E-mails outline plans to fire vet secretaryMADISON, Wis. (AP) — Members of the Wisconsin Veterans Affairs Board had detailed plans to fire Secretary John Scocos and replace him with Ken Black a week before the vote, including talking points defending the decision, e-mails show.
By: RYAN J. FOLEY,Associated Press Writer, Superior Telegram
MADISON, Wis. (AP) — Members of the Wisconsin Veterans Affairs Board had detailed plans to fire Secretary John Scocos and replace him with Ken Black a week before the vote, including talking points defending the decision, e-mails show.
Gov. Jim Doyle's office also advised a board member to detail displeasure with Scocos in public before removing him, the e-mails obtained by The Associated press show. Taken together, they raise questions about whether the board acted independently of the governor's office or violated the state's open meetings law.
On Nov. 24, the board voted 5-0 to fire Scocos and replace him with Black, a department administrator. The decision came after months of acrimony between Scocos and the board, which cited concerns with what it called mismanagement of agency spending and personnel.
Scocos has filed a lawsuit claiming his removal violated a federal law protecting returning service members since it occurred just two months after he returned from his second tour of duty in Iraq with the U.S. Army Reserve.
Scocos, a Republican appointee, also alleges that the Democratic governor and his appointees fired him for political reasons. Doyle and board members deny the claims.
Scocos' attorney, Jim Troupis, declined to comment on Thursday because he had not seen the e-mails in question.
The agency released the e-mail exchanges between board members in the weeks leading up to the firing at the AP's request. They show that three of the five who voted to remove Scocos had discussed nearly every detail about the firing beforehand, including whether he should be physically removed afterward.
The Wisconsin Department of Justice advises public officials that "agreeing on a uniform course of action" before a meeting could violate the open meetings law, which promotes government transparency.
The Justice Department also cautions public officials when using e-mail, citing the potential for inadvertent violations. Veterans Affairs Board Chairwoman Marcia Anderson previously has said that members are careful to comply with the law.
Anderson declined to comment on Thursday, given the ongoing lawsuit.
But a week before the firing, board member Jackie Guthrie sent two other members a proposed public statement describing their rationale for the decision and talking points to respond to questions they would face.
If asked "Why was John fired?", Guthrie suggested responding that it was the board's consensus to move on after Scocos' six-year tenure. "As we've stated the Secretary serves at the 'pleasure of the board' and it is time for a change," the document reads.
If asked whether the action violated the law, Guthrie suggested responding that his service in Iraq "had nothing to do with our decision today." Guthrie's statement added that board members asked Black to be secretary while they sought a permanent replacement and "are pleased to announce that Mr. Black has accepted this appointment."
"You rock!" Anderson responded. But she wrote that they should not release the conditions that "we asked Ken to serve under — do not want to give anyone an opening to contest his authority to make decisions or changes."
The same day, board member Dan Naylor thanked Anderson for meeting with him to discuss the change. He attached a document summarizing the process they discussed to remove Scocos, and asked, "Is it wise to do it days before Thanksgiving?"
Naylor outlined how the special meeting would unfold one week later: a public session where members would grill Scocos, a closed session to consider removing him and an open session to approve the move. He wrote that the decision should be based on "performance issues" such as rate increases at the veterans nursing home in Union Grove and poor communication with the board, which were later cited.
Naylor wrote that Scocos should be removed from the building after collecting his belongings and the board should be "prepared for crowd control."
Anderson forwarded Naylor's outline to Guthrie, wrote that it "captures our thoughts very well" and asked her to develop more talking points. The next day, Guthrie sent additional material to Anderson and board member David Boetcher.
If asked whether the meeting was being called to fire Scocos, Guthrie wrote that they should say the board was merely exercising its responsibility to oversee the secretary. "Our goal Tuesday is to ensure this is being accomplished — not to 'fire' anyone," she wrote.
On Nov. 19, department chief counsel Jimmy Stewart e-mailed Anderson advice on board rules for removing the secretary. He noted that the governor's office had cautioned Anderson "to ensure appropriate public exposure prior to the actual removal vote" and suggested the board draw up a "bill of particulars" for his firing.
"It will allow the Board to demonstrate exactly what the Governor's office was requesting, namely that there are a lot of reasons for doing this," Stewart wrote.
Doyle, who appoints members to the board, has said he was careful not to be involved in the firing. The agency is supposed to be insulated from political influence.
Then-board Chairman Marv Freedman was traveling overseas before the meeting but kept in touch with other members via e-mail. Freedman told Anderson she should brief Susan Crawford, Doyle's top lawyer, and meet with Stewart "to be sure that all the bases are covered from a technical standpoint, especially if the 'ultimate decision' needs to be made."
Freedman also reminded Anderson that Boetcher could not vote because he had not been confirmed by the Senate. "As I am sure you realize," he wrote, "you have to be sure you have all five remaining votes" to fire Scocos.