A Capitol Whoddunit

Who's to blame for the Georgia Thompson debacle?

Georgia Thompson is a household name in Wisconsin. That, in itself, is pretty remarkable.

Just how a little-known Department of Administration bureaucrat could be caught up in a political scandal, tried and convicted by a Milwaukee jury, sent to prison, then released in a groundbreaking appeals court decision leaves most everyone scratching his or her head. There must be someone to blame.

Gov. Jim Doyle stepped in to fill that void the same day Thompson was acquitted by the U.S. 7th Circuit Court of Appeals. In his view, the culprits in this case were political opponents and the media: Republican gubernatorial candidate Mark Green and the rest of the GOP political machine smeared Thompson’s good name in millions of dollars’ of TV ads; the media sensationalized reports and turned the story into a scandal. There you go, case closed—Republicans and the media created the circus. Not quite. Let’s start with the GOP attacks. Were they over-the-top? Perhaps. But it’s not like Doyle’s campaign ads were free from distortion. And you can bet the house that if a member of Mark Green’s staff had been convicted of anything, no matter the circumstance, that conviction would have been part of a Doyle attack ad. It’s the reality of politics in this day and age. So that charge rings a bit hollow.

Doyle’s indictment of the media was both generalized and specific. He was cheesed off that the travel contract was even questioned in the first place and particularly peeved at certain media outlets, which beat the story into the ground with little evidence of any wrongdoing and then promoted themselves for putting Thompson in prison.

Doyle was wrong to indict the media for noting potential conflicts of interest. In this case, questions were raised by committee members who served with Thompson in awarding a state travel contract to Adelman Travel. They thought she steered the vote to Adelman. That appears to be true. The question is why she did it. Adelman executives had donated twenty thousand dollars to Doyle’s campaign. But no one could prove that she was directed to favor Adelman or that she even knew about the campaign donations.

But Doyle was right to chide those members of the media who went beyond their obligation to report the facts. When Thompson was charged by U.S. Attorney Steven Biskupic, it was a huge story. When she was convicted by a jury, it was an obvious story. When certain members of the media had nothing new to report but kept repeating previous accounts in order to gin up a controversy, it’s not a story.

Still, is the media to blame? Let’s not forget the role of the prosecutor, the judge and the jury. The charges and conviction escalated the scandal to a new point—something no one should ignore.

Colin Benedict is WISC-TV3’s political reporter. He’s lived in the Madison area since 1995. E-mail him at cbenedict@wisctv.com.

Madison Magazine - June 2007
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