The DeForest Village Ethics Committee voted unanimously on Sept. 8 to dismiss a complaint filed by Abe Degnan against Village President Jane Cahill Wolfgram.
Although committee members voiced concern about the manner in which some steps had been taken by Cahill Wolfgram, the committee did not find any factual basis in the six-page complaint or subsequent supporting documents provided by Degnan to find that there had been a breach of the village Ethics Code.
The process being a quasi-judicial determination meant that although it was a village committee meeting, the gravity of the situation required special considerations that edged toward resembling a court hearing. This came to light as committee member, and adjunct professor at the University of Wisconsin Law School, Kim Grimmer moved for the committee to agree to a standard of “probable cause.”
Agreeing to terms
Grimmer referred to the ethics code instructions for such procedures, reading: “[the] Committee shall conduct a public hearing if there is probable cause to believe a violation of the chapter has occurred.” The aforementioned public hearing would be held if the committee, in this meeting, found “probable cause” shown in Degnan’s complaint.
The definition of “probable cause,” a basis for reasonable belief that a crime was likely to have been committed, varies, Grimmer explained. One standard allows a police officer to make a traffic stop, a higher standard is used for the arrest of a citizen, and another higher standard is applied in preliminary hearings in which a court determines whether a criminal complaint should be the basis of a prosecution.
“I think that you [Mr. Degnan] have asked us to consider, and we have the power under this ordinance, to consider a sanction as high as the removal of the respondent here, and in your complaint you actively ask that we consider that result,” said Grimmer. “And it seems to me that has a big implication for the voters of DeForest, regardless of how you feel about these TIF district issues...I think you all want to not have the voters’ will affected unduly.”
Grimmer moved for the committee to go forward using the highest standard, which was then accepted as the committee began consideration of the complaint.
In the Village Hall’s DeForest Commons room, residents, including three Village Board members, filled the public seating area, with Degnan seated with his attorney at a table in front of the committee members on the left side of the room and on the opposite side, Cahill Wolfgram, with her husband Steve Wolfgram, and her attorney.
At the Ethics Committee’s Aug. 9 meeting, committee members, led primarily by Grimmer, questioned Degnan about the details of his complaint, specifying the alleged harm that had been done to him and which actions, as he described, would have breached the village ethics code. In closing the Aug. 9 meeting, the board requested a formal argument from Degnan regarding his complaint, a response from Cahill Wolfgram, and copies of any supporting documents that would provide factual evidence.
“Taken in isolation, perhaps none of her actions would be particularly egregious or harmful,” wrote Degnan. “However, the amalgamation and ongoing nature of the actions against me are what makes the violation plain to see. This is a well-crafted attack designed to appear innocent, which in reality must have been planned in advance with a good knowledge of the foreseeable harms caused.”
In the Aug. 9 meeting and subsequent filings Degnan was not able to point to provable harm that had been done to himself or his business, Degnan Design-Build-Remodel, as a result of Cahill Wolfgram's actions in the preceding months.
The issues referenced in Degnan’s complaints developed through the spring, during which he spoke up as a resident at meetings regarding development projects proposed in the Conservancy Park area.
Trustee Rebecca Witherspoon invited Degnan to attend the June 16 Village Board meeting in expectation of his receiving recognition for his previous work on the Village Board and on other village committees. However, that recognition didn’t happen as the board discussed the possible need for consistent guidelines in offering official congratulations to individuals such as Degnan and a local Eagle Scout who was also under discussion.
At the Village Board’s July 6 meeting Degnan joined a number of local residents speaking on the topic of the proposed Pinseekers golf complex project. While speaking to the board members, Degnan began making personal accusations against Cahill Wolfgram.
Included in the accusations, was a claim that Cahill Wolfgram contacted the Executive Director of the Wisconsin Builders Association Brad Boycks, regarding Degnan’s recent statements to the board regarding Tax Increment Financing districts, and whether it is reflective of any change of position by the WBA (of which Degnan is the current president). This exchange on June 25 was followed by an email from Steve Wolfgram to Boycks on July 2, in which Wolfgram described Degnan as representing a NIMBY ("not in my backyard") attitude among some residents that could affect DeForest’s ability to attract future investment.
Boycks has responded to inquiries on the subject confirming the phone call with Cahill Wolfgram and the email from Steve Wolfgram, and explained that the issue, as far as the WBA was concerned, was between Degnan as a private citizen and the village board, and the WBA had taken no action toward Degnan in the matter.
No new evidence, glowing recommendations
Among the documents Degnan filed, supporting his complaint against Cahill Wolfgram, was an email from Boycks which summarized the call between him and Cahill Wolfgram, without suggestion of any implied threats or attempted intimidation of Degnan, Boycks, or the WBA.
Degnan also included statements from local supporters, such as an anonymous message from “a DeForest resident.” Another resident who has spoken on recent development, Eric Larson, described Degnan as “a man of conviction and truth,” saying he could not believe it would be in Degnan to lie or make up details: “He is to a fault- very honest!”
Jane Seffenhagen-Hahn, in one of the statements, provided public links to archived meeting video and Village Board minutes, accusing the board of unfairness in the treatment of speakers: “The most appalling has been the treatment to long-time resident, successful local business-owner and strong, religious family man, Abe Degnan.”
A statement from Michelle Blau pointed out that speakers at the meeting were given roughly three minutes each to make statements while the developer was given more time at the end in which to address points raised by those from the public. However, Blau also explained that the two meetings in question were the only two village board meetings she has attended.
Degnan also provided a statement from resident Brian Goodman who similarly did not provide any new facts relevant to the complaint: “While I cannot speak much about the details of her directly attacking Abe and his business, I can attest to her toxic leadership as Village President.” Goodman went on to describe how Cahill Wolfgram had cut him off during his own public comments when he began criticizing Trustee Colleen Little’s posture and falsely accused her of sleeping during a meeting.
Language of officials and attorneys
In the Ethics Committee meeting focus quickly came to state and federal statutes Degnan accused Cahill Wolfgram of violating, particularly in overreach of a public official, by Cahill Wolfgram calling Boycks and in the call describing herself as “from the Village of DeForest.” Committee member and Village Trustee Abigail explained that in the quoted material she was seeing a typical way in which one involved in public service often interacts with members of the public.
“I sometimes make phone calls to different stakeholders and committee members, or anyone who I think may have information or input that would help me in my role,” said Lowery. “And I have said that I am a trustee, because that’s important to clarify why you’re calling, especially if I’m calling someone in the community--if I’m calling the school district, I may be calling as a parent and I want them to know.”
Part of Degnan’s accusations against Cahill Wolfgram, was citation of village code that the Village President is not authorized “to act outside the village board,” which Lowery explained, as a board member, she interprets very specifically.
“I’ve always interpreted ‘act’ in terms of village business differently than in common parlance,” said Lowery. “To me ‘act’ in government terms means to make a decision, negotiate and act on a contract, etcetera, and I don’t see her taking an action with the voicemail or the phone call.”
Grimmer “seconded” Lowery’s assessment, conceding that Cahill Wolfgram’s reaching out to Boycks “could have been done differently,” while also noting, “I can see some value to the president having that conversation.”
Precedent setting decisions
A risk of moving forward with an ethics investigation based wholly on public perception, rather than a factual basis applied to strict interpretation of the ethics code, according to Lowery, would be more complaints, increasingly politicized use of the process, and a “watering down” of the ethics code.
Grimmer turned to address Degnan personally: “You have essentially plead, or tried to create the inference, that there was some amount of concerted action between the Village President and her husband to generate the letter to the WBA.”
Although Grimmer told Degnan he could see how Degnan would wonder about that situation, and he had wondered himself, there was not a fact to support the allegation.
“We really must require you to come up with a fact to support that particular kind of allegation,” said Grimmer, going on to explain that he didn’t personally care for the letter and felt like it was designed “to create problems,” for Degnan.
“It’s possible--I’ll give you that,” said Grimmer. “But we have to go beyond possibilities here.”
In response, Degnan asked a question of the committee: “I’m wondering how the matter of fact would be determined without an investigation?”
“It would be very difficult,” said Grimmer, “but someone may have talked to Mr. Wolfgram, someone may have talked to Mrs. Wolfram that you could have accessed and gotten information from that person to support that there was some concerted act.”
Committee Chair Gus Knitt Jr., before moving into his own comments, explained that his frame of reference came as a recently retired Superintendent of the Pardeeville Area School District, which included doing things on behalf of the school board, at the behest of the board, or in anticipation of the board's needs.
Knitt said that there were two levels to what they were reading: use of the word “ethics” in common usage, describing whether something was done well or poorly, and the question of whether any of the things described in the complaint met the threshold of a breach of ethics according to the Village Code. Judging by his own administrative experience, Knitt said that he read descriptions of some things that he would not have done, but he was struggling to see anything reaching the level of Code violation.
The President's discretion
The two basic arguments of the complaint, according to Grimmer, were that Cahill Wolfgram had overreached her authority as Village President--which Grimmer was prepared to dismiss--and second, that Cahill Wolfgram had attempted to retaliate against Degnan for speaking out on Conservancy Park development.
Part of the alleged retaliation, was the nature of Degnan’s non-renewal for committee seats.
“She is absolutely entitled to make new committee assignments,” said Grimmer, also pointing to Degnan’s accusation that he was not properly notified of his removal from committee seats. In the supporting documents supplied by Cahill Wolfgram, was a copy of a letter to Degnan from Cahill Wolfgram, dated May 11, 2021.
The letter opened saying, “The Village Board and I want to take this opportunity to thank you for all of the time and effort you have given to the Village by serving on a committee/commission board,” going on to explain the opportunities and challenges of selecting committee membership each year.
“In recent years, a greater number of residents have come forward expressing their interest in serving on a committee/commission/board for the village. I have always seen this as an opportunity to get more residents involved in local government and to learn how decisions are made on their behalf. It has also led to some of those serving to run for local office.”
The letter goes on to explain that Degnan’s non-renewal for seats on the Board of Review and Board of Zoning Appeals were not based on animosity or poor performance on his part, but a desire to broaden public participation in local affairs. In the letter, Cahill Wolfgram goes on to invite Degnan to let her know if he would be interested in participating in future committees or commissions.
Relations at the edge of politics
Regarding Mr. Wolfram’s email to Boycks, Grimmer posited that Mr. Wolfgram may have attended village meetings, watched online, or heard enough from just talking to his wife when she came home, that he felt compelled to reach out to Boycks at the WBA. It was something that Grimmer pointed to as a detail with which he would have disagreement about the manner in which it happened, but not grounds for a formal ethics investigation.
Knitt and Lowery spoke from positions of apparent sympathy, and caution, about possible motivations for Mr. Wolfgram to become part of the debate.
Lowery described the letter from Wolfgram as the most concerning part of the complaint and reflected on her own experience as a village trustee, at times going home and telling her husband about what happened that day: “He’ll joke, ‘I should go down to that Village Board meeting and speak my mind,’ and I’ll say, ‘No. Don’t.’”
“That said, that’s something that [Mr. Wolfgram] did,” said Lowery. “I can’t find an ethics violation with something a resident did.”
Knitt described a similar experience for his wife, while he worked in the often divisive territory of public education administration, and her being unable to speak out publicly about those issues no matter what people might have been saying about her husband at meetings or in the village.
“I know my wife suffered for 34 years, but that was the guideline in my household,” said Knitt.
In addition to alleging ethics violations according to Village Code, Degnan accused Cahill Wolfgram of committing state and felony misconduct in office, a claim that Grimmer soundly swatted down. The allegations did not match the state ordinance, according to Grimmer, and the cited federal code was even less relevant when looked at in context.
“This is a statute that was passed in the Reconstruction Era, primarily to address the treatment of African-Americans where they were being kept from being able to register to vote or to actually vote at a polling place, where crosses were being burned in their front yards, or where people were using threatening language to move African-Americans out of their housing,” said Grimmer. “If one were to take this factual pattern to the U.S. Attorney, or the Western District, and say, ‘Has this statute been implicated?’ I think you would get a big laugh.”
Each committee member spoke with similar analysis of being interested and/or disappointed at how events developed, but not finding a formal breach of the Ethics Code. Grimmer moved to dismiss Degnan’s complaint with no further action, finding that even if the facts of the complaint were true, there had been no violation of the Village’s Ethics Code.
“Had I known about the standard of investigation that was going to apply, that may have changed my willingness to accept the August 30th deadline, and the date of today’s hearing,” said Degnan, explaining that in hindsight he would have used additional time to develop a stronger factual basis for his case.
The Ethics Committee unanimously voted to dismiss the complaint five-to-zero.