Secretive Wis. Gov’t Contractor at Center of Political Investigation

He wields a tremendous amount of power, but he is also a secretive individual, and the state agency that pays him wants to keep his work – and contract information – well away from the public. In fact, they don’t even formally admit to his existence.

Dean Nickel is a private contractor hired to be an investigator by the Wisconsin Government Accountability Board. He and his work appear to be at the very heart of the John Doe investigation into the political activities of various conservative groups. Although a judge overseeing the probe recently shot down broad subpoenas originally requested by investigators, the matter appears to be at least partially open, and that means Nickel still has a role to play.

According to a bombshell Wall Street Journal editorial last November, Nickel signed affidavits declaring probable cause to obtain search warrants that were later executed in dawn raids at the homes of at least three conservative political operatives. Judge Gregory Peterson ruled earlier this month that the material officers absconded with in the raids must now be returned to its owners.

Because Nickel is not a government employee, Media Trackers has asked the Government Accountability Board to release his salary and contract information under the state’s public records law. The GAB refused our December request saying that portions of the open records law do not apply to them and that other statutes ban the release of any information related to an investigation.

In light of Judge Peterson’s decision to shut down part of the investigation, we asked the GAB to reconsider its secretive withholding of information related to Nickel and his work, which is conducted at taxpayer expense. They have once again denied our request and refuse to release any information about Nickel – including information not related to any investigation.

Oddly, after GAB spokesman Reid Magney refused Media Trackers’ second open records request, GAB Executive Director Kevin Kennedy e-mailed Magney and Media Trackers to say, “Well written Reid.”

The veil of secrecy seems to be important to the man at the top.

What is otherwise known about Nickel can be gleaned from a variety of sources. When the data is pieced together, a picture emerges. Nickel is a career law enforcement officer who wields a tremendous amount of power and influence at the GAB despite his status as an outside contractor.

When labor unions and the Democratic Party of Wisconsin launched an effort to recall Governor Scott Walker and some Republican state Senators from office, the GAB initially declared it did not have the resources to verify the recall petition signatures submitted by the leftwing alliance. But according to records from now-concluded GAB investigations, the agency has no qualms about hiring outside help and deploying its legal department to investigate Republicans and donors who have lately backed Republican candidates.

The GAB’s ability to do its job depends not so much on resources, but on the willingness of Executive Director Kevin Kennedy and his team to pursue or not pursue something.

In May of 2010, Nickel led the GAB’s investigation into William Gardner, a railroad executive who contributed to Republican campaigns. Gardner was found guilty of wrongdoing though none of the candidates he gave money to were found guilty of anything illegal.  Nearly four years earlier, Nickel was part of a team that investigated an incident between Gardner and then-State Commissioner of Railroads Rodney Kreunen.

In 2008, the GAB investigated then-Assembly Speaker Mike Huebsch, a Republican. A report outlining the complaint that started the investigation and the results of the investigators’ work named Nickel as a GAB investigator on the case. After detailing no less than three investigators to the case, and interviewing a number of people, the GAB concluded Huebsch had done nothing wrong.

Nickel was the Special Agent in Charge of the Wisconsin Department of Justice’s Public Integrity Unit under Democrat Attorney General Peg Lautenschlager prior to becoming a private contractor.

An archived page on the Madison Area Paralegal Association’s website lists Nickel as a speaker at an October 2004 seminar hosted by the group. The lengthy biography reads:

“Dean Nickel is a Special Agent in Charge in the Headquarters office of the Wisconsin Division of Criminal Investigation (DCI). He has been with DCI since 1980. During that time, SAC Nickel has worked in all areas of narcotics investigation, including a multi-jurisdictional money laundering task force. Following his career in drug enforcement, SAC Nickel took over supervision of DCI’s Financial Investigations Unit. This unit is responsible for the investigation of financial crimes including, fraud, embezzlement, price fixing, racketeering and identity theft. A graduate of the University of Wisconsin and the FBI National Academy, SAIC Nickel has provided training in specialized areas law enforcement to over 5000 law enforcement officers, correctional officers and prosecuting attorneys, as well as a variety of financial consumers and professionals.”

When he left state government Nickel didn’t leave his work with law enforcement behind. A brochure for the 2011 Wisconsin Narcotics Officers Association winter training event lists Nickel as a retired DOJ agent who was serving as the “WNOA Legislative Liaison.” What Nickel’s duties in that capacity involved are unclear, but a review of the GAB’s lobbying disclosure database shows that between 2009 and the present he never registered as a lobbyist.

The working relation between the GAB and the Milwaukee County District Attorney’s office is not new to this John Doe probe. The two entities worked closely together before this investigation. In a statement released in a previous matter, GAB Director Kennedy praised Bruce Landgraf, the leader of the Public Integrity Unit at the Milwaukee County District Attorney’s office.  “Thank you, again, Bruce, for all of your work and assistance,” Kennedy said.

But the image of Landgraf and his Public Integrity Unit as a rock solid law-and-order outfit was tarnished in the 2010-initiated John Doe investigation into the Walker campaign. That probe started out as an investigation into misconduct by Milwaukee County employees and evolved into what was perceived to be a witch-hunt against Walker.

Landgraf’s lead investigating agent on the case, David Budde, was exposed by Media Trackers during that time for having a “Recall Walker” sign in his front lawn and an AFL-CIO poster on his front door. The development cast a cloud of doubt over the probe and raised questions about the impartiality of the investigators.

A secretary in Landgraf’s unit was also among those in the District Attorney’s office who signed petitions to recall Walker from office.

One particularly hot-headed prosecutor, David Robles, was reported to have arrested a witness in the probe when the witness refused to provide the kind of answers Robles was hoping for. Prosecutors later were forced to issue a press release clearing the reputation of the witness. Media Trackers subsequently found Robles filing open records requests with the Walker administration using his personal Gmail address, thus making it unclear as to whether or not he was continuing his official work in a sort of personal crusade capacity.

Landgraf himself has been accused of misconduct by reportedly jailing another possible witness who failed to give him the answers he wanted. Those allegations were reported by the Wisconsin Reporter.

But none of these issues appear to have lessened the GAB’s eagerness to carry on an inquisition in partnership with the Milwaukee County District Attorney’s office. While DA John Chisholm, a Democrat, has removed himself from the case, Landgraf is reported by Wisconsin Reporter to be still working on the matter in conjunction with special prosecutor Francis Schmitz.

Meanwhile, because of the GAB’s unwillingness, and professed inability, to disclose more information about Nickel, the public does not know how much he is getting paid as a private contractor to help quarterback the GAB’s part of the current John Doe probe.