MKE Gannett Reporter Ignored Judicial Conflict of Interest

Update: The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel published a subsequent story just prior to this post that noted Judge Markson’s conflict of interest. The original story by Mr. Bergquist still makes no mention of Judge Markson’s donations to Clean Wisconsin.

The environmental reporter for the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, a Gannett newspaper, ignored a prominent judicial conflict of interest between a Madison judge and one of the parties he ruled in favor of in an ongoing environmental lawsuit. The omission of this key fact, which provides context to the judge’s recent decision, raises questions about the reporter’s competence and dedication to facts.

Lee Bergquist on Tuesday reported that Judge John W. Markson of the Dane County Circuit Court awarded Clean Wisconsin and Midwest Environmental Advocates, a pair of politically active leftwing groups, $44,985 in legal fees to be paid for by state taxpayers through the state Department of Natural Resources.

“The Kinnard case represents the first time in at least a decade a judge has ordered the DNR to cover the legal fees of the two groups, attorneys for the organizations said Tuesday,” Bergquist wrote. The case found the two environmental groups suing the DNR – which is represented by the state Department of Justice – in an effort to force the agency to impose severe restrictions on a Kewaunee County dairy farm.

Already Judge Markson has ruled in favor of Clean Wisconsin and Midwest Environmental Advocates, so Tuesday’s news was about the judge taking the extra step of forcing the state to pay for the group’s legal representation. As Bergquist noted:

“The judge awarded the money under a state law that allows small nonprofits and small businesses to recoup legal expenses unless the court finds state officials were “substantially justified” in their actions.”

Stunningly, however, Bergquist abjectly failed to mention a vital fact that adds context to Judge Markson’s initial and more recent decisions.

Judge Markson is a donor to Clean Wisconsin, one of the plaintiffs in the case. Not only that, but Markson lied about the nature of Clean Wisconsin’s work in the letter he wrote disclosing his financial support for the organization.

Markson admitted that he gave money to Clean Wisconsin last year, and the Department of Justice quickly moved to have a new judge – one unaffiliated with any of the parties – assigned to the case. Markson dismissed those concerns, however, explaining that Clean Wisconsin doesn’t actually “promote a specific policy object that is the subject of this litigation.”

Markson lied.

According to lobbying disclosure filings, Clean Wisconsin and its employees registered in opposition to, and lobbied against, the legislation that became the state law under review in the case.

Whether Bergquist was simply engaged in sloppy reporting or intentional oversight is not clear, but what is clear is that he missed critical facts and presented a false narrative to readers of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.