what made it a federal case.

This is so disgusting I think the US Attorney involved should not only be fired and disbarred, but prosecuted. Any further words I could say to express how I feel about this will be approximately four letters long and not polite.

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