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Editorial: A sheriff’s demands

Milwaukee County Sheriff David Clarke wants a private attorney to represent him in professional cases.

He wants to pick that attorney.

He wants the county to give him as much as $300,000 per year to pay that attorney.He wants the county to cover the tab for work the attorney already has done for him.

In fact, Clarke’s list of demands reads more like a ransom note than a thoughtful request. And if his demands aren’t met?

At least one county supervisor suspects Clarke will take the county to court.

It achieves absurdity, considering Clarke already has the equivalent of an in-house law firm insisting he use county attorneys for representation.

But that’s not good enough for Clarke. He doesn’t like the county’s corporation counsel, which is dedicated to representing county departments, including the Sheriff’s Department.

Clarke argues he has had a conflict of interest with the corporation counsel since the county sued him in January to force him to lay off deputies, as the county budget dictated.

In that case, a judge agreed there was a conflict because the corporation counsel would represent Clarke and the county.

So Clarke hired Milwaukee attorney Michael Whitcomb, who acknowledged being a longtime friend of the sheriff’s.

But that wasn’t good enough for Clarke. He continues to use Whitcomb, racking up an $18,889.25 bill as of the end of March on top of the $37,095.84 in fees for the deputy layoff case.

And he’s doing it without the approval of the County Board.

Conflicts of interest are determined by judges on a case-by-case basis. Clarke offers no reasonable rationale for declaring, even before cases are filed, that they all will cause a conflict with the corporation counsel.

If a judge declares a conflict but the corporation counsel disagrees, as was the case with the deputy layoff lawsuit, the person with whom there is a conflict selects the outside counsel.

If a case probably will have excessive attorney fees, the corporation counsel makes a recommendation, and the County Board votes on it.

If a case probably will have less expensive attorney fees, the corporation counsel selects the outside counsel.

In all cases involving insurance claims, the county’s insurance company selects the outside counsel.

Those actions assure proper use of taxpayer money and safeguard against cronyism.

Clarke’s actions, on the other hand, show utter disregard on both points. He has turned a professional disagreement into a personal grudge, and, apparently, he’s willing to drag $300,000 of taxpayer money into the fight.

But in his pinpoint focus on a squabble with in-house attorneys, Clarke fails to see the big picture. Corporation counsel’s allegiance is to the county, and its attorneys act in its best interests. That includes representing Clarke’s department.

It’s hard to say where Clarke’s allegiances lie.

But it’s certain he should not have unilateral authority to hire a private attorney for every professional case.

He should not be allowed to pick that attorney.

He should not have money in a separate budget for a private attorney.

He should pay the nearly $19,000 in fees out of his own pocket.

This is not about what Clarke wants or what’s good enough for Clarke. This is about the people and leaders of Milwaukee County, whom it should be Clarke’s pleasure to serve.

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