Madison— State Corrections Secretary Ed Wall has resigned from his post amid a growing scandal over conditions at a troubled Northwoods prison for youth, and the FBI has taken over the sprawling criminal probe into alleged abuses there.
While Wall will leave his post next month, taxpayers may have to pay him for a year while he is not working. He plans to return to a job he had with an agency involved in the probe of Lincoln Hills School for Boys, and if he does he will be put on paid leave to protect the integrity of the probe, a state Department of Justice spokeswoman said.
Word about Wall’s plans came Friday as U.S. Attorney John Vaudreuil said federal authorities are leading the investigation, which is focusing on possible civil rights violations by staff at Lincoln Hills and Copper Lake School for Girls, which share a campus 30 miles north of Wausau.
A prosecutor from the Civil Rights Division of U.S. Department of Justice in Washington, D.C., has been assigned to the Lincoln Hills investigation, he said. Vaudreuil said a grand jury in Madison will be used if necessary as part of the probe. He could not give an estimate of how long it would take, but state Attorney General Brad Schimel has said the yearlong probe could last another year.
“There is a lot of things to review and a lot of investigation to conduct. We’ll go wherever the facts take us,” Vaudreuil said. “Are there any criminal violations of federal civil rights laws? Essentially, has there been the unlawful criminal use of excessive force in any specific situations?”
FBI Special Agent in Charge Robert J. Shields, head of the Milwaukee office and agents in the state, personally visited Lincoln Hills twice in the past six weeks, according to sources familiar with the case.
The Wall announcement came days after the school’s security director, Rick Peterson, was put on paid leave for unspecified reasons. At least 20 others from the school have been put on paid leave since late 2014.
Wall notified Gov. Scott Walker of his resignation on Feb. 5 and his last day will be Feb. 27, according to Walker’s office. Walker appointed as his replacement Jon Litscher, who was corrections secretary from 1999 to 2003 under GOP Govs. Tommy Thompson and Scott McCallum.
Before he was corrections secretary, Wall headed the Division of Criminal Investigation, the arm of the state DOJ involved in the probe. Under state law, he has the ability to return to that job, and he said in a brief interview he planned to do that.
If he does, he will be put on paid leave to protect the integrity of the probe, said Anne Schwartz, a spokeswoman for the attorney general.
Asked what he would say to taxpayers who didn’t think it was a good use of their money for him to get paid without having to work while the probe continued, Wall said, “I defer to the attorney general’s good judgment.”
At a bill-signing ceremony in Appleton, Walker said he had met with Litscher on Wednesday and praised his “stellar record” during his past stint as corrections secretary. He said he had a strong past relationship with agency staff and a history of working with youth as a school district superintendent.
He said he had told Litscher that all options were on the table in terms of the changes that Litscher can recommend for Lincoln Hills and other state prisons.
“I’m not going to presume anything other than my expectation is that…if there are individuals or an individual who has violated the law, that there be consequences for that,” Walker said of the FBI probe.
Though Wall had taken steps since December to confront allegations of abuse there, he and Walker have faced repeated revelations that their aides knew for years about troubling incidents at Lincoln Hills School and questions about whether the Walker administration had sought to downplay the problems before they surged into public view.
Unsatisfied with state explanations, Racine County officials moved youth under their jurisdiction out of the state facility in 2012. Milwaukee County officials are seeking to do the same, which would withdraw the majority of inmates from the prison and leave it with a gaping hole in its operations.
The probe so far has focused on allegations of prisoner abuse, excessive use of force, child neglect and sexual assault, as well as retaliation against accusers.
The FBI’s greater involvement makes clear authorities are focusing on possible violations of federal law at the prison, including the federal Prison Rape Elimination Act of 2003, which sought to reduce sexual assaults in prisons and which covers both state and federal institutions.
Vaudreuil said he and top FBI officials met with state justice officials in Madison on Jan. 19. Vaudreuil said after the briefing on the case, the decision was made that the FBI and federal prosecutors would take the lead.
FBI agents are reviewing the many reports and hundreds of interviews done by state agents. Vaudreuil said if FBI agents come across violations of state law, they will refer them to state agents and prosecutors.
Litscher’s return received positive reviews.
“I actually think it’s a good move,” said Sen. Jon Erpenbach (D-Middleton), a frequent critic of the Department of Corrections. “Well, if it’s the Tommy Thompson Jon Litscher, I think it’s a good move. If it’s the Scott Walker Jon Litscher, then I think we have some problems.”
Racine County case
The developments came a day after the Journal Sentinel reported on a botched state response to the beating and sexual assault of a youth at Lincoln Hills that led Racine County officials to pull all juvenile offenders from the facility and sharply criticize the incident to Walker and to top state corrections officials.
In that case, which happened four years before more recent allegations of abuses at the prison, a Department of Corrections official found that Lincoln Hills staff had not followed state rules for handling sexual assaults.
Jim Moeser, a former head of the state’s juvenile corrections division who is now the deputy director of the Wisconsin Council on Children and Families, said he was surprised that no state workers were disciplined for the incident. The victim, who told staff he had been knocked unconscious during the assault, had to wait for hours for a prison basketball game to finish before he was taken to the hospital.
Staff should not have waited to take the victim to the hospital and even an otherwise good employee involved in that incident should have received at least a letter of reprimand, Moeser said. But while front-line workers can be uncertain of the proper procedures, their superiors at Lincoln Hills should have known enough to report a sexual assault to investigators, he said.
“It’s much less credible that a superior could make a goof” like that, Moeser said.
Records of the incident show clearly that despite Walker’s repeated statements that he was surprised by more recent allegations of abuse, his office was told of troubling conduct at the prison in February 2012.
Then-Racine County Circuit Judge Richard Kreul sent a memo directly to Walker on Feb. 10, 2012, detailing the sexual assault from the month before and the failure of Lincoln Hills staff to notify law enforcement, child protective services and county officials about it.
Another inmate was convicted of beating and sexually assaulting the victim in the prison, where most of the inmates are minorities.
“The indifference in this sordid tale is absolutely inexcusable,” Kreul wrote.
Walker said he had received nearly 350,000 contacts from members of the public in 2012 and more than a million since he took office in 2011.
“It’s something that neither I nor my senior staff had looked at,” Walker said of Kreul’s letter. “In this case, it may very well have been moved up the chain if the Department of Corrections hadn’t had a response and hadn’t been in communication with those (Racine County) officials.”
For a time, Racine County resumed sending youth to Lincoln Hills, but has since pulled out all the juveniles under its jurisdiction, according to Racine County officials.
Milwaukee County officials are considering pulling juveniles from the facility for similar reasons to those given by Racine County officials. In both cases, officials first learned that harm had come to youth inmates not from state officials, but from tipsters.