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Ozanne, Jambois

Dane County District Attorney Ismael Ozanne, left, and former Dane County assistant district attorney Bob Jambois debate in Madison prior to the 2016 Democratic primary election for DA, won by Ozanne.

Former Dane County Assistant District Attorney Bob Jambois will receive $350,000 to settle a lawsuit that alleged District Attorney Ismael Ozanne and others on his staff retaliated against and harassed Jambois and forced him to resign after he challenged Ozanne for the DA’s job in 2016.

The settlement was reached Wednesday as a trial in the case approached, and was to begin on Sept. 24 before U.S. District Judge William Conley. Earlier, Conley had denied motions to dismiss the lawsuit, including a claim that Ozanne was immune from the lawsuit because his actions came as he was carrying out his duties as a prosecutor.

“To Mr. Jambois, it means that his claim was legitimized and that his First Amendment rights were violated,” said Robert Gingras, an attorney who represented Jambois in the case. “We strongly believe his rights were violated. This settlement means the world to him.”

The settlement contains no admission of wrongdoing by anyone, Gingras said.

Ozanne said in a statement Thursday that in settling the case, he had to balance the desire to go to trial against the best interests of the DA’s office and the state.

“I do not believe that we did anything wrong and we were prepared to try the case as that would have permitted a full public airing of the allegations and our defenses,” Ozanne wrote. “When the plaintiff reduced his demand by over $2.1 million, we had to seriously consider the settlement option.”

One of the lawyers representing Ozanne and the other prosecutors, Tom Luetkemeyer, said Jambois had initially demanded $2.5 million, but by the end of Wednesday, was offering to settle for $350,000. The settlement offer, he said, was precipitated by some rulings by Conley on Tuesday that curtailed or eliminated testimony of some of Jambois’ witnesses.

“We really had to make tough decisions about what was best,” Luetkemeyer said, and the choice was whether to continue to try the case or settle for substantially less. On balance, he said, the best decision was to settle.

The settlement will come from state coffers. Gov. Scott Walker’s office was represented at the negotiating table, Luetkemeyer said.

Gingras said that Jambois, a seasoned prosecutor who is at a point in his life where he could retire comfortably, wasn’t in the case for the money. Instead, “he did this because he knew what happened and wanted it to come out,” Gingras said.

Jambois filed the lawsuit in February 2017 against Ozanne and Deputy District Attorneys Matthew Moeser, Corey Stephan and Mary Ellen Karst, alleging that his right to free speech was violated when, he alleged, they retaliated against him for running against Ozanne in the Democratic primary for DA in 2016.

Ozanne ultimately won the election.

Jambois’ lawsuit alleged that Ozanne’s staff shifted a number of jury trials onto his calendar after identifying those cases as the most difficult in the caseload of a departing assistant district attorney.

“Such a crushing caseload, in such a minute expanse of time, was without parallel,” the suit stated.

The lawsuit was also critical of Ozanne’s management style and said that Jambois’ resignation came on the heels of an investigation launched by the DA’s office that assailed certain areas of Jambois’ job performance.

In an Aug. 15 opinion, Conley rejected Ozanne’s argument that his actions were protected by immunity generally granted to prosecutors carrying out their duties.

“Prosecutorial immunity does not extend to essentially administrative conduct, simply because it is claimed to be pretextual retaliation against a prosecutor,” Conley wrote. “Immunizing a prosecutor’s office from any liability for retaliation and constructive discharge based on an exercise of speech would needlessly remove First Amendment protection from prosecutors who would participate in elections and, in doing so, not only chill their freedom to speak about matters of public importance, but also potentially deny the public a choice of candidates who might otherwise be among the most qualified to challenge existing office holders.”

On Tuesday, among other motions he considered setting final ground rules for a trial, Conley denied a motion by Jambois to exclude references to Jambois’ performance deficiencies not mentioned in performance reviews already in evidence, which included alleged inappropriate treatment of child victims and disrespectful interactions with police. He wrote that testimony about those topics would add context to the decisions made by Ozanne and his staff.

“Although a particularly sensitive issue, it is undeniable that the treatment of victims, especially children, is an important part of any prosecutor’s skill set and judgment,” Conley wrote.

Moeser is still a deputy district attorney and generally handles most of the office’s most serious felony prosecutions. Stephan has since left for a job with the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Madison, and Karst retired but has returned to work as a prosecutor with the Columbia County District Attorney’s Office.

Jambois was district attorney in Kenosha County from 1989 to 2005 and later was chief lawyer for the state Department of Transportation during the Jim Doyle administration. He joined the Dane County District Attorney’s Office in 2015. He resigned about two months after the Aug. 9, 2016, primary election.

Jambois recently accepted a job as an assistant district attorney in Portage County, Gingras said, and will begin on Oct. 1.

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Ed Treleven is the courts reporter for the Wisconsin State Journal.