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October 22, 2019

9/26/2019 7:30:00 AM
The politics of accountability
Gregg Walker

In comments made at this week's Rhinelander city council meeting, Oneida County Economic Development Corporation executive director Stacey Johnson offered up a full-throated defense of city council member and former Oneida County detective sergeant Ryan Rossing, who has been enmeshed in issues surrounding honesty and secrecy, including litigation about an alleged walking quorum stemming from a complaint by this newspaper.

Ms. Johnson apparently didn't like the stories that ran in The Lakeland Times and Northwoods River News describing the sheriff's department's investigation of Rossing's part in the alleged walking quorum in Rhinelander city government - an investigation in which Rossing admitted lying to the Rhinelander city attorney, by his own admission attempted to engineer a cover-up over the authorship of the letter, and changed his stories multiple times over the course of two law enforcement interviews.

The whole investigation set Mr. Rossing up to be an impeachable witness in court trials, in which the testimony of law enforcement officers who have been found to have lied can be tossed. And that's just what happened when our stories appeared during the trial of a man accused of molesting a child. The man was convicted anyway.

Ms. Johnson opened her remarks by saying that people in positions of influence - such as herself, city council members, and the media - need to act responsibly, and she implied that these newspapers did not take those responsibilities seriously by publishing during the molestation trial a headline and story about Mr. Rossing's lies.

"As a result maybe some papers were sold, but very important information from a very respected detective's testimony was stricken from the record," Ms. Johnson said.

Several things should be stated from the outset. First, Ms. Johnson has challenged the accuracy of our transcription of her remarks. I stand by their accuracy, and invite readers to go to the city of Rhinelander's web page where the recordings of those meetings are posted to listen for themselves.

In addition, Ms. Johnson never names the newspaper, but it's obvious it's The Times and The River News, since they are the only newspapers to have run the stories.

The implication is, of course, I published the stories to sell newspapers, which is patently false, and that I would risk community safety to do so, which is also patently false.

As for selling newspapers, the stories were written and published as soon as possible after receiving the investigatory records from the sheriff's department, not according to any court calendar. The stories were written from the record.

Both of those actions- writing from the record, and reporting police misconduct using law enforcement's own investigations - are standard practices at our newspapers. One of our missions is to expose police (or any government) misconduct when it occurs- our award-winning Lee Lech articles come to mind - so that public safety isn't compromised.

It's the same mission in pursuing open-government stories. It has nothing to do with selling newspapers. We are in the business of selling newspapers, to be sure, but the costs of the walking quorum and other lawsuits and investigations would dwarf any gain in newspapers sold, if indeed there were any.

We did stray from past priorities in two ways, however. In this case, we reached out to Mr. Rossing and offered him a chance to respond in the articles. He did not avail himself of the opportunity.

The second thing we did is to run the second of the two stories on the inside of the newspapers, well away from the front page. Hardly something we would do if we were trying to sell newspapers.

As for Ms. Johnson's second assertion in that remark, she's entitled to her opinion about how well respected Mr. Rossing is after the completion of the sheriff's department's investigation, but she's flat-out wrong that our story got his testimony stricken. It was just the trigger.

The reality is, Mr. Rossing got his testimony stricken. Mr. Rossing's multitude of lies got his testimony stricken. Indeed, the sheriff's department was duty-bound to report its investigation to the district attorney, which it did, and the district attorney's office should have informed the court about Mr. Rossing's impeachability, which it obviously did not do.

If protocol had been followed, our story should have been old news to everyone in that courtroom. For some reason, that information was withheld in the good-old-boy county justice system.

But what is so troubling about Ms. Johnson's position is that she believes it would have been all right to have withheld Mr. Rossing's impeachability to get "very important information" into the record for a conviction.

First, as I will get to in a moment, Ms. Johnson is wrong that the information Mr. Rossing had was important and unique. It was already in evidence from others. But even if it were unique, there is a reason courts strike the testimony of discredited officers: Based on an officer's past history, it is reasonable to at least suspect that such information might not be true.

The testimony is stricken, then, to protect the due process rights of the accused. That might not sound important, but it is if you're the accused. It seems that Ms. Johnson was more interested in a conviction, however it was achieved, than in due process.

That's essentially letting the ends justify the means. But, as history has shown, the corruption of the means ultimately leads to the corruption of the ends, with no due process for anyone.

Again, in her comments, Ms. Johnson asserts that people in the media and in positions should take their responsibilities seriously. She advised that "everyone please take what you read, take what you see and research it."

I believe we did achieve our mission of serving as a reliable and fair watchdog in this matter. No one has challenged the veracity and accuracy of the reporting.

However, in my view, in her comments Ms. Johnson did not live up to her own lofty standards. That is to say, her comments contained outright omissions and inaccuracies. Either those were intentional or Ms. Johnson did not "research it."

For example, Ms. Johnson says in her comments that Mr. Rossing was "never represented to be able to answer that question [meaning the question of the walking quorum]."

That's simply not true.

Mr. Rossing had ample opportunity to answer that question consistently and honestly in his two law-enforcement interviews, and with representation to guide him. The truth is, as we have reported, Mr. Rossing was advised of his right to an attorney and elected not to have one. What's more, he was not alone during the interviews: Again as we reported, detective sergeant Bob Hebein sat in on the first interview, and union representative Randy Ingram joined him during the second.

As for the molestation trial, Ms. Johnson seems unaware that during an "on the record" conference during the trial between assistant district attorney Mary Sowinski, defense attorney Andrew Morgan, and judge Michael Bloom that Sowinski described Rossing's testimony as not crucial to the state's case. As we report, Ms. Sowinski explains that it would not be necessary for the jury to consider Mr. Rossing's testimony because other witnesses testified to the exact same matters as he did.

If she is being responsible, if she did her research as she urged others to do, why is Ms. Johnson spreading such disinformation about how crucial Mr. Rossing's testimony was?

Finally, Ms. Johnson homes in on the authorship of the "walking quorum" letter and how confusing the legal concept of authorship is. She opines that she does not believe there was any intent by Mr. Rossing to mislead or to lie.

Unfortunately for Ms. Johnson, the authorship of the letter isn't the only thing in consideration. There's a multitude of credibility issues - when did he first learn of the letter or see it? Did Mr. Rossing edit it? There's the alleged cover-up that he confessed to trying to engineer and there's the direct lie to the city attorney. There's the constant changing of stories during the law enforcement interviews, despite his proclamation that he knows he can't lie to law enforcement.

By his own words and admissions, by the black-and-white transcripts of the law-enforcement interviews, there is indisputably an intent to mislead and lie, and I wonder if Ms. Johnson actually read any of the transcripts of the interviews. She didn't answer us when we asked her.

Ms. Johnson allows that laws about walking quorums are serious, but those concerns are not as serious as what happens when a community loses a detective who is so respected and who has sacrificed so much.

I can't tell you what happens when a community loses such an officer, who also happens to have lied so much, but I can tell you what happens when the doors of government are closed and the citizenry is in the dark.

It becomes controlled by the very forces of dishonesty, and self-government, and good and clean government, is lost.

Incredibly, Ms. Johnson downplays open-government laws at a time when Rhinelander city hall is literally engulfed in investigations stemming from the attempts of various officials to hide what they are doing or have done from the public. In addition to the walking quorum fiasco, in which the letter writers stated that they wanted to avoid public spectacle, there is the case of the Tim Kingman personnel file. We asked for the file of the former city public works director, who was fired, more than a year ago, only to hear after waiting 13 months that the file has disappeared. Seriously? Then there's the investigation of city administrator Daniel Guild's alleged changing of a public record that is still out there.

Does Ms. Johnson condone such government? How in the world is the public supposed to get to the bottom of what is going on without the very laws Ms. Johnson downplays. Just look around and see how difficult it is.

Ms. Johnson says she was speaking as a concerned citizen and mom, but she cannot escape her identity as the executive director of OCEDC. She acknowledged as much when she says people in her position must be held accountable, just as the people who work at this newspaper are held accountable for our words every day.

I find Ms. Johnson's views on transparency, due process, and tolerance for dishonesty troubling, especially so when she leads an organization that receives $100,000 in Oneida County taxpayer money but does not have to follow the state's open meetings and open records laws.

So I wonder if the OCEDC board condones these remarks and the attitudes inherent in them. It's a question not just in their interest but in the public and taxpayers' interest. I'll address that funding stream later. In the meantime, these newspapers will continue to stand up for honest and good government and to serve our communities as watchdogs to the best of our ability, as we have in the past. Hopefully the people will continue to reward our newspapers with strong sales.

I do agree with Ms. Johnson on one thing: Accountability is indeed key, but it must be served up all the way around, and Ms. Johnson's accountability is no exception.

Reader Comments

Posted: Sunday, September 29, 2019
Article comment by: Dan Folmer

I would like to commend The Northwoods River News for upholding a very high standard of journalistic integrity. In my opinion, you are truly fulfilling your obligation to the public as the Fourth Estate by using the "power of the pen" as it should be used - to do diligent research, ask questions, keep the public informed of the facts, and hold officials accountable. Please keep up the good work!

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