by CHRIS ROGERS
Trempealeau County District Attorney Taavi McMahon may face a recall election this fall. In the last two months, over 3,000 people signed a petition to recall the chief prosecutor. McMahon has until next Thursday to challenge the validity of the petition. If the petition succeeds, there will be a special election this fall over whether to keep McMahon in office or elect someone else instead.
A year of criticism
It has been a rough year for McMahon. He is currently being sued by a former employee of his office, Nancy Knudtson, who claims that McMahon ordered employees to use a vacation day to attend the September 2017 funeral of former Jackson County District Attorney Gerald Fox at a church in Black River Falls, Wis. In an interview, McMahon said he gave employees an option to work from home if they did not want to attend the funeral. In October 2017, the County Board’s Executive Committee complained to Governor Scott Walker’s office — McMahon is a state employee elected by local voters and not directly answerable to the County Board — about the situation and about McMahon’s performance in general, according to numerous news reports. “What’s happened basically since September 8, 2017, is an ongoing witch hunt in which the County Board, in my opinion, was influenced by a disgruntled employee who didn’t like that I closed my office in honor of Gerald Fox,” McMahon argued. Knudtson had worked for Trempealeau County for 47 years. Her suit claims that by requiring her to attend a religious service at a church, McMahon violated her First Amendment rights, and that when the county placed her on paid leave for seven months before ultimately firing her this March, it was an act of illegal retaliation.
Then in December 2017, the County Board wrote to Governor Walker’s office to complain about McMahon again and ask that the governor suspend him, claiming that McMahon gave false information to Judge Rian Radtke. McMahon told Radtke he had requested a special prosecutor to fill in for him, according to a letter from the governor’s office. The governor’s office decided that because McMahon later told Radtke the truth — he had not filed the paperwork to request a special prosecutor, according to the governor’s office — and because McMahon cleared the situation up before any special prosecutor was assigned, the issue was not grounds for suspension.
This March, Judge Anna Becker dismissed a child sexual abuse case because of McMahon’s actions. It was a serious case. James Paul Killian, 58, of rural Independence, was charged with first-degree sexual assault of a child under 13 and second-degree sexual assault of a child. McMahon was prosecuting the case. Becker dismissed the charges and ordered that Killian could not be tried again because, Becker ruled, McMahon had intentionally caused a mistrial — a violation called prosecutorial overreach. Throughout her order, Becker criticized McMahon for being unprepared for trial. She rejected a new incest charge McMahon tried to bring the day of trial, and when McMahon tried to introduce last-minute evidence of other incidents of alleged molestation, Becker wrote that the evidence was likely relevant but that McMahon had erred by not introducing it earlier. If McMahon had been prepared, he could have introduced the evidence months earlier, Becker wrote. The judge ruled that evidence of additional offenses could not be introduced so late in the case, and she warned McMahon it could cause a mistrial if he brought it up in front of the jury. Then, during the child-victim’s testimony, McMahon asked a question that resulted in the child talking about an incident the judge had forbidden McMahon from introducing. Becker ruled that McMahon’s question was not an accident, but an intentional attempt to throw the trial — because he was unprepared for it — and retry Killian in the future.
“The bottom line is we did our best in that case,” McMahon stated. He said he respectfully disagreed with the judge’s decision, adding, “Initially she said I did not engage in prosecutorial overreach, and she changed her mind after, I believe, being misled by defense attorneys.” He continued, “The judge made a lot of evidentiary rulings that were limiting the state’s case, and I believe that was all based on a misunderstanding and a misinterpretation of the law.” McMahon said he did make a mistake by asking the child-victim the question that led to the case’s dismissal. “I made a two-word mistake,” he said. McMahon noted that he has successfully prosecuted many sexual assault cases. “This was a bad day in court,” he stated, adding, “I’m human.”
Killian’s defense attorney, Todd Schroeder, said of the dismissal, “In one respect, it’s a very successful outcome. On the other hand, [Killian] doesn’t have the opportunity to be vindicated either — because a jury didn’t find him not guilty, a prosecutor just screwed up.”
The recall petition
Last week, the Wisconsin Elections Commission announced that they had received a petition to recall McMahon with 3,149 signatures — 466 more than the 2,683 needed to demand a recall election.
“The recall effort does not stem from one issue, but from numerous concerns on different fronts,”
Kevin Deeren said. Deeren is one of several people who helped circulate the petition, and he pointed to McMahon’s treatment of his employees, his handling of the Killian case, and his performance as a prosecutor in general as reasons for the recall. Deeren is running for Trempealeau County Sheriff as a Republican in this fall’s election. McMahon is a Democrat.
“We need to raise the bar for our county’s representatives, and [McMahon’s] actions are just not acceptable,” Deeren stated. “I’ve worked with hundreds of different prosecutors in my career, and I couldn’t in good conscience send my deputies to testify for him. His unpreparedness creates liabilities,” Deeren said.
In a statement earlier this summer, petition organizers also complained about McMahon being too lenient with drug offenders. For his part, McMahon does not apologize for supporting rehab programs. “We cannot solve our county’s drug problem by arresting and prosecuting. We have to focus on treatment,” he stated.
“I’m more concerned with his unpreparedness, which seems to be the issue in each of these instances that present themselves, more than him dropping certain cases,” Deeren stated.
“I can understand that after 10 months of mudslinging you might think something is sticking, but there’s also such a thing as a political witch hunt, and that’s what I think is happening,” McMahon said of the various criticisms against him. “I think that you’ll find our conviction rates are on par with other counties. We always prepare for preliminary hearings. We have very few trials in our county, but we always prepare for trial,” he added.
Were some petitioners misled?
LaVonne Wier was getting ready to ride the Sons of Norway float in the Trempealeau Catfish Days Parade when a man approached her to sign the recall petition. “He starts talking to the group of us there, and basically what he said was, ‘If you sign this petition [McMahon] gets to be on the ballot this fall,’ like that was a really good thing,” Wier stated. The recall petition would indeed put McMahon on the ballot this fall, but only in a special recall election to defend his seat. McMahon was reelected to a four-year term in 2016, and would not otherwise be up for reelection until 2020.
Wier did not sign and said she tried to tell other people what the petition really meant. Nevertheless, several people signed thinking they were helping McMahon, Wier claims. Charlene Saxe said she was one of those people. “I asked, ‘Is this to support Taavi?’ And [the petition circulator] nodded his head, yes, and then I said, ‘Well, I’m signing it,’” she stated.
Saxe said she knew McMahon when he was growing up, and she opposes the recall. Wier said, “Maybe [McMahon] is a bad guy. Maybe he’s a good guy. That’s not the point. The point is you’ve got this petition out there, and this guy was giving people the impression this was to support Taavi McMahon.”
Osseo Police Chief William Prudlick is one of the leaders of the recall campaign. He did not return multiple calls for comment. In a Facebook message, petition organizers declined to comment for this story, saying they would not give any more interviews until the state certifies whether the petition is sufficient.
McMahon has until next Thursday to challenge the validity of the signatures. According to state officials, McMahon would likely need to collect affidavits from signatories to claim that circulators misrepresented the petition. Signatures could also be invalid if the signers do not live in Trempealeau County, if signers are not eligible to vote, or the petition circulators made mistakes in preparing and submitting the petition.
The Elections Commission will decide whether the petition is sufficient by late August. If it is sufficient, there will be a short window for other candidates to file for election, and a special election will be held in September or October. If there are more than two candidates, that September or October election will be a primary to narrow the field before a recall election in October or November.