Prosecutor hopefuls outline their approaches at forum

By Kellen Olshefski

SLN Staff

Walworth County voters will have their only chance to choose between two candidates for Walworth County district attorney in the Aug. 9 Fall Primary Election.

Daniel Necci, who currently serves as Walworth County’s district attorney, has opted not to run for re-election. Walworth County Court Commissioner Zeke Wiedenfeld and Rock County Assistant District Attorney Rich Sullivan will vie for Necci’s seat in the Aug. 9 primary.

Only one of the two will advance from the primary election and earn a slot on the November ballot, during which there is no Democratic challenger.

County Clerk Kim Bushey, Treasurer Valerie Etzel and Register of Deeds Donna R. Pruess are all running unopposed and will also appear on the Aug. 9 ballot.

Both candidates for the prosecutor’s seat had an opportunity to speak on several topics at a candidate forum hosted by the Walworth County Bar Association July 13. The candidates were first given an opportunity to introduce themselves.

Walworth County Court Commissioner Zeke Wiedenfeld introduces himself at the July 13 candidate forum. Wiedenfeld was an assistant district attorney in Walworth County for five years before becoming court commissioner. (Kellen Olshefski photo)

Walworth County Court Commissioner Zeke Wiedenfeld introduces himself at the July 13 candidate forum. Wiedenfeld was an assistant district attorney in Walworth County for five years before becoming court commissioner. (Kellen Olshefski photo)

Zeke Wiedenfeld

Wiedenfeld has lived and worked in Walworth County for the last eight years, first working as an assistant district attorney for five years and most recently as a Walworth County court commissioner. Wiedenfeld received an undergraduate degree in criminal justice from the University of Wisconsin-Platteville and then attended law school at UW-Madison.

Wiedenfeld said, as an assistant district attorney, he developed a reputation for being aggressive, yet fair in the cases he has handled.

As a court commissioner, Wiedenfeld said he has had attorneys appear before him, set bonds, issued search warrants and fulfilled other judicial roles.

Wiedenfeld said with the experience he’s developed over the years in Walworth County he’s developed relationships, leading to more than 100 endorsements including law enforcement, current and former employees of the district attorney’s office and other employee’s of the county.

Rock County Assistant District Attorney Rich Sullivan speaks at the July 13 Walworth County Bar Association’s candidate forum. Sullivan has been a prosecutor in Rock County for nearly two decades. (Kellen Olshefski photo)

Rock County Assistant District Attorney Rich Sullivan speaks at the July 13 Walworth County Bar Association’s candidate forum. Sullivan has been a prosecutor in Rock County for nearly two decades. (Kellen Olshefski photo)

Rich Sullivan

Sullivan is a 14-year resident of Walworth County and has been working as a prosecutor in Rock County for almost 19 years and has been an attorney for more than 20 years. Sullivan attended law school at Marquette University.

Having handled multiple jury trials as a defense attorney, Sullivan said he thinks having learned how to put together a case from a defense perspective is unique experience he was able to bring into the prosecution side of the law.

As a prosecutor, Sullivan said he has handled many homicides, shootings and is the attorney in Rock County that prosecutes the majority of the child sexual assault cases.

“I have the experience to understand what a case is worth and how we protect the community,” he said.

Stability of the office

Elkhorn attorney and Rotarian Ward Phillips asked candidates how they intend to bring stability in staffing and charging decisions to the district attorney’s office, noting the office has seen a lot of turnover in recent years.

Wiedenfeld said while the general explanation given for the turnover is lacking pay and pay progression, a contention he agrees with, he doesn’t believe it’s the only reason for turnover.

Wiedenfeld said in looking to retain attorneys he thinks the office needs to take on more of a team approach, something he said he thinks the office has gotten away from in recent years.

“When attorneys work together, when they talk about cases together, when they’re covering for each other in court, that’s something that helps them,” he said. “I think working together is the best way to encourage people to stay, to give people ownership in their cases.”

Wiedenfeld also said in giving attorneys more discretion over their own cases, they are happier and more productive.

Sullivan said he’ll be able to mentor other attorneys, share his experiences and develop a rapport in the office based on his 19 years experience.

Sullivan said the Rock County office hasn’t seen the turnover Walworth County has. He said this is because they are all working together.

“We want to make sure that every single person in that office feels a part of the prosecution and a part of protecting the community,” he said.

Sullivan said with young attorneys coming out of law school with $100,000 to $200,000 in debt, he thinks the pay scale and progression is a concern. He said he thinks the office needs someone who is able to express these concerns to legislators, something he has had an opportunity to do as a member of the Wisconsin District Attorney’s Association.

“If you feel like you’re just being piled on, you’re not going to remain in the role,” he said. “We deal with individuals very personal lives … that weighs on people. It takes a very special person to do this type of job.”

Sullivan said the key is to bring in people who want to make it a career, to cultivate a team atmosphere and prove to them they have someone fighting for them both in Elkhorn and at the state level.

As for staffing the office, Wiedenfeld said he doesn’t think the office needs more prosecutors at this time, though if the county were to see increased charging he thinks the county would need to look at getting additional prosecutors funded by the state.

Sullivan disagreed, noting he thinks they need more prosecutors. He said he thinks the office first needs to focus on pay progression to retain people and then find more from there.

Reducing recidivism

Phillips asked candidates what they thought was more effective in preventing people from repeatedly coming through the criminal justice system: incarceration or treatment programs.

Wiedenfeld said treatment is the best approach, adding that by treating people it helps to eliminate tendencies people have.

However, Wiedenfeld noted treatment by itself does not solve all problems and there is a deterrent component to serving a sentence that deters people from committing crimes again.

“So, there’s value in sentencing as well and making sure people are held accountable,” he said. “You don’t want to have a system set up where if someone wants free treatment, then they go and commit a crime and we put them in a treatment program.

“We want to have a system where people are held accountable for their actions, they’re punished, but then we also rehabilitate, give them the tools that they can take to change their lives.”

Sullivan said it’s not a black and white situation because each case is unique and deserves careful consideration in sentencing. He said it’s important to have the experience to know when to argue for treatment and when to argue for “life means life.”

Sullivan said the key is to look at each case, determining what needs to be done to be sure the crime is not committed again.

“We need to have opportunities to give people the tools to be functioning members of society because people aren’t just statistics, they’re people,” he said.

Offering both effective and cost-effective treatment would put the county in a better situation, Sullivan said.

Sullivan said it’s best to created a situation where the court gives people the opportunity to succeed in treatment programs, though still have the threat of serious jail time if they fail.

“If they can succeed, they will be members of society who you’re proud of,” he said. “They will be going out and telling other addicts how they were able to fight their way through it.”

Sullivan noted he also thinks the county needs to set up either domestic violence courts or a domestic violence intervention program. He said domestic violence often leads to drug and alcohol issues, poverty issues and more.

Setting up a program to help people get out of these issues, Sullivan said, is functional and has been proven in other areas around the state.

Heroin epidemic

As for heroin in Walworth County, Sullivan said with prescription pills often leading to heroin addiction the place to start is attacking concerns over medication abuse.

Sullivan said he thinks the county needs to continue to fund things like drug take back programs to help get medications out of homes and disposed of properly.

Sullivan also said the county needs to get better at educating children, noting we’ve moved away from D.A.R.E. programs as an example because, statistically, they didn’t well.

“We need to come up with something along those lines,” he said. “We need to start educating the kids and put it in their minds.”

Thirdly, Sullivan said, the county needs to make sure everyone knows the police are focused in on it and they have to get the people into the system.

“We can’t just say that’s just a problem for another day,” he said.

Wiedenfeld said he agrees that pills have become a frequent problem, a gateway to heroin, and that pill drop-offs are a great step towards solving the problem.

However, Wiedenfeld said, he doesn’t think leftover pills are the only problem and that too many doctors are becoming pill distributors, writing prescriptions for just about anyone who asks for them.

Limited by what they can do to hold doctors accountable, Wiedenfeld said he thinks legislators need to start taking steps in that area.

For those with drug addictions, Wiedenfeld said the county has treatment courts, something which he has presided over in the past.

Lastly, Wiedenfeld said, the county needs to crack down on dealers, which requires lengthy criminal sentences.

“We need to remove the drug dealers off of our streets,” he said. “We need to give harsh sentences to them, get them off our streets because it’s the only way to keep our communities safe.”

Wiedenfeld said the heroin problem is something the county is starting to reign in and they are beginning to see results. However, he said, the new problem springing up is methamphetamine.

“That’s the way it works with drugs,” he said. “When you start to solve one problem there’s a new one popping up. So, we’re going to start coming up with creative ways to address the meth problem as well.”

Deferred prosecutions

Candidates were asked about their stance on deferred prosecutions, something the office hasn’t done in recent years. With deferred prosecution agreements, the office receives charge referrals from the police department, but doesn’t charge someone and instead monitors them for a period of time before determining whether that person will be charged or not.

Wiedenfeld said where the office ran into problems with deferred prosecutions was they’d wait a period of time and have a situation where someone is not complying with the agreement and the office is then trying to handle a year-old case.

“That means your witnesses don’t have good memory of what happened, that means that your officers have sometimes moved to different departments or retired,” he said. “It becomes hard to prosecute those cases.

“I’m not in favor of deferred prosecution agreements because I think victims deserve quick justice, that they want to see results in their cases, and I think the defendants want the same thing.”

Sullivan said his experience in Rock County’s deferred prosecution program has shown the opposite.

Sullivan said through the program, typically meant for misdemeanor crimes, people who successfully complete the program have their charges dropped. If they fail, the charges are still there, the person has been on bond the entire time and there are consequences. He added, even if a person does fail they have also received at least some treatment.

“No treatment is wasted,” he said. “They’re also in a situation where they are then facing penalties.”

Confronting truancy

Candidates were asked by Elkhorn Area School District Superintendent Jason Tadlock why prosecution of truancy is lacking in Walworth County.

Sullivan said he thinks the Walworth County District Attorney’s Office needs to become more creative when it comes to truancy.

He said getting everyone to the table is the first step, finding out what schools and police are doing throughout the county. He said understanding from a police perspective what the issues are with truancy will also allow the office to get students the right resources to get them back in school.

“Just putting a penalty on a kid makes it that school is bad,” he said. “Instead, let’s get creative, where we can get kids back into school and learning in a way that they’re better off.”

Wiedenfeld said truancy cases aren’t actually prosecuted by the Walworth County District’s Office, but instead by the county’s corporation council. Wiedenfeld said not many make it into the system because the department tries to address them before they get into the court system, though he said it sounds like it’s something needs to be better at.

“I agree that maybe there needs to be a conversation where we sit down with the department and the schools and try to work out a way to better address the truancy issue,” he said.

Wiedenfeld also said he thinks it shouldn’t be a punishment for the child, but instead for the parents.

“If you have an 8-year-old child that’s not making it to school on a daily basis, it’s not the 8-year-old’s fault,” he said. “It’s the parents’ fault for not getting them there.”

He said while they’re often referred as a truancy case, drug or other charges for the parents can result – something which the schools might not be notified about.

 

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