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

Whistleblower unveiled

The unnamed whistleblower who wrote the memo exposing the deals was one of Biskupic’s employees, Assistant District Attorney Mike Balskus. In 2002, he wanted to remain anonymous, but he signed a sworn affidavit for the Wisconsin State Journal that his memo was, to his knowledge, true and correct.

“I knew that if Vince Biskupic became the attorney general, that there’d be a lot of problems because I didn’t trust him,” Balskus says. “And I thought he was, I don’t know if you’d say corrupt, because I think he did things for his political gain.”

Balskus was concerned that the legal system — which requires attorneys and judges to report certain types of malfeasance — was not rooting out bad behavior.

“People are silent,” he says. “That’s one of the big problems I see with our criminal justice system.”

Balskus’ memo included at least one deal that Biskupic had not disclosed in his records release — a 2000 agreement with John Mortensen, the president of Jones Sign Co. A car wash had hired Mortensen’s company to make a sign, but after it was installed, the two companies argued over the cost. Mortensen had the sign removed — cutting some wires in the process.

Mortensen said he was puzzled by Biskupic’s threat to prosecute him, as the dispute with the car wash had been resolved two years earlier. And there was another curious aspect to the case: Biskupic’s investigator, Steve Malchow, was a friend of the car wash owner.

Biskupic wanted $10,000 to make criminal charges go away, Mortensen told the Wisconsin State Journal. He agreed to pay $8,000. He told the newspaper he felt “shaken down” by the encounter.

The Wisconsin Ethics Board investigated Biskupic, but found he had not personally profited from the fund. And largely because of that, and because the board only had the power to enforce the state’s Ethics Code, it ultimately did not find that Biskupic violated the law.

Five years after the Justice for Sale stories, then-Sen. Dave Hansen, D-Green Bay, argued in favor of the bill he authored to prohibit such deals.

“This legislation will help restore the integrity of our judicial system by making it clear that justice is not for sale and that people accused of crimes whether they are rich, whether they are poor, or middle class will be treated fairly,” Hansen said in a speech on the Senate floor, never mentioning Biskupic’s name.

The bill passed and was signed into law.

Years later, in 2014, then-Gov. Scott Walker appointed Biskupic — the brother of his campaign attorney, Steve Biskupic — to fill a vacancy on the Outagamie County Circuit Court. A year after that, Biskupic was elected to a full six-year term. He was re-elected in 2021 and remains on the bench.

Biskupic’s ‘gray area’ deals

As a judge, Biskupic also has stretched boundaries, Wisconsin Watch and WPR found. For several years, Biskupic held “review hearings” to monitor defendants’ behavior or to prompt them to pay fines or restitution. The effect was to keep defendants under his control for months or even years after their sentences would have ended.

About two dozen legal experts consulted by Wisconsin Watch and WPR had a wide range of views about Biskupic’s use of review hearings. Some said the practice is legal, some called it a “gray area” and some said it has no basis in state law. Others had never heard of it before.

An analysis of Wisconsin’s electronic court database found 52 cases involving such review hearings; Biskupic was among a very few judges employing this technique — and by far the largest user.

Defense attorneys said they believed Biskupic was trying to help defendants. Former public defender Brandt Swardenski describes it as a way to “chastise them when they screw up and praise them when they do well.”

Some of Swardenski’s clients agreed to undergo review hearings to avoid jail, which Swardenski acknowledges was “a gray area of ​​the law.” He defendants warned who took the deals they might be “subjecting yourselves to further consequences down the line.”

That’s exactly what happened to Beau Jammes.

Jammes had been on probation with the Wisconsin Department of Corrections but revoked for an alleged violation, which normally would have landed him in jail. Biskupic offered a different path — one with no clear ending.

He let Jammes out of jail and ordered him to get a full-time job, attend counseling or addiction meetings, stay sober, take his medications and work towards a GED. Every few months, Jammes had to return to court to share his progress.

In theory, if Jammes did what Biskupic told him, he might be able to avoid more jail time. At first, Jammes says, he was happy about it. And so was his attorney, Gary Schmidt.

“I thought maybe the judge was just going to run it for a couple of months to make sure that Beau stayed out of trouble for awhile, and then that would end it,” Schmidt recalls, “but he kept extending it and extending it. …There was always something more that the judge wanted.”

Had Jammes just served his jail time at the start, he could’ve been out in about a year. Instead, it turned into a 19-month-long legal purgatory.

Towards the end of this period of uncertainty, Jammes was convicted of disorderly conduct, and the judge in that case sent Jammes to jail. Biskupic then reinstated his original sentence. And although he ordered the sentence to run concurrent with the one Jammes was already serving, it extended the time Jammes spent behind bars.

Biskupic did not answer detailed questions about the practice. Biskupic’s attorney defended the judge’s actions in an email, insisting that earlier court rulings permit them.

In a statement, Biskupic said he considers all sentencing options, and also implied he doesn’t do this anymore. He said the cases mostly were resolved between 2015 and 2018. That’s the same year Jammes filed a federal lawsuit against Biskupic, unsuccessfully challenging his authority to create such a “de facto probation.”

Commenting on that whole practice, Swardenski says, “It was, yeah, I think, pushing the bounds of the statute to say the least.”

Prosecutor’s conduct called ‘alarming’

Gershman, the Pace University law professor, literally wrote the book on prosecutorial misconduct. It’s titled, “Prosecutorial Misconduct.”

“I focus on prosecutors specifically because the prosecutor has the power of life and death,” Gershman says. “The prosecutor has the power to put innocent people in jail for the rest of their lives. The prosecutor has more power than anybody else in America when you think about it. And many, many prosecutors use their prodigious powers responsibly professionally, ethically. Some don’t.”

At the request of Wisconsin Watch and WPR, Gershman reviewed a nine-page summary of issues in seven felony cases prosecuted by Biskupic, most of which were examined in Open and Shut.

“What I saw was alarming,” Gershman says. “What I saw was conduct that was not isolated, inadvertent, marginal — conduct that one could say was simply mistakes in the heat of battle.”

Gershman says Biskupic did the same things over and over again — including withholding evidence.

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