Fitchburg mayoral candidate Jason Gonzalez
The state is seeking a public reprimand against Fitchburg mayoral candidate Jason Gonzalez for violating professional conduct rules for Wisconsin attorneys. The Office of Lawyer Regulation — an agency of the Wisconsin Supreme Court — is alleging nine counts of misconduct against Gonzalez, a criminal defense attorney. The complaints stem from grievances filed by two of the candidate’s former clients.
Gonzalez got the most votes in the three-way primary for Fitchburg mayor on Feb. 21. The two-term city council member faces incumbent mayor Steve Arnold in the general election on April 4. He denies any wrongdoing and is disputing the charges before a disciplinary hearing scheduled Aug. 10.
“[This] has nothing to do with Fitchburg. It has to do with a guy who sent a picture of his penis to a kid and is upset that he got sent to prison,” says Gonzalez, referring to a former client who filed a grievance against him. “I’m more than happy to send you the police report and the picture.”
Gonzalez says the rare public reprimand he faces is “not news” and is “making mountains out of a molehill.” He’s also confident voters will elect him mayor on April 4 since he “beat Arnold by 10 percent” in the primary.
“We know this is [Steve Arnold’s] last ditch attempt because he can’t defend his own record as a mayor. He has to get dirty,” says Gonzalez, who has been practicing law for five years. “If [Isthmus] wants to attack the first Hispanic mayor in Dane County history, the first millennial mayor, you guys can do that all you want.”
Arnold, who is seeking a second-term as mayor, admits he heard about the misconduct complaint against his opponent. But he denies mentioning the allegations to voters or the media.
“I have not talked to anyone about this except a couple of my campaign advisors. We aren’t going to take this to the public. This doesn’t involve us,” says Arnold. “I’m running a positive campaign focused on my service to Fitchburg, my honesty and my experience.”
According to the complaint filed on Nov. 3, 2016, by the Office of Lawyer Regulation, Gonzalez faces nine counts of misconduct over grievances filed by two former clients.
One of those clients, James Carlson, was charged with operating while intoxicated in 2013. Investigators allege Gonzalez failed to keep his client informed, and did not provide his client an itemized bill when Carlson dismissed Gonzalez as his attorney and asked for a partial refund.
Gonzalez faces four counts of misconduct for his handling of Duane Jurgenson’s defense. In 2013, Jurgenson was charged with four felonies for child enticement (at least one was for an attempt). Gonzalez was hired to represent him against those charges and in a paternity case. Jurgenson pleaded “no contest” to the charges in May 2014 and was later sentenced to six years in prison and six years of suspended supervision.
As noted in the complaint, Gonzalez testified at a postconviction hearing in January 2016 “that he had not done any case law research on the meaning of ‘attempt.’” In April 2016, the court granted a motion to withdraw Jurgenson’s plea, “citing Gonzalez’s failure to understand and explain ‘attempt’ to Jurgenson as one basis.” A month later, Jurgenson’s conviction was vacated and the state reopened the case against him. The Office of Lawyer Regulation alleges Gonzalez’s actions violated the rule that lawyers “provide competent representation.”
In Jurgenson’s paternity case, investigators allege Gonzalez failed to respond to inquiries by his client and to prepare a court order to permit his client telephone contact with his daughter.
During the investigation into Carlson’s and Jurgenson’s grievances, the Office of Lawyer Regulation says Gonzalez misrepresented information to the agency. He is denying wrongdoing on all nine counts.
“The alleged violations have nothing to do with the city of Fitchburg or Mr. Gonzalez’s work on behalf of that city and its citizens, and the existence of the complaint should not be a factor in Mr. Gonzalez’s mayoral campaign,” says Peyton Engel, an attorney representing Gonzalez. “Of the hundreds of people Mr. Gonzalez has defended, some are inevitably found guilty. Of those, a few will complain that the reason they are guilty is because their lawyer was wrong.”
Thousands of unhappy clients do complain about their lawyers in Wisconsin. Keith Sellen, director of the Office of Lawyer Regulation, says his office receives around 2,000 grievances each year. However, about 95 percent are never made public or reach the Wisconsin Supreme Court, which has the final say on disciplining lawyers. Sellen says grievances are reviewed and investigated by the Office of Lawyer Regulation. In order to move forward with a public reprimand or other disciplinary action, an independent preliminary review committee must concur there is ample evidence to move forward with a hearing.
“It’s akin to a grand jury. They look at it and they have to be satisfied that there is cause to proceed,” says Sellen. “That we would be able to prove violations to the appropriate standard.”
Out of the 25,000 attorneys licensed to practice law in the state, 148 are listed on the Wisconsin Supreme Court’s website as “publicly disciplined lawyers.” If found in violation of professional conduct rules, Gonzalez will join that list. He is one of 42 attorneys with pending (and publicly disclosed) disciplinary complaints.
Gonzalez argues that the case has no bearing on the mayor’s race.
“This has nothing to do with my role as an alder in Fitchburg. It has to do with my permanent job,” says Gonzalez. “Unlike Steve [Arnold], I actually have a job.”
But unless rebuffed by voters on April 4, the 68-year-old Arnold does have a job: mayor of Fitchburg.