Christian Schneider

Author, Columnist

Et Tu Chuck? The Hand From the Grave

\"\" I don\’t know what State Senator Jon Erpenbach\’s Christmas list looks like, but I can bet Chuck Chvala\’s name ain\’t on it.

Today Chvala, who is awaiting sentencing after being found guilty on two felony counts for his actions as former Senate Majority Leader, issued an apology to the court, presumably to lobby for less jail time. In this noxious, bilous document (more on that later), Chvala refers to Erpenbach by name twice, and specifically implicates Erpenbach in the illegal activity to which he confesses.

This isn\’t the first time Chvala has tried to pull Erpenbach into his morass. In fact, to see a man more obsessed with another man, you\’re going to have to go see a screening of \”Brokeback Mountain.\” Chvala is trying to give Erpenbach the same treatment he\’s going to be getting when he heads to the Big House.

It all began back in 1998, when Chvala essentially used his state resources to direct Erpenbach to a win in the 27th Senate seat outside of Madison. In October of 2002, Chvala was hit with 20 felony criminal counts, including extortion, filing false campaign reports, and using state resources to direct campaigns.

\"\"Here\’s where it gets interesting. In the rush to fill Chvala\’s spot as majority leader, Senate Democrats picked co-leaders: Senators Russ Decker and Fred Risser take over. As the attached Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel article states, Decker was seen as Chvala\’s right hand man to guide the caucuses in his absence. But the article also contained this:

Although some speculated that Sen. Jon Erpenbach (D-Middleton) might seek the job, he said he would not go after the influential post.

Let me translate that: Jon Erpenbach started calling around to see if he had the votes to be leader, and he did not. In the process of doing so, he may have exposed himself as a political opportunist, and may have said some unflattering things about Chvala.

Of course, in the ensuing weeks the Democratic caucus collapsed and the Senate Republicans ended up beating three incumbent Democratic senators, largely by using their ties to Chvala. This swing gave the Senate GOP an 18-15 majority, and relegated the Democratic caucus to the minority.

Sensing a need to clean house, Erpenbach then ran for minority leader for the Senate Democrats, and he won. A month later, however, his leadership was challenged, as described in this Journal-Sentinel news brief:

Milwaukee Journal Sentinel (Wisconsin)
February 4, 2004
Wirch drops challenge to Erpenbach

Madison — State Sen. Bob Wirch (D-Kenosha) said Tuesday he dropped his challenge to his party\’s Senate leader, Sen. Jon Erpenbach (D-Middleton).Wirch, who announced that he was considering challenging Erpenbach last week, estimated that that he had six of the eight votes required to be elected leader of the 15 Senate Democrats. Republicans control the Senate, 18-15.\”I was close,\” Wirch said.Wirch said his potential challenge grew out of a Senate vote that overrode Democratic Gov. Jim Doyle\’s veto of a concealed weapons bill.

Five of the 15 Democrats, including Wirch, voted to override the governor\’s veto. Erpenbach threatened to remove Democratic Sen. Russ Decker of Schofield from the Legislature\’s budget committee if he voted to override Doyle, which Decker did. Wirch said Decker was one of six supporters in a bid to oust Erpenbach.Other Capitol emocrats said Wirch had been encouraged to challenge Erpenbach by state Sen. Chuck Chvala (D-Madison), the former Senate majority leader who faces 19 criminal charges as a result of a corruption investigation.

So a month into Erpenbach\’s leadership, Chvala was already working to undermine his authority.

The Chvala trial dragged on and on, in large part due to the number of motions Chvala filed to have it delayed. In the meantime, Senate Democrats lost one more seat in the 2004 elections to bring the senate to 19-14, Republicans (Chvala chose not to run).

\"\"In October of this year, Chvala finally pleaded guilty to two felony counts in a plea deal with the prosecution. What is interesting, however, is that he decided to plead guilty to one of the counts that implicates Erpenbach in his illegal activity. Curiously, an article written by Steven Walters appeared in the Journal Sentinel on October 30th of this year that suggests Republicans might go after Erpenbach based on his ties to Chvala.

From the article:

\”When former state Senate Majority Leader Chuck Chvala pleaded guilty to one felony last week, he did so in a way that gave Republicans an election-year opening against Sen. Jon Erpenbach (D-Middleton)…

According to the criminal complaint, then-Senate Democratic caucus worker Julie Laundrie, whose job Chvala controlled, told investigators \”she worked at least 90% of her time for Erpenbach during his election from her state office and on state time.\”

Laundrie also told investigators that Chvala called her \”several times a day\” at her state desk about Erpenbach\’s campaign, according to the complaint, which added: \”Laundrie stated that she felt she would have lost her job in the caucus office if Erpenbach had not won his election.\”

Now, I\’m not a GOP insider, but I would be shocked if Republicans planted this story. They don\’t really have a chance of winning that seat, and couldn\’t even find anyone to run against Erpenbach in 2002. Plus, they have several key vulnerable seats to defend around the state, and it would be nuts to sink money into a seat that\’s 60% Democratic.

So how did this story end up in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel? Who suggested it?

Finally, we are treated to Chvala\’s nauseating \”apology\” today, where he mentions Erpenbach by name twice in reference to one of his felony counts. He even throws in the fact that Erpenbach\’s staffer received a hefty salary increase for her campaign work, just to be a nice guy.

So what exactly is going on here? Is there any doubt Chvala is paying Erpenbach back for his disloyalty following the criminal counts?

On a final note, any judge that looks at Chvala\’s apology should immediately triple his prison sentence. It is an absolutely preposterous document that posits Chvala as an innocent bystander, unable to control all of the things going on around him. In fact, by all accounts, nothing could go on without Chvala\’s knowledge, and he was the meanest bastard to ever disgrace the halls of the State Capitol. He finishes up with this unbelievable statement:

\”I am extremely sensitive to these charges because they not only devastated me personally, both emotionally and financially, but also because they have obscured my work and the work of other Senate Democrats for children, senior citizens, the environments and working fam
ilies which achieved a Senior Prescription Drug program (senior care), lower class size for children in kindergarten through third grade (SAGE), healthcare for children, and increased investment in preserving sensitive land (stewardship) and even a do not call list to protect the privacy of children in their homes.\”

So Chvala really never stops campaigning, even when it sends him to prison. Fortunately, the next time he runs for anything, it will be for a \”safe seat.\”


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