MADISON, Wis. (AP) – A western Wisconsin police chief was charged Thursday with a misdemeanor for allegedly registering a tea party leader for solicitations from gay dating, pornography and federal health care websites.
Town of Campbell Police Chief Tim Kelemen was charged with one count of unlawful use of a computerized communication system, which carries a maximum penalty of $1,000 in fines and 90 days in jail. Kelemen would still be able to stay on as police chief if convicted, since only those with felonies or misdemeanor convictions related to domestic violence are barred from being police officers, according to the state Department of Justice.
Kelemen’s attorney, Jim Birnbaum, said the charge isn’t fair. Kelemen did sign up La Crosse Tea Party leader Greg Luce for the sites, Birnbaum said, but he did it to get back at Luce for allegedly telling tea party supporters to harass and threaten his officers.
“I think it isn’t fair when the behavior of the tea party has been unchallenged and unabated,” Birnbaum said. “Then to have a charge filed against the chief because of, really, an act of frustration is unfortunate.”
Birnbaum said he and Monroe County District Attorney Kevin Croninger have worked out a deal that calls for the chief to plead no contest but avoid a conviction if he completes counseling and performs 40 hours of community service.
The two sides had planned to ask La Crosse County Circuit Judge Dale Pasell to approve the deal during Kelemen’s initial appearance Thursday but Pasell recused himself from the case because he has worked with Kelemen, Birnbaum said. They’ll try to find an out-of-county judge to sign off, Birnbaum said.
Croninger didn’t return an after-hours message left at his office Thursday.
Kelemen leads a five-officer department in the Town of Campbell, a town of about 4,000 just outside La Crosse. He’s been at odds with the La Crosse Tea Party since last fall, when the conservative group began staging protests on a town overpass that stretches across Interstate 90.
Kelemen cited concerns that the protests were distracting drivers and convinced the town board to pass an ordinance in October banning signs, banners and flags on the bridge. That angered tea party supporters. Kelemen and Birnbaum say Luce retaliated by urging supporters across the country to bombard the police department with harassing phone calls and threats.
Luce started receiving calls and emails from gay dating, porn and health care websites in January, according to police reports. La Crosse investigators tracked some of the activity to a computer at Kelemen’s home and the Campbell town hall, according to a criminal complaint.
La Crosse police handed the case to the neighboring Monroe County Sheriff’s Department due to La Crosse officers’ close relationship with Kelemen.
The chief initially told a sheriff’s investigator in May that he knew nothing about the websites. Later, though, he acknowledged he signed Luce up for them to get back at him.
The chief remains free on a signature bond. The town board placed him on paid leave in June as word spread that he was under investigation. Town Chairman Scott Johnson didn’t immediately return a message left at his home Thursday evening.
Croninger spoke with The Associated Press by phone Thursday morning before he filed the charge. He said he chose the illegal use of a computer system count rather than identity theft or misconduct in office because he didn’t feel comfortable he could prove those charges beyond a reasonable doubt. He felt Kelemen wasn’t acting in his official capacity when he signed Luce up for the sites.
“There’s not really any factual dispute about what took place. It’s just how those facts fit the statutes,” Croninger said. “This is more of a harassing situation than to harm someone’s reputation. That is the distinction I see.”
Luce has filed a federal civil lawsuit alleging Kelemen stole his identity and that the overpass ordinance violates his free-speech rights. Luce’s attorney, Erin Mersino, issued a statement Thursday saying Kelemen has made poor decisions and Luce is pursuing justice.