Walker ordered transfer of control of veterans event funds
Jan. 6, 2012 By Dave Umhoefer of the Journal Sentinel
Transferring control of funds for an annual veterans event – from an American Legion Post to an organization run by then-County Executive Scott Walker’s aide Tim Russell – was ordered by Walker in October 2009, according to a criminal complaint filed Thursday against Russell.
Walker made the move after the Alonzo Cudworth American Legion Post No. 23 had performed what prosecutors now say was “exemplary” work in managing the books of Operation Freedom, a recurring event honoring veterans held at the Milwaukee County Zoo.
Russell’s nonprofit entity, known as Heritage Guard Preservation Society, had “expressed a desire” to take over management of the funds, according to a memo of understanding Walker signed on Oct. 20, 2009.
“I have identified a nonprofit corporation to which I am transferring Operation Freedom,” Walker told the Cudworth Legion Post in a letter mentioned in the criminal complaint. “This new structure will allow the community to take ownership of it.”
Walker reiterated that intention to reporters Thursday, saying he wanted to consolidate oversight under Heritage because it could focus solely on Operation Freedom.
The October 2009 transfer memo was cosigned by Russell and Walker.
Russell, a longtime Walker political and governmental aide, wore two other hats in 2009 and 2010: as Walker’s deputy chief of staff, and later, after a promotion in March 2010, as the county housing director.
Now he stands accused of taking more than $20,000 from Operation Freedom funds for his own use.
The complaint also says Russell set up Heritage’s books with three phony officers and directors – county employees James Tietjen and Kelly Rindfleisch as secretary/treasurers, and Domingo Leguizamon as vice president. All three told John Doe investigators they were unaware they were listed as officers.
Russell worked on and off for Walker at the county, starting as his executive assistant in May 2002 and passing through several other county jobs within the county executive’s office and elsewhere in county government. In between, Russell regularly took a role in Walker’s county executive campaigns. Walker first won that office in 2002 and was re-elected in 2004 and 2008.
Russell’s highest-paying county stint was as associate economic development director, starting in April 2003. He was paid about $83,000 a year in that post. Walker also nominated Russell to lead the county’s economic development office in late 2004, but county supervisors voted down the Russell appointment the following April on a 12-7 vote amid complaints that Russell was unqualified and a Walker campaign functionary.
Walker took the unusual step at the time of sending a letter beseeching County Board Chairman Lee Holloway to back Russell’s appointment, saying he was needed to provide continuity on the county’s efforts to market vacant Park East Freeway corridor land.
Supervisor John Weishan Jr., a frequent Walker critic, said Thursday he and others were irritated at Walker repeatedly placing Russell in county posts despite concerns Russell did campaign work on county time.
Russell’s last job with the county was director of housing, a stint that ran about 10 months. Holloway fired Russell from that job Dec. 28, 2010, as one of his first official acts as interim county executive after Walker quit to become governor.
Holloway did so because of his ongoing concern that Russell was “too political,” said County Board spokesman Harold Mester.
Like Walker, Russell attended Marquette University though he’s several years older than the governor. Russell graduated in 1986, the year Walker began there.
Russell directed the Milwaukee office of former Gov. Tommy Thompson from early 1987 through late 1989, leaving for a post at the Wisconsin Housing and Economic Development Authority.
At WHEDA, Russell first worked as a marketing specialist and later headed the agency’s southeastern Wisconsin office, according to a Russell résumé on file at the county.
He also ran unsuccessfully for a state legislative seat in 2002, worked as public affairs consultant, ran a bed-and-breakfast inn and served as a real estate agent.
Here’s a recent timeline on Russell’s role with the Heritage Guard veteran’s group and Operation Freedom, based on the complaint and Journal Sentinel reporting:
In 2008, the county executive’s office discovered financial discrepancies involving the handling of Operation Freedom funds. At the time, the funds were under the control of a chapter of the Military Order of the Purple Heart, whose treasurer was a Walker appointee to a county veterans committee. That treasurer, Kevin Kavanaugh, was charged Thursday with embezzling from Operation Freedom donations.
In January 2009, Russell was promoted to Walker’s deputy chief of staff from a lesser position in Walker’s office.
In February 2009, because of the concerns over the Purple Heart’s work, Walker transferred the treasurer duties to the Cudworth Legion Post.
In mid-2009, Walker’s then chief of staff, Tom Nardelli, went to the district attorney’s office with suspicions about missing money under the Purple Heart management of funds back in 2007. Darlene Wink, a Walker staffer then in charge of Operation Freedom, had earlier raised concerns within Walker’s staff.
In August 2009, Todd Hunter – a lawyer who helped set up Heritage Guard in 2004 as an advocate for preservation of historic buildings on the VA grounds – turned over control of the nonprofit organization to Russell.
On Oct. 20, 2009, Walker transferred about $19,000 in Operation Freedom funds to Heritage Guard, as well as control of its finances. The Walker and Russell memo transferred the “ownership, responsibility and operation” of Operation Freedom to Heritage Guard, which the memo said “had expressed a desire to administer, manage and continue this worthwhile event.”
Walker terminated the county’s agreement with the Cudworth Legion Post, which had managed the funds in exemplary fashion, the complaint says.
The memo said Walker agreed to serve as the chairman of the advisory committee that was to be created for Operation Freedom. After that point, Russell actively raised private funds for the event. County executive office employees processed donation payments into a Heritage Guard account that Russell controlled, the complaint says.
One thing that did not change: The county always ran Operation Freedom, dating to 2003, whether the money-handling job was in the hands of the Purple Heart, the Legion or Heritage Guard and Russell.