With recalls looming, Wis. GOP Rep quashes protest art show, files criminal complaint against political cartoonist
By KATHY WILKES
Madison, WI—State Assemblyman Steve Nass (R-La Grange) filed a formal criminal complaint Thursday against Madison political cartoonist Mike Konopacki for “misuse” of Nass’s official letterhead in a gag press release inadvertently published by the Capital Times on Saturday, February 25.
“We notified the Capitol Police the Monday after it was released,” said Nass’s chief of staff, Mike Mikalsen. “We wanted to see if there was any type of statute violated. They’ve been investigating ever since.”
Mikalsen said the police investigation included consultation with the Dane County District Attorney who “did find something” described as a “potential felony.” Mikalsen said investigating officer Dave Davis contacted him on Thursday and asked if Nass wanted to go forward with a formal complaint on “misuse of letterhead.” The complaint was filed on the same day.
Mikalsen didn't know what statute is at issue. In response to our inquiry, District Attorney Ismael Ozanne identified the applicable law as Wis. Statute 949.49(2)(a), which states as follows:
946.69 Falsely assuming to act as a public officer or employee or a utility employee...
(2) Whoever does any of the following is guilty of a Class I felony:
(a) Assumes to act in an official capacity or to perform an official function, knowing that he or she is not the public officer or public employee or the employee of a utility that he or she assumes to be.
The press release, available online here, takes a jab at Nass for quashing the “Art of Protest” show that the University of Wisconsin’s School for Workers had scheduled for later this month. Matt Rothschild, editor of The Progressive, broke that story, quoting Mikalsen and others:
One Republican lawmaker in Wisconsin, Representative Steve Nass, who has been a longtime thorn in the university’s side, was unhappy about the exhibit, and his chief of staff, Mike Mikalsen, gave an earful to the director of the School for Workers last week, suggesting that the exhibit could imperil the school’s funding…
“There are people from both sides of the issue who are paying taxes, and the question was whether this was an appropriate activity for the university,” Mikalsen tells The Progressive. “And the timing was a question. We’re just going into a recall election. Was this something the UW Extension wanted to get into at this point in time?”
A Capital Times story also quotes Mikalsen on the timing:
"It's an arts festival designed to celebrate the one-year anniversary of the Wisconsin uprising," says Nass spokesman Mike Mikalsen. "Well, maybe here in Madison that's a great thing. But there are lots of Republicans and conservatives around the state who are still very angry about that whole thing. We just suggested that now, with all the tensions that still exist, this may not be the appropriate time for this arts festival."
Under pressure from Nass and Mikalsen, the School for Workers immediately canceled the show. Konopacki, who has drawn the Capital Time’s political cartoons weekly for over 25 years, was outraged as were a number of other artists whose works were slated to be featured. The cancellation spurred a flurry of media attention, and to top things off Konopacki issued the gag press release, using one of Nass’s actual press releases published online as a template.
Konopacki’s version parodies Nass’s suppression of the art show by imagining a similar scenario in which Nass and his fellow Republicans, specifically Congressman Paul Ryan and US Senator Ron Johnson, would target the Smithsonian in Washington, DC. For the most part Konopacki used quotes from Mikalsen’s press interviews and reworded them. An example:
“Look, you can’t be displaying and archiving art that celebrates protests that were heavily aimed at Republicans, and then expect that Republicans are going to smile nicely and sit down and try and work with the Smithsonian.”
Compare that to Mikalsen’s comment in the Capital Times:
“We just said, ‘Look, you can't be running events celebrating the protests, which were heavily aimed at Republicans, and then expect that Republicans are going to smile nicely and sit down and try and work issues out with the university."
The Capital Times took the gag press release literally and ran with it, posting it online before fact checking. Cap Times columnist John Nichols wrote a story but couldn’t reach Nass for confirmation and couldn’t find information about the press release anywhere else on the web. Only when he contacted Konopacki did he learn where the press release came from. By the time the Cap Times pulled the story, it had been online for 40 minutes. Then the story about the snafu went viral, and Nass called the Capitol Police.
Asked about the felony criminal complaint, Konopacki was quick to respond: “I put words in politicians’ mouths all the time, and it’s never been a problem. Parody and satire are my stock-in-trade. Nass has used his position to attack freedom of speech, freedom of expression, academic freedom, and labor education. And he thinks I’ve done something criminal?”
It’s an interesting point that raises questions not only about a possible breach of the First Amendment but whether Nass, concerned about pending recalls and his conservative base, has run afoul of laws prohibiting use of government resources for political purposes. Wisconsin has recent experience with that:
* Milwaukee County DA John Chisholm is currently conducting a “John Doe” investigation that has implicated Governor Scott Walker and resulted in several criminal charges against key staffers caught campaigning on taxpayers’ dime.
* Early last year GOP state senate leader Scott Fitzgerald was warned he was on shaky legal ground when he dispatched state troopers to hunt down and return the 14 senate Democrats who fled the state to stall Walker’s controversial bill stripping public workers of collective bargaining rights. Fitzgerald’s father, Stephen, a Walker appointee, heads the state troopers. His brother, Jeff, is speaker of the Assembly.
Konopacki said he was first notified of the criminal complaint against him in an email from Officer Davis, whom he subsequently met in his art studio on Thursday. Konopacki used the opportunity to discuss First Amendment rights and provided numerous examples of protected speech and relevant court cases. He said Davis did not Mirandize him and advised him that the final determination on criminal charges would be made by the DA.
The art show, for better or worse, went forward this weekend without School for Workers sponsorship. Hastily rescheduled and relocated, the show greeted enthusiastic crowds at Madison’s Goodman Community Center as part of the one-year anniversary of the Wisconsin Uprising, which drew as many as 65,000 people to a rally at Capitol Square on Saturday. Assemblyman Nass was nowhere to be seen, no less complaining about the grounds being temporarily used for pro-worker, anti-Walker activities.
“I wonder,” Konopacki said. “What about UW’s ‘School FOR Workers’ does he not understand? Using his logic, we should be complaining that they don’t teach union organizing at the School for Business.”