Ozanne Jamois mashup

Bob Jambois, left, and Ismael Ozanne

Bob Jambois, an assistant Dane County district attorney, wants to make it clear that he never called District Attorney Ismael Ozanne “lazy and incompetent.”

But when Ozanne hears Jambois hammer him for missing meetings, not personally prosecuting cases in court and mismanaging his office, “lazy and incompetent” are the words that come to his mind.

“I am not the first African-American leader of color that has been called lazy and incompetent and doesn’t come to work,” Ozanne said. “That’s why I take it so seriously. This is something that needs to be called out.”

Jambois calls that "nonsense."

"If he wants to take all of what I’m saying and add that up and lump it under the racially charged terminology of ‘lazy and incompetent,’ that’s a further reflection of how he’s trying to distill all of the issues that are confronting Dane County to this notion of implicit bias," he said.

"The problems that are confronting this community is that we’ve got a district attorney who doesn’t lead.”

The racial tension has notched up the already rancorous intra-office skirmish between Ozanne and Jambois, who wants to replace him as the county’s top law enforcement officer. The candidates, both Democrats, will square off in the Aug. 9 primary. Since no other candidates have entered the race, the primary will be decisive.

Jambois, 64, announced his candidacy in late May, about a year after he was hired by Ozanne as a senior prosecutor. A former Kenosha County district attorney who also has served as general counsel for the state Department of Transportation, Jambois, with a salary of $116,688, is the third-highest paid among the county’s stable of 28 full-time attorneys. That number does not include Ozanne, who makes $121,405 as the DA.

Ozanne, 45, was appointed to the position in 2010 by former Gov. Jim Doyle, a Democrat, after he’d spent two years as executive assistant at the Department of Corrections. Before that, he’d spent 10 years as a Dane County prosecutor.

He ran for the office unopposed in 2012, then ran unsuccessfully for state attorney general in 2013, coming in third in a three-way Democratic primary.

Jambois lists the endorsement of Frank Busalacchi, former Transportation Department secretary.

Ozanne recently released a list of endorsements that include Dane County Executive Joe Parisi, Dane County Sheriff Dave Mahoney, state Sens. Fred Risser and Mark Miller, Milwaukee County District Attorney John Chisholm, and several other current and former state, county and city officials.  

Jambois’ central — but far from his only — criticism of Ozanne is that despite the fact that the DA’s Office is strapped for prosecutors, Ozanne doesn’t carry a caseload. Jambois also said Ozanne doesn't do anything to help attorneys who are actively prosecuting cases. 

"Do I see him consulting with attorneys? No, I don’t see him doing that," he said. "Does he mentor attorneys. No he doesn’t do that. And there’s no reason to think he has the trial skill level that would warrant him mentoring other people."

He also lays responsibility for an alarming turnover rate — 20 in the last two years — at Ozanne’s feet.

"Many of them left because of the way that office is administered," he said.

And he’s highlighted conflicts between Ozanne and judges as evidence that Ozanne’s mismanagement and failure to collaborate has impacted other criminal justice stakeholders.

“It’s not just me saying this,” Jambois said. “The worst-kept secret in Dane County is that our district attorney is absent. He doesn’t go to court. He doesn’t lead that office, and he doesn’t effectively administer it.”

At the heart of the differences between Jambois and Ozanne is a philosophy behind what, exactly, the Dane County district attorney should be doing with his time.

Jambois thinks the DA should lead by example, taking a caseload that equals half of the caseload of a staff prosecutor, while devoting the remainder of the time to administrative tasks.

“He says that he fights for Wisconsin values and he fights for Dane County values,” said Jambois, adding that the place for prosecutors to fight for values is in the courtroom.

“If you don’t show up in the courtroom,” he said, “then you’re not fighting for anything.”

'Change agent'

Ozanne said that in a county with one of the highest arrest rates for black men in the nation, and racial disparities across the board that are as well-documented as they are intractable, his time is better spent finding solutions to the major issues facing the county.

He bills himself as a “change agent.”

He said he’s spent countless hours working with law enforcement and community leaders to establish a restorative justice program that helps young people avoid a criminal record, hopefully removing a future obstacle to employment and housing.

“That doesn’t happen without my involvement,” he said.

He said he also worked with the county’s 27 law enforcement agencies to hammer out procedures for investigating police shootings before the state’s 2014 law requiring outside agencies to conduct such investigations. And he's well on the way, he said, to making the DA's Office paperless by 2017.

Ozanne is not willing to concede Jambois’ contention that he spends no time in court. He said he spent three weeks in 2013 prosecuting Chad Chritton, the man who, with his wife, faced numerous charges relating to the imprisonment of their daughter. He then spent two more weeks in court for a retrial on some of the charges.

He also said he’s spent a significant amount of time attending drug court, which doesn’t appear on his court calendar.

But his primary responsibility is to the community, Ozanne said, both in addressing pressing issues and acting as the voice of the office.

He makes numerous appearances in schools, before local government bodies and community groups and meets with county supervisors. If he kept a caseload in court, those responsibilities would play second-fiddle to a court schedule mandated by the judges.

“You don’t get the ability to bring people to the table, keep them at the table, keep them engaged and actually have meaningful change if you are not there and they don’t see that you believe that they’re important,” Ozanne said. “I can’t do that from inside the courthouse. I couldn’t do that if I just took a caseload and the judges dictated when my accessibility to the community would be.”

Accusations of management shortfalls

To be sure, Ozanne's relationship with the judiciary has been uneasy, at least on occasion. 

Two weeks ago, Jambois released a letter from Dane County Circuit Court Judges Juan Colas and William Hanrahan scolding Ozanne for failing to prepare his office for a new rule stepping up the schedule for bail hearings for poor inmates.

Ozanne said he had concerns about the rule, including victims’ safety issues.

After conducting additional open records requests, Jambois’ campaign released an email exchange and a letter from judges in February expressing displeasure at changes Ozanne made to the system for appointing cases to prosecutors.

“The manner in which you made these changes last week, the process, shows me you have clearly and completely abandoned any effort toward open, collaborative dialogue,” wrote Judge Nicholas McNamara on Feb. 2.

And in an email exchange with three other judges, Hanrahan referred to “on-going management failures of that office.”

Jambois, citing his 30 years in the public sector, said, “I’ve never seen anything like that.”

Ozanne said he didn’t know what “on-going management failures” the judge was referring to, but he said the change that angered the judges was prompted by the need to handle felony cases with limited resources. At one point, he said, one of the court branches got "hammered" with cases. 

“Most of the time what’s best for the system as a whole is going to work out on both sides,” Ozanne said. “But we have to be prepared. We have to meet our burden.”

He noted that like the judges, he’s a constitutional officer. And he has to meet his constitutional obligations even if it incurs the judges’ wrath.

“I can’t worry about that,” he said. “I’m charged with basically upholding and protecting the Constitution of the United States and the Constitution of the state of Wisconsin in addressing these violations of law.”

Jambois said the lack of leadership in the DA’s office is responsible for vast turnover that has seen the office’s most senior prosecutors walk out the door.

Ozanne said the loss of prosecutors is a statewide phenomenon, and state reports show that district attorneys' offices across the state are operating below recommended staffing levels, due in part to attorneys maxing out the pay scale and baby boomers reaching retirement age.

Ozanne said he saw the turnover problem coming shortly after he took the job. 

"I thought we were going to hit this issue two to three years into my tenure as district attorney," he said. "Frankly, people got energized, they stayed on longer. Some of them have actually come back to volunteer. So it’s my leadership that’s causing people to leave? I don’t think that’s the case."

Jambois recently issued a press release quoting Susan Karaskiewicz, who worked in the DA’s office for one month in 2015, calling the office a “rudderless, leaderless ship of chaos.”

Karaskiewicz, who was hired on Jambois’ recommendation, said she cribbed the “rudderless ship” concept.

“One of the judges said that to me, and I’m not going to say who that is,” she said.

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Karaskiewicz was a former Kenosha County deputy district attorney under Jambois. She said she came onboard with the notion that she was being enlisted to use her experience and expertise to right the ship. But almost immediately she wrote it off as a lost cause.

“He wasn’t there and everyone runs around like chickens with their heads cut off because there is no leadership and there is no guidance and there’s no relationships with any players in the community like law enforcement or judges,” she said.

Middleton Police Chief Chuck Foulke, the president of the Dane County Police Chiefs Association, said his organization is not taking sides in the DA race. But he disputed Karaskiewicz’s characterization of Ozanne’s relationship with law enforcement.

“That would not be my own personal opinion,” he said.

Foulke said that Ozanne faithfully attends monthly meetings of the association, "which is unusual, I think in the history, of that organization.”

Foulke noted that Ozanne’s office has come under increasing stress resulting from growing numbers of cases being referred from police departments while prosecutor staffing levels have remained flat for more than two decades.

“I’m not saying that everything’s hunky dory and we’re pleased with everything that happens there, but certainly a major contributing factor is just their lack of staffing and the pay scale that the DAs are under, so retention is a big issue,” he said. “And that’s not the DA’s fault, that’s not the county’s fault. It’s the state that regulates that.”

Another experienced prosecutor, Shelly Rusch, left last year after 10 years for a job at the state Department of Justice.

“I just watched that office slowly go down, down, down, down to a devastating level,” said Rusch, who also worked with Jambois in Kenosha County. “I didn’t leave my position of 28 years as a career prosecutor because of money. I left because of a lack of leadership. And it was so demoralizing to observe.”

Rusch, who had worked with Ozanne when he was a prosecutor until he left in 2008 for the Department of Corrections, called him a “nice and caring person.”

“The issue is aptitude, competence, ambition and work ethic,” she said.

But the notion that Ozanne is not a hard worker isn’t universal among departing prosecutors.

Michele Viste, who left last year for a Department of Justice job after five years as a deputy district attorney, said in an email, “He is a hard-working individual who rarely took a vacation in the five years that I worked for him.”

She added: “Although I can't speak for all of the experienced prosecutors who left the office in the past few years, I can say that DA Ozanne had absolutely nothing to do with me leaving the office. The DA system is broken. Prosecutors are fleeing the DA system statewide at alarming rates primarily due to a lack of meaningful pay progression and unmanageable caseloads. This is not exclusive to Dane County, nor should DA Ozanne be blamed for this. The effects of this are felt more significantly in Dane County as it is one of the most understaffed DA's offices in the state at this time.”

Jambois called the DA’s Office “the most profoundly demoralized, dysfunctional and disorganized office I have ever seen.”

'Nature of the office'

Current Deputy District Attorney Matt Moeser said that while some prosecutors may have problems with Ozanne, “some of that has been magnified beyond the point of reality.”

“I’m sure there are some people who are not supporting Ish,” he said, referring to Ozanne by his nickname. “But I don’t think it’s accurate to describe it as a large segment of the office.”

Former Assistant District Attorney Tim Kiefer has worked with Ozanne as a fellow prosecutor, an employee, and currently as a County Board supervisor. He gives Ozanne a thumbs-up from all three perspectives.

Kiefer said Ozanne always attends County Board committee meetings, which take place in the evenings.

“That’s part of the job, too,” he said. “I think the folks who are there during the day at the DA’s office, they go home at 4:30 and they might not realize that Ish could very well from there be going to a County Board committee hearing to testify, or be going to a County Board meeting to talk about something that’s before the County Board.”

In response to Jambois’ criticism that Ozanne doesn’t mentor employees, Kiefer said that when he was hired at the DA’s office, Ozanne, then a colleague, took it upon himself to advise him through his first jury trial.

“I felt like at a time when I really could use the mentoring he stepped forward without me asking him,” he said.

Kiefer, now a private practice defense attorney, still has regular contact with the DA’s Office. And while Jambois said he’d like to restore the Dane County DA’s Office to the reputation it enjoyed under Ozanne’s predecessor Brian Blanchard, Kiefer said Blanchard, too, had his detractors.

“Do I hear people complaining about Ish? Yes. But do I hear people complaining about Ish any more than I heard them complain about Brian? Not really,” he said. “And I think that objectively Brian did a good job. I think that's the nature of that office.”

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Steven Elbow joined The Capital Times in 1999 and has covered law enforcement in addition to city, county and state government. He has also worked for the Portage Daily Register and has written for the Isthmus weekly newspaper in Madison.