The embattled town of Campbell police chief pleaded no contest Friday to a misdemeanor that accused him of using a tea party activist’s information online during work hours to retaliate for a federal lawsuit brought against him.
“I understand that there is a political context to this case, but my view of it is not political,” Monroe County Circuit Judge David Rice said. “I view it as a criminal case.”
After months of conflict between the town, police and tea party activists, Chief Tim Kelemen in January and March used La Crosse tea party activist Greg Luce’s name, address, phone number and email address to create accounts on pornographic, dating and government health insurance websites.
Prosecutors brought a charge of unlawful use of computerized communication systems against Kelemen, but it will be dismissed in two years if the chief avoids new crimes, continues counseling and completes 40 hours of community service under the terms of a diversion agreement reached in La Crosse County Circuit Court.
Luce told the judge he believes Kelemen is guilty of more serious charges for actions that constitute more than “a joke.”
“I don’t believe a diversion agreement is fair in this situation,” Luce said. “My reputation and my civil rights have been seriously harmed, and the criminal is going to again get a slap on the wrist by the La Crosse court system.”
Special prosecutor Kevin Croninger called Kelemen’s conduct “juvenile, illegal and inappropriate.”
“The members of the public expect more from law enforcement,” he said. “Anytime someone in law enforcement is engaged in this type of activity, it makes you wonder about who you can trust.”
Still, the prosecutor said the charge levied against Kelemen was appropriate and that he could not prove more serious charges beyond a reasonable doubt.
Croninger said the resolution reached in the case is not intended to minimize the chief’s actions but that it is fair for someone who has no criminal record, enrolled in counseling and is not a threat while undergoing treatment.
The context of the chief’s conduct isn’t an excuse, but it is important for the court to understand, said his attorney, Jim Birnbaum.
Birnbaum contends tea party members harassed town and police officials for months after board members in October passed a local ordinance prohibiting speech-related behavior on an Interstate 90 pedestrian overpass.
The chief viewed the activity as a public safety risk; Luce and another tea party member argued the ordinance trampled on their rights and responded with a federal lawsuit. The amended suit accuses Kelemen of violating Luce’s right to petition without retaliation, invasion of privacy and civil identity theft.
The department was inundated with threatening emails and phone calls after the ordinance, leading the agency to shut off its phone for weeks, Birnbaum said.
There is no evidence to show Luce sent the department harassing emails, Croninger said.
“Mr. Kelemen’s anger was directed in the wrong spot. I believe he was under a significant amount of pressure and that pressure got to him,” Croninger said. “He took that out on Mr. Luce, and he shouldn’t have.”
Birnbaum called the chief’s conduct “foolish” and done in frustration.
“He regrets doing that. It was wrong on all kinds of fronts,” Birnbaum said. “No one is harder on him than himself.”
The chief did not make a statement during the hearing.
“Mr. Kelemen, your reaction to what happened in your township and your department can best be characterized as juvenile. It is the kind of thing that you expect high school kids to do to get revenge,” the judge told him. “It’s misplaced. It’s aimed at one person who isn’t necessarily the person who is causing these problems, and it’s also a violation of your duty as an officer.”
The Campbell board placed Kelemen on paid leave June 12 after hearing from community members that the chief had lost credibility. La Crosse attorney Frank Doherty is conducting an internal investigation.
Since the town does not have a police and fire commission, state statute allows the board to appoint a panel of outside representatives to consider discipline against Kelemen, depending on the results of Doherty’s investigation.
“Given the collateral legal proceedings, the people I want to interview and their attorneys are approaching things cautiously, and that is appropriate,” Doherty said Friday. “This means that it will take some time to gather all of the relevant information, finish the witness interviews and complete the investigation.”