MILWAUKEE — Wisconsin Attorney General Brad Schimel investigated a former assistant attorney general after he made critical remarks in a newspaper story, the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reported Thursday.
The newspaper reported that Schimel's office was looking into whether Thomas Dawson provided confidential information to the Journal Sentinel about a deal the state Department of Justice struck with a polluter.
Thomas Dawson was the state's top environmental lawyer before retiring in 2017. Dawson told the Journal Sentinel that he provided his opinion and no documents when he spoke to a newspaper reporter after he notified the agency he was retiring but while his unpaid vacation time was still being paid.
Dawson told the newspaper then that he and other attorneys had recommended a hefty fine against Minnesota-based 3M Co. but that they were overridden by higher-ups in the agency. At the time, Schimel spokesman Johnny Koremenos said the Justice Department was proud of the settlement that required 3M to spend an estimated $665,000 on improvements to pollution control equipment that failed repeatedly at two plants in Wausau.
Another Schimel spokesman, Alec Hanna, alleged that Dawson provided "confidential information" to the reporter, but he didn't specify what that was.
Officials still considered Dawson to be a state worker at the time he spoke to the reporter because his unused vacation time was still being paid out.
"However, regardless of whether he was retired or not, divulging privileged information is unethical under the attorney ethical rules and DOJ work rules," Hanna said. Hanna said the agency started its investigation after the Journal Sentinel published the March 2017 article quoting Dawson.
Dawson said he considered the investigation to be retaliation.
As a result of the probe, Dawson hired two top criminal defense attorneys to fight the action and he resolved the matter by taking his vacation pay in a lump sum.
The whole incident is part of a larger issue at Schimel's agency, Dawson said.
He noted that current Justice Department employees are now required to sign nondisclosure agreements that bar them from revealing any confidential information about their work — not just during their time in office but even after they leave the state's employment.
Dawson was one of 45 former DOJ lawyers who signed a letter opposing Schimel's re-election big. Democrat Josh Kaul is running against him in the Nov. 6 election