Fitchburg Mayor Jason Gonzalez has been publicly reprimanded by the Wisconsin Supreme Court on five counts of misconduct in his work as a criminal defense attorney.
Gonzalez will also have to pay $9,733.36, the cost of the disciplinary proceedings.
The original complaint against Gonzalez was filed by the Office of Lawyer Regulation in November 2016, before Gonzales was elected mayor of Fitchburg in April 2017. It was a topic of news stories during his campaign, but Gonzalez told Isthmus the issue was “not news.”
“If [Isthmus] wants to attack the first Hispanic mayor in Dane County history, the first millennial mayor, you guys can do that all you want,” he said in the spring of 2017.
The complaint was based on Gonzalez’s service to two former clients. It outlined nine counts of misconduct and recommended that the Supreme Could publicly reprimand Gonzalez.
Gonzalez denied all counts. Referee James Boll then held a hearing and released a report finding that five of the counts met the burden of proof for misconduct, again recommending a public reprimand. Gonzalez then filed a notice of appeal in November 2017.
This January, Peyton Engel, Gonzalez’s lawyer, filed a brief disputing several of the Referee’s findings and asking for a lesser sanction, given Gonzalez’ “otherwise untroubled history.” Engel pointed to Gonzalez’s selection on Madison365’s list of the 29 most powerful Latinos in Wisconsin in 2017.
“It is the nature of criminal practice that some clients file grievances against their attorneys. They have unrealistic expectations, are unhappy with outcomes, and seek to place blame elsewhere,” Engel wrote.
That brief did say Gonzalez “acknowledges that in retrospect there are aspects of each case that he could have handled differently.”
On Thursday, the state Supreme Court released its opinion on the case upholding all of the referee’s findings, including a failure to promptly respond to requests for information from a client, failure to enter not guilty pleas on behalf a client, failure to prepare a court order and misrepresenting information to the OLR.
The court agreed with the referee’s recommendation of a public sanction. For the 2017-2018 fiscal year, only 40 Wisconsin lawyers were publicly disciplined, or 0.2 percent of the state’s 25,283 bar members.
The original complaint is based on the experiences of two former clients. One client hired Gonzalez to represent him as he faced a charge of Operating While Intoxicated. Gonzalez was slow or unresponsive in communication with his client, who repeatedly asked for information and updates about his case.
That same client received two municipal citations in Horicon involving his car. Gonzalez told the client he had entered not guilty pleas and that the client did not need to show up at a hearing. But Gonzalez had not filed the pleas, and the client defaulted on the citations.
Gonzalez represented another unhappy client in a paternity and child support case. Gonzalez failed to prepare a written order so the client could have phone contact with his daughter, despite the client’s repeated requests. When asked about this by the OLR, Gonzalez said that it was his client's responsibility to arrange telephone contact, when in fact the court had ordered Gonzalez to do so.
Gonzalez is also facing a separate civil lawsuit for attorney malpractice. In this case, his client Jama Jama was found guilty of third degree sexual assault, second degree sexual assault, two felony counts and misdemeanor theft. Jama was later granted a new trial due by Dane County Judge Ellen Berz, citing Gonzalez’s poor representation, and the felonies were eventually dismissed. According to Berz, Gonzalez rarely communicated with his client and “cobbled together his multiple, conflicting defense theories.”
Gonzalez referred the CapTimes to Engel for comment.
“We take this as basically, the court just adopted the findings of the referee,” Engel said, saying the court did not perform new research or make a new argument. “There’s nothing terribly novel about the court's opinion, it just says, ‘We like what the referee said.’ I wouldn't call this a blockbuster ruling in that sense.”
The court’s opinion states that “a referee's findings of fact are affirmed unless clearly erroneous.”
Engel also noted that there is a pending motion to dismiss the civil suit against Gonzalez.
This story was updated to include comments from Peyton Engel. This story also originally stated that Jama was originally found guilty of resisting an officer; that charge came later and Gonzalez did not represent Jama on that charge.