MADISON — Dane County Sheriff Dave Mahoney effectively removed himself from the investigation into allegations of a physical altercation between state Supreme Court Justices David Prosser and Ann Walsh Bradley after questions were raised about Mahoney's objectivity because he endorsed Prosser's opponent in the recent election.
Mahoney said Tuesday he turned the case over to his chief deputy and will have "no role in the assignment of detectives and supervisors or overseeing the investigation."
"As sheriff, I demand a high level of ethical conduct and integrity of staff and investigations undertaken by the Sheriff's Office," Mahoney said in a statement. "And I place those same expectations on myself."
Mahoney, a Democrat, made his announcement after some conservative critics raised questions about whether he could objectively investigate the incident because he endorsed the conservative justice's challenger, liberal Assistant Attorney General JoAnne Kloppenburg, in the April election.
"Notwithstanding his long record of service to the public through law enforcement, the very politically charged nature of this particular investigation could prevent the public from resting full confidence in Sheriff Mahoney's abilities," said Brian Sikma, communications director for the conservative website Media Trackers.
Mahoney took over the investigation at the request of Capitol Police Chief Charles Tubbs. Tubbs said Monday he turned over the investigation after consulting with members of the court. He declined to comment further about his decision to ask Mahoney to investigate the incident.
The state's Judicial Commission, which is in charge of enforcing standards of judicial conduct, also is investigating the incident.
The Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism and Wisconsin Public Radio reported on Saturday allegations Prosser put his hands around Bradley's neck, citing anonymous sources. Bradley on Saturday told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel Prosser put her in a "chokehold."
Prosser has declined to comment directly on Bradley's account of the incident other than a statement asserting the claim he attacked her "will be proven false."
Some sources backed Bradley's allegations, while others said she charged at Prosser with her fists raised during an argument about the court's decision over Gov. Scott Walker's measure to limit collective bargaining for public workers. The incident is said to have occurred in Bradley's chambers the day before the Supreme Court released its decision allowing the law to go into effect.
A couple days later, two sources familiar with the incident told the State Journal, Bradley sought to have several justices vote to urge Prosser to seek anger management counseling, but they declined.
Prosser defeated Kloppenburg by a narrow margin after a race that focused on the collective bargaining controversy. Kloppenburg requested a statewide recount, which confirmed Prosser won by a little more than 7,000 votes out of about 1.5 million cast.
Walker spokesman Cullen Werwie said the governor is not concerned about having Mahoney's office in charge of investigating the case.
"We're confident that law enforcement officials will do a thorough job investigating this very serious matter," Werwie said.
Mahoney also endorsed Chief Justice Shirley Abrahamson, a close Bradley ally, two years ago.
Charles Franklin, political science professor at UW-Madison, said having Mahoney lead the investigation could give "the chance for one side to believe they may not get a fair shake" or a fair investigation.
Scot Ross of the liberal group One Wisconsin Now said conservatives never raised the alarm when Prosser ruled on the collective bargaining law even though he was endorsed by numerous Republican lawmakers, including Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald, R-Juneau.
"Sheriff Mahoney has always called balls and strikes and put the law first," Ross said.
Howard Schweber, a political science professor at UW-Madison, said critics of Mahoney leading the investigation seem to suggest no Republican sheriff could investigate a Democrat and vice-versa.
"It's taking the paranoid style of partisanship to a new and ludicrous level," Schweber said.