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Sauk County ethics panel wants more details on carpooling complaint

September 27, 2018

An ethics panel will seek more information before it considers a complaint against two Sauk County Board members involving shared rides and $756 in mileage reimbursements.

“If there’s video surveillance in the parking lot the nights of the meetings, I’d like to see that as well,” Sauk County Ethics Inquiry Board member Michael Zeihen of Rock Springs said during a meeting Wednesday evening.

Following a half-hour discussion, the panel decided to give Eric Peterson of Merrimac until Oct. 10 to provide a list of witnesses to subpoena and amend his complaint with additional details.

The two county board members mentioned in his complaint, Jean Berlin of Hill Point and Bill Wenzel of Prairie du Sac, then will have until Oct. 24 to file a written response to the allegations.

After that, the Ethics Inquiry Board may decide to pursue additional evidence, including witness testimony, county documents and parking lot surveillance videos.

Peterson’s complaint alleges that since Berlin was elected in April 2016, she has collected at least $756 in mileage reimbursements for attending monthly board meetings. It says that was a violation of the county’s ethics code, because Berlin carpooled to the meetings with Wenzel.

Peterson alleges Wenzel also violated ethics rules by providing Berlin with the rides, which the complaint describes as “something of value… with the expectation to influence her vote.”

In an interview last week, Berlin said Peterson’s complaint doesn’t tell the whole story, and is part of a campaign for political retribution.

She said she does not like to drive at night, and carpooled in order to avoid that. Berlin acknowledged collecting a 50-mile reimbursement, but said she actually drove 60 miles to and from Wenzel’s home in Prairie du Sac to avoid night driving.

The Ethics Inquiry Board’s first order of business Wednesday was to decide whether Peterson’s complaint was sufficient to believe a violation of the county’s ethics code may have occurred.

“I’m bothered by the lack of specificity and dates (in the complaint), and the use of the word routine and routinely,” said Baraboo attorney Catherine Ankenbrandt.

She also said it’s not clear whether county policies dictate that supervisors must drive from their homes to the exact location of a meeting and back in order to be reimbursed for mileage.

Ankenbrandt voted against making a determination that the complaint included sufficient details to warrant an investigation. She was outvoted by Zeihen and Ethics Inquiry Board Chair James Evenson, a former county judge.

At that point, the panel was prepared to take witness testimony. However, Sauk County Corporation Counsel Daniel Olson advised that such action was not noticed on the meeting agenda, and witnesses had not been informed they would be asked to answer questions.

Peterson served on the board from 2014 to 2017. His complaint states that during that time he witnessed Berlin and Wenzel arrive and depart board meetings together “on a routine monthly basis.”

Ethics Inquiry Board members said they wanted more specificity from Peterson regarding dates and a list of possible eye witnesses.

Zeihen also requested invoices, policies and reimbursement forms. His request for parking lot surveillance video got some pushback from an alternate on the committee, attorney Jim Bohl of Baraboo.

He said without a written response from Berlin and Wenzel, it’s not clear yet what facts are in dispute. If Berlin doesn’t dispute riding with Wenzel, he said, the panel may not need to worry about surveillance video.

“And I’m just thinking of a tremendous amount of time to go through those videotapes to try and prove something that’s not an issue,” Bohl said.

During his time on the board, Peterson was aligned with a board faction opposite that of Wenzel and Berlin. In an interview last week, he said he decided to file the Sept. 11 complaint because those two supervisors were outspoken about corruption allegations against the county’s former highway commissioner.

Berlin said she believes the complaint is political payback because she and Wenzel were the swing votes that elected Supervisor Peter Vedro of Baraboo as the board’s chairman in April. Vedro replaced Supervisor Marty Krueger of Reedsburg, who had chaired the board since 2006.

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