Gov. Scott Walker says he doesn’t recall if his office canceled an outside review of the state’s troubled youth prison while alleged abuses there mounted in 2015, as his then-prisons chief and the director of a former national corrections group now claim.
Former Corrections Secretary Ed Wall and Walker have sparred publicly for months over their handling of alleged abuses at the Lincoln Hills School for Boys and Copper Lake School for Girls in Irma. Having once been a top Walker lieutenant, Wall now is backing Democrat Tony Evers in the governor’s race, citing what he describes as Walker’s failure to tackle problems at the prison.
Recently, WSAW-TV in Wausau reported Walker’s office instructed Wall to cancel an outside review of the prison in late 2015, shortly after a Lincoln County judge ordered state authorities to begin investigating alleged abuses there.
Wall said he asked state Department of Justice officials to look into problems at the prison in early 2015. He told the station he believes Walker nixed the outside report because he thought it would have exposed the governor’s failure to respond to the crisis at the prison.
Walker, speaking Friday while touring a manufacturer in Middleton, said, “I don’t have any knowledge of that,” while questioning Wall’s credibility.
“I’d have to go back and look at the records one way or another,” Walker said. “That’s a long time ago.”
Responding Friday to Walker’s comments, Wall said he met with Walker’s then-chief of staff, Rich Zipperer, in 2015 and “explained the need to have an outside evaluation done with regards to the Division of Juvenile Corrections and he agreed that would be helpful.”
Wall said he then wrote to George Camp, then the director of the national Association of State Correctional Administrators, asking the organization to perform the evaluation.
Shortly afterward, Wall said he got a call from Zipperer — who now serves on the Public Service Commission — instructing him to cancel it.
“I disagreed with that course of action and when I asked why we were being ordered to cancel an honest, neutral and detached evaluation, Zipperer told me that the administration did not want to see the results because it could be compromising for the governor,” Wall said.
Zipperer didn’t immediately respond to a request made to his office.
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Speaking to the Wisconsin State Journal on Friday, Camp corroborated part of Wall’s account. Camp said Wall contacted him in late 2015 and asked the association to submit a proposal to do the review. Camp said Wall contacted him again a day or two later, saying the governor’s office had nixed the idea.
“He said the governor’s office had conveyed to him not to go forward with the evaluation,” Camp said. He said Wall did not say why that decision was made.
Last year the state settled a nearly $19 million lawsuit with a former female inmate who tried to hang herself in the prison in November 2015. It was the largest civil settlement in state history.
Earlier this year, Walker and lawmakers moved to close Lincoln Hills and Copper Lake and set up smaller regional juvenile-corrections facilities around the state.
Wall said he made that proposal to the governor’s office in 2015 and Walker didn’t embrace it until after Wall announced last year that he was writing a tell-all book about his time in Walker’s Cabinet. The book was released in August.
A four-year state and federal investigation into abuse allegations at the prison remains open.
Walker reiterated Friday his criticism of Wall as someone who lacks credibility because he was fired from state government for allegedly breaking the law.
“Suddenly now he’s a credible source? I’d take it for what it’s worth,” Walker said.
State Attorney General Brad Schimel fired Wall in 2016 from the state Division of Criminal Investigation — where Wall returned after stepping down in 2016 as Corrections secretary — after Wall sent a letter to Zipperer’s home seeking to return to a former administrator job he had held in the division. He noted in the letter the administration’s concerns about creating public records and told Zipperer to feel free to shred it. Schimel said he couldn’t trust an employee who encourages others in state government to break the law by destroying public records.
Wall said Walker’s repeated references to his firing are a “distraction.” Wall said the record being referenced was a personal letter to Zipperer asking him to intervene with Schimel regarding Wall’s old position in criminal investigation.
“The ‘public record’ was not related to state business, Lincoln Hills or anything other than my own personnel issue,” Wall said.