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Home / Legal News / There is a coronavirus outbreak among Waukesha County court staff and deputies, public defender says

There is a coronavirus outbreak among Waukesha County court staff and deputies, public defender says

Jim Riccioli
Milwaukee Journal Sentinel

WAUKESHA – A courtroom discussion during an unsuccessful effort to postpone a trial in the Waukesha County Courthouse has revealed what are believed to be numerous specific cases of COVID-19 infections within the campus.

Specifically, a transcript of an interchange between an attorney from the Waukesha Public Defender’s Office and a circuit court judge alludes to 10 staff members from the district attorney’s office and five clerk staff members with COVID-related illnesses or positive tests prior to Oct. 16.

Beyond that, an unspecified number of officers — presumably all sheriff’s department staff members — had been reported ill, according to the courtroom conversation.

While the transcript of a defense attorney’s motion in that criminal case contained no proof about the coronavirus assertions, it nonetheless represented to date what is the only public document hinting at a possible outbreak in the county’s main government campus.

The transcript comes from a criminal case involving Collin Kane, a 23-year-old Pewaukee man charged with first-degree reckless homicide in the 2018 drug-overdose death of a Pewaukee woman. Kane’s trial began Monday after Judge Jennifer Dorow denied a defense motion three days earlier to postpone the proceedings.

In the days leading up to the trial, Kane’s attorneys from the public defender’s office, along with their client, reportedly grew increasingly concerned about proceeding to a trial under a veil of record-setting coronavirus cases locally and statewide as well as “anecdotal” evidence of infections among courthouse staff.

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It was attorney Jeremy Perri, in response to a question by Dorow, who stated on Oct. 16 what he understood were COVID-19 cases within the courthouse walls, based on a conversation earlier that week with Deputy District Attorney Mike Thurston.

“I believe he said, explained to me, that this week that 10 of the attorneys at the DA’s office were out, either do to exposure or to positive tests, being sick,” Perri said, according to the transcript. “He informed me that he knew that five clerk staff that were out with COVID, um, and he also informed me that a number of officers were out sick and described it as a very active situation in the courthouse.”

Perri also alluded how difficult it has been to get confirmation, a frustrating element for a variety of officials.

“Of course, I don’t have like people’s positive tests or, you know, interviews,” he said. “Transparency through all of this has been a challenge for every department, every office in the sense of balancing health privacy concerns with what people need to know about,” he said, according to the transcript.

Perri did not reply to a phone call seeking an interview following Friday’s court action. A call to the district attorney’s office was also not returned.

Dorow, for her part, dismissed the reports as “hearsay,” noting that the public defender’s office had produced no authoritative document to support its motion to delay Kane’s trial, according to the transcript.

In addition, the judge stated, “I am not aware of any transmission (of COVID-19) due to contact at the courthouse.”

In denying the motion, however, Dorow, who serves as chief judge of Waukesha County Circuit Court, acknowledged knowing of some positive test results among staffers, though again not from infections spread within the courtrooms.

“And I think that is a testament to how safe we have been operating,” Dorow said, noting a two-week trial recently completed without COVID-related problems before or since.

Dorow’s comments echoed a statement issued by the county’s public health department that same day, in response to media inquiries about unconfirmed reports of rising COVID cases within the courthouse.

“Waukesha County is one of the largest employers in the county,” said Linda Wickstrom, public information officer for the county’s Department of Health & Human Services & Emergency Operations Center. “Simple linear growth of the virus in our community has Waukesha County Public Health conducting COVID-19 investigations routinely in large businesses and appropriate mitigation actions are taken. There is no outbreak of Waukesha County employees.”

District Court Administrator Mike Neimon said, as far as he is aware, the reach of COVID-19 cases within the court area has been limited, though at least a couple of court reporters were currently ill and others involved with the courts have also fallen ill in recent weeks.

“I’m told the district attorney’s office does not have any issues at this time, at least with people out,” Neimon said Tuesday. “But it ebbs and flows. Sometimes we’re doing fine and sometimes it gets pretty tight.”

Regardless of where the infections have been introduced, the problem has become increasingly evident in the central government campus based on other recent reports.

On Friday, the same day that Dorow denied the motion of delay Kane’s trial, County Executive Paul Farrow announced that he had tested positive for COVID-19 and was feeling its effects, though reportedly mild.

Farrow said his ordeal started one week earlier, when a family member tested positive after falling ill, prompting Farrow to self-quarantine at home as a precautionary measure.

Reports that sheriff’s deputies have also faced positive tests remain unconfirmed. The sheriff’s office replied only “no comment” in response to media questions.

Call Jim Riccioli at (262) 446-6635 or james.riccioli@jrn.com. Follow him on Twitter at @jariccioli.

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