Attorney General Brad Schimel’s Department of Justice is prosecuting a Taylor County law enforcement officer for releasing police records to producers of a national television show about unsolved crimes.
Taylor County Detective Sgt. Steven Bowers faces 1½ years in prison and a felony conviction for releasing records in 2017 related to two unsolved murders. Police records are public under the law, but agencies often withhold them from release on grounds they could compromise an investigation, an explanation rarely challenged in court.
Bowers was not authorized to turn over the additional records and violated the sheriff department’s policy not to release “any information” regarding death investigations, according to the criminal complaint. DOJ argues Bowers should be held accountable for disclosing “confidential” information and is charging him with felony misconduct in public office. There is no crime associated with releasing public records.
The state’s largest law enforcement union said the case is baseless because Bowers didn’t act maliciously. And an open records advocate warned of danger that could result by charging law enforcement officers with felonies for releasing public records — a move all sides say is extremely rare, if not unprecedented.
DOJ is handling the case because the sheriff’s department had a conflict of interest, agency spokesman Johnny Koremenos said.
Jaime Alberti, Bowers’ girlfriend who also has worked in a number of district attorneys’ offices and legal jobs and is acting as Bowers’ spokeswoman, questioned the charge. Alberti also had access to the released files, according to the complaint.
“Steve went through a three-day hearing with the Taylor County personnel committee, who ultimately suspended him for a period of time but didn’t find his actions egregious enough to fire him,” Alberti said. “It’s concerning that this matter has higher priority than the prosecution of these homicide cases and seeking justice for the families of these victims.”
Bowers, who is on leave until the matter is resolved, worked with other officers in the Taylor County Sheriff’s Department in 2017 to help producers and reporters of the Oxygen network show “Cold Justice” look into one unsolved murder, and provide them with records related to that case. The department and TV crew signed a contract agreeing to focus on that case, according to court records.
But because Bowers released to the TV producers “confidential reports” related to two other unsolved murders without permission from Taylor County Sheriff Bruce Daniels, Daniels unsuccessfully sought to fire Bowers and asked DOJ’s Division of Criminal Investigation to look into the matter, according to court records and interviews.
Jim Palmer, executive director for the Wisconsin Professional Police Association, said the police union represented Bowers, and a 90-day suspension was handed down instead of dismissal.
Pair of cases
According to the criminal complaint, Bowers asked the department’s public records custodian to prepare records related to the two cases for the TV crew after the producers learned of them and expressed interest in knowing more. The producers and reporters received police reports, medical records, search warrants and photos.
Bowers admitted to releasing the records, said he did not intend to disregard department policies against releasing such information and, in hindsight, realized what he had done was wrong.
“I guess I got caught up in the whole ‘we are working together’ thing and the fact that this case was going so well,” Bowers wrote in a Feb. 27, 2017, email included in the criminal complaint.
“In my eyes at the time, I saw it as a more ‘sharing with another agency’ as opposed to a release of information. I simply saw an opportunity to maybe get farther on these cases and took it.”
When asked why Bowers’ actions constituted criminal conduct rather than a violation of departmental policy, Koremenos declined to respond, saying doing so “would violate trial publicity ethical rules.”
The Taylor County Sheriff’s Department would not answer questions Wednesday about the case. But the criminal complaint cites the county’s Information Technology Policies and Procedures, which says: “Certain information accessed during the course of an employee’s job is confidential” and that “any violation of this confidentiality is strictly prohibited and may be punishable by criminal prosecution and disciplinary action up to and including termination.”
A preliminary hearing in the case, which was filed in October, is scheduled for Friday.
Bill Lueders, president of the Wisconsin Freedom of Information Council, said DOJ’s decision to pursue criminal charges against Bowers is a “huge overreaction.”
“The deputy appears to have been motivated by a desire to help by providing access to records and not by any criminal intent. The point of the prosecution appears to be to make other employees afraid of what might happen if they release information, which is troublesome,” Lueders said. “In most cases, including this one, I believe that the release of public records is a good thing.”
Lueders also said providing access to police records in a pending prosecution likely wouldn’t compromise the case.
“The notion that providing access to basic police records in a pending prosecution somehow compromises that prosecution is always highly questionable, because in each and every case these records would already be provided to the party most interested in undermining the prosecution — the defendant and his attorneys,” Lueders said. “How exactly did this release cause such terrible harm that the deputy should be prosecuted for a felony?”
Palmer said he expects the case to go nowhere.
“(Bowers) made a mistake, took responsibility, but the entire time his sole interest was in trying to be helpful and have these cold cases solved,” Palmer said. “His intent was clear. I think it would be hard for any prosecutor to get a jury to convict a well-meaning officer on this set of facts.”
But Koremenos said the charge leveled doesn’t require a malicious intent.
Donald Downs, a political science, law and journalism professor at UW-Madison, said though journalists have a First Amendment right to publish or publicize information they receive, a public employee who reveals certain materials can be liable to legal sanctions if laws or rules were broken.
“How typical or unusual it is to charge with a felony, I am not so sure about, but you don’t hear about this happening very often,” he added.
Daniels was not available this week. Taylor County Sheriff’s Department Chief Deputy Larry Woebbeking said he could not answer questions about the matter and referred questions to county attorneys, who did not respond. An attorney for Bowers did not return two phone calls seeking an interview. A spokeswoman for “Cold Justice” declined to comment Wednesday.
“(Bowers) made a mistake, took responsibility, but the entire time his sole interest was in trying to be helpful and have these cold cases solved.” Jim Palmer, executive director, Wisconsin Professional Police Association