Thursday, June 17, 2010

Conservative watchdog group SO ANGRY at county employee blogging while on unpaid furlough

What else could explain such a needless and sloppy investigation and accompanying complaint? If you've been paying any attention to the political blog scene in Wisconsin lately, you may have noticed that the chattering classes are currently abuzz with talk of the Milwaukee County DA seizing the computer of a one Christopher Liebenthal, aka "capper."

Why would the DA, presumably someone with a fairly heavy caseload of slightly more pressing issues, swoop in to sniff around in one guy's computer, you might ask?

Well, as it turns out, conservative (the exceptionally silly kind, specifically) activist group Citizens for Responsible Government (CRG) filed a complaint with said DA alleging that capper, a county employee, was blogging while at work. Which, if true, would certainly be a giant no-no and even I, friend of the capster, would advocate appropriate legal wrist slapping.

Oh but there's a whole lot more to the story than that, surprise surprise. Let's put it all in handy, bullet list format, shall we? Makes it more digestible, like taking a lactase pill before eating cheese:
  • Though bloggers have long used the tactic of "I bet you write while at work!" to attack their political foes, back in May one was actually caught doing just that: Darlene Wink, constituent services coordinator for Milwaukee County Executive Scott Walker, got caught with her hand in the proverbial cookie jar and was forced to resign because of it. Turns out she'd been posting comments, under several pseudonyms, at a bunch of sites in turn praising Walker, her boss, and lambasting his critics. Tsk tsk.
  • Curiosity then piqued, the Democratic Party of Wisconsin filed an open records request for the internet browsing history of computers in Walker's office - just to be sure no one else was up to Wink-like shenanigans as well. (Milwaukee County Supervisor John Weishan Jr. also filed a complaint with the DA asking that a criminal investigation of Wink be started.)
  • In response, Cheryl Berdan of the county executive's office claimed that making those records available would cost anywhere from a cool $400 to nearly $900. Apparently no one bothered to tell anyone at the county exec's HQ that the world's upgraded from mimeograph machines, because I'm fairly certain just exporting browser history into a word document of some sort is pretty dang cheap.
  • Anyway, all of this made a lot of the more rabid right-wing bloggers in the state feel especially butt hurt and angry, and many began looking for potential targets to redirect the controversy onto. Enter capper, an outspoken and somewhat prolific lefty blogger who also happens to work for the county. BINGO.
  • So the CRG figures, "Hey! That guy totally has to be writing and posting on county time, because our people do it, like, constantly, and my worldview is so skewed because of it that clearly my opponents must be just as daring/stupid." They go right to the DA with a complaint, who for some reason decides he has nothing better to do and seizes capper's work computer. For the CRG and its allies, there is much rejoicing.
Putting aside the fact that blog time stamps are almost entirely useless as evidence because you can schedule them to go up automatically at any time you want - looking at the dates being paraded around as evidence of capper's (who gets his blog on at both Cognitive Dissidence and Whallah!) terrible malfeasance, it doesn't take a whole lot of sleuthing to realize that the whole thing is complete bunk.

Every single one of the dates in question was either 1) an unpaid furlough day county employees were all forced to take (thanks, Scott Walker!), 2) a pre-approved vacation day that capper usually announced directly on the blog, or 3) an official holiday. Like MLK Jr. Day and Memorial Day. THE HORROR.

Capper's rightfully employed a lawyer to handle what could very well turn into a defamation or libel suit against CRG and any of the several bloggers who've been posting scurrilous nonsense about the incident, some even pretending to be capper.

One such comment, posted at Boots & Sabers, even went so far as to claim that the investigation had uncovered pr0n on capper's 'puter - which put Owen Robinson, owner of the site, on the receiving end of a take-down letter from capper's attorney.

Really, the whole thing strikes me as one giant waste of the DA's (and the public's, for that matter) time, all because of some petty political vendetta. For a group that claims to be all about more responsible government and use of taxpayer money, CRG sure does seem to be overly prone to irresponsible behavior.

But hey, this is just the sort of ridiculousness Wisconsin will be in for if it elects Scott Walker as its governor - or Ron Johnson as its Senator. In addition to their own, personal shortcomings, they're liable to bring along a whole posse of like-minded supporters who'll spend all their time on partisan bickering and one-upmanship, instead of on, oh I don't know, job creation? The environment? Education? Silly little things like that.


Unknown said...

hilariously, the ad at the bottom of this blog for me was a Ron Johnson for Senate

Jason Haas said...

This is a brilliant summary of the fun we're in, Ms. M. Thank you!

Emily said...

Jess - I'd say I wish I had some control over what ads go up, but that's too hilarious.

Hason - Thanks! I do what I can.

Cindy K. said...

You almost had me, and then you threw in "and Ron Johnson for Senator." You see, what's happening with Capper is personal, not really political. There was no reason to widen the net. In my opinion it seriously diluted what could have otherwise been construed as a legitimate piece of writing.

Display Name said...

You see, what's happening with Capper is personal, not really political.

I don't understand. You're saying there's some underlying personal vendetta by CRG against Capper, and that it's not related to the political content of Capper's speech in the form of his blogs?

Emily said...

Cindy - I respect your beef with my addition of an RJ reference at the end, but I agree with John: I'm more inclined to believe that CRG's problem with capper is political, not personal. I wouldn't be surprised if no one at CRG has even met capper in person. But I also wouldn't be surprised if the folks at CRG were Walker (or even Johnson) supporters miffed at the fact that one of his staffers got nicked for the crime they're now accusing capper of.

If I'm wrong, I'm wrong, but at the moment the evidence appears to support my theory.

Skip said...

Emily - computers on a network in an enterprise are not exactly like your home PC. You may grab the history from a browser on your home PC, but large organizations run a report on a web filter appliance/firewall. This is generally done by a network admin or security officer who gets paid much more than a help desk grunt. When legal action is possible, a lot of people get involved in these kinds of things.

I'm not saying it would cost hundreds of dollars but I find it funny that you criticize someone for a lack of computer knowledge and characterize them as a luddite when you yourself have no idea how things are done.

Emily said...

Palmer - Network admin / security officers certainly get paid more, but I maintain that it wouldn't take $900 worth of time and effort to compile said reports.

I used a bit of artistically licensed hyperbole when I referred to mimeographs and Word docs, yes - it wouldn't be a blog if I didn't do that occasionally - but what I'm pointing out is that gathering the necessary information for this particular open records request isn't rocket science.

Display Name said...

When a County supervisor asked to see if other Walker office employees were misusing their time and equipment, he was asked to surrender $420 to $840 in advance to inspect the records, plus $93.27 if he wanted copies. If I had to guess, they might've estimated 20 to 40 hours at $21 an hour to find the info he was looking for. Exporting the history from an individual's Internet Explorer is only slightly more trivial than Emily suggested, but if the records were as centralized as Palmer suggests, by no means could it consume hours and hours. Yes, I am a computer consultant. Weishan has filed a complaint with the D.A. as well.

Skip said...

Emily - the issue wasn't whether or not tracking someone's internet usage was rocket science. No, it's not hyper-difficult. The issue was whether $400-900 is a fair price. You said it essentially should take a few minutes because all you have to do is copy browser history. My point is that there's more to it than you think.

If your freewheelin' insurance-free lifestyle doesn't pan out, try getting an LTE or temp gig at a government entity and you will understand the layers of bureaucracy and how 80 people have to sign off on important things, etc. in a large government organization In this case, I'm sure an IT manager will select the right person to gather the data who will present it to a security officer who, in turn, will present it to one layer of management who will present it to a lawyer and so on.

Is your low estimate - $400 - reasonable? I'm not sure but, to be honest, it doesn't sound way out of the ballpark and I think that if you understood how government works, you wouldn't either.

The Lost Albatross