Wednesday, July 17, 2019

Winnebago Coroner Busby was subject to previous sexual harassment investigation, state records show

Oshkosh Examiner photo

The Winnebago County Coroner's Office operates from a suite in the basement of the Orrin H. King Building.
By Miles Maguire
The recently surfaced accusations against Winnebago County Coroner Barry Busby of sexual harassment are not the first time that these kinds of charges have been made against the highly popular official.

In 2012 the county took steps to keep Busby from meeting in person with a female deputy coroner who said that she had received unwanted sexual advances. “The few years that I have had to put up with you grabbing my ass and making sexual comments repeatedly have made it almost impossible for me to even want to continue with this job,” said Donna L. Francart in an Oct. 24, 2011, email to Busby.

The next day Francart, who worked weekends as a deputy coroner, wrote to Peg Raugh, the county’s human resources manager. “I desperately need to talk to you regarding a situation that I’ve been enduring for a couple of years,” she wrote. Francart added that she was unable to go to her full-time job that day “because I’m physically ill from the stress & afraid.”

Francart, who was later fired from the coroner’s office, was a divorced mother of two sons who worked multiple jobs to make ends meet. In her complaints to county officials, she described how Busby would visit her when she was off duty from the county and working at private employers, in one case a travel agency and in another case a funeral home.

“The fact that you came to my place of employment and sat there for a half hour facing me while I had clients at my desk was very unnerving,” Francart wrote in the 2011 email to Busby. “It continues to amaze me that you would feel that you have the right to touch me or talk to me like that.”

The county investigation was unable to substantiate the claim of sexual harassment, which Busby denied. But officials were apparently concerned enough about the situation that they set up a dropbox at the Neenah Police Department so that Francart and Busby could exchange paperwork without meeting face to face, according to a letter from the county’s outside law firm, Godfrey & Kahn.

Busby declined to comment for this article and referred questions about Francart’s later dismissal to the county’s personnel office.

In a letter dated Jan. 30, 2012, county officials told Busby that they “were unable to find that you discriminated against Ms. Francart on the basis of her gender or any other protected class.” But they also said they had concluded “that the complainant acted in good faith” and warned Busby against retaliating.

In a separate letter to Francart, also dated Jan. 30, 2012, the investigators identified eight specific allegations of harassment by the deputy coroner against her boss, ranging from touching to inappropriate comments to veiled requests for sex.

In one case, Francart told county staffers, Busby reacted to the death of an elderly woman who died after falling while getting dressed. “That’s the problem,” Busby is quoted as saying. “Women are always trying to put their pants on when they should be taking them off.”

Monday, July 15, 2019

Walmart sues to lower its Oshkosh property tax bill

Oshkosh Examiner photo

The Oshkosh Walmart is valued by the city at $16.6 million, but the company says it's worth only $10.4 million.

By Miles Maguire
Renewing its legal battle with the city of Oshkosh, Walmart filed suit July 3 to have $6.2 million knocked off the assessment on its South Washburn Street store.

The company sits atop the Fortune 500 and had $500 billion in sales last year. But like other major retailers, it believes that its stores are worth much less than local real estate assessors have determined.

Two other “big box” retailers, Lowe’s and Menards, have already won significant rebates from the city on the grounds that their buildings were overassessed.

City officials argue that the retail chains are taking unfair advantage of the assessment process and pushing their share of the tax burden off to small businesses and residential property owners. A bill to amend state law to address these concerns was introduced in March and referred to committees in the assembly and senate.

The controversy is frequently described as the “dark store” issue because retailers have argued that their stores are so specifically designed that they would have a very low value to other users. Under this theory, even a big-box location that is thriving should be compared to vacant stores to come up with its assessment value.

“The dark store legislation addresses two property tax loopholes that have enabled certain commercial properties to demand, and receive, significant property tax reductions,” according to a statement from the League of Wisconsin Municipalities.

The first one allows the use of vacant stores as comparable sites to determine value. “The second loophole is based on the 2008 Wisconsin Supreme Court Walgreens decision, which prevents an assessor from considering actual contract rent in determining the value of certain types of retail income property,” the league said.

Oshkosh legislators Gordon Hintz, a Democrat, and Michael Schraa, a Republican who also owns Leon’s Frozen Custard on Murdock Avenue, have both signed on as cosponsors.

Sen. Dan Feyen, a Republican whose district includes Oshkosh, voted earlier this year to keep the bill from moving out of committee. In an email a staffer defended Feyen’s vote, saying that the bill would have gone to the floor of the senate without a public hearing.

“It is extremely unusual to bring a bill to the floor that has not received a public hearing in either house,” the email said. “This is why Sen. Feyen voted against bringing the bill to the floor.” The staffer did not respond to a followup request for clarification on whether Feyen supports the dark store changes.

Lynn Lorenson, Oshkosh city attorney, said the city has been in negotiations since last year with Walmart about its assessment.

The new lawsuit appears to be an extension of a case filed last year, which according to court documents has been put on hold while the two sides attempt to negotiate a settlement. Lorenson said the two sides have been exchanging information to bolster their arguments.

In one way the new case suggests that the city and the retail chain are moving closer to agreement. This year Walmart is arguing for a new assessment of “no more than $10.4 million.” Last year it said the site was worth “no more than $8.5 million.”

Walmart did not respond to a request for comment.

Tuesday, July 9, 2019

Winnebago County Coroner Barry Busby issues statement on public safety committee investigation

Oshkosh Media
Winnebago County Coroner Barry L. Busby appears during a televised 2014 campaign debate.

By Miles Maguire

Winnebago County Coroner Barry L. Busby said Tuesday he had "no idea" what the county’s Judiciary and Public Safety Committee is doing with its investigation of him and his office.

In a telephone interview, he provided the following statement:

"Everything is going fine with the coroner's office.  
"Investigations, working with families, involvement with all meetings, including prevention and education, and attending autopsies--they're all going as normal without any issues. 
"Work continues to be done, with followup investigations with families handled accordingly.
"I continue to handle my medical issues and oversee the work done by the deputies."

Monday, July 8, 2019

Troubles mount for Winnebago County Coroner Busby as public safety panel readies investigation

Oshkosh Media
Winnebago County Coroner Barry L. Busby appears during a televised 2014 campaign debate.
By Miles Maguire

The county’s Judiciary and Public Safety Committee is launching an investigation into Coroner Barry L. Busby, whose extended out-of-state absences and other erratic behavior have prompted calls for his resignation from the county executive, the sheriff and the chair of the board of supervisors.

“People have the right to know their coroner is not a crook,” said committee Chairman Bill Wingren, who represents District 18 on the east side of Oshkosh. “We need to investigate this.”

The public safety committee went into closed session at its July 8 meeting and discussed  Busby’s recent behavior. Officials have cited their concern about his firing of a longtime chief deputy and an allegation of sexual harassment that prompted an ethics investigation by the Wisconsin Coroners and Medical Examiners Association.

As an elected official, Busby has no administrative supervisor and can only be removed from office by the governor or by voters. Under state law Busby, a Republican who ran unopposed last fall, is beyond the reach of a recall election until January at the earliest, Wingren said.

Busby Busby said Tuesday he had "no idea" what the county’s Judiciary and Public Safety Committee is doing with its investigation of him and his office. His full statement is here.

“This is about absent leadership and poor leadership,” Wingren said. “People deserve unquestioned leadership and the highest level of integrity” in the coroner’s office.

The coroner is responsible for investigating suspicious or unexplained deaths such as murders, suicides and overdoses as well as providing services such as cremation permits and death certificates. Busby earns $72,989 a year and is assisted by three part-time workers: an administrative associate and two deputy coroners.

The deputies are able to perform the duties of the coroner, an arrangement that has allowed Busby to spend extended periods of time out of state while arguing that there has been no disruption in service.

His office investigates about seven deaths a month, typically sending corpses to Milwaukee for autopsies by the medical examiner there. But Busby has put in for travel reimbursement in connection with only a handful of the autopsies through April, which county officials take to mean that he is having his deputies do most of the work.

“We’re looking at this very seriously,” Wingren said. But it is not clear exactly how his committee will proceed. He said he has asked the county’s top lawyer to review “various options.”

The public safety committee went into closed session under two sections of the open meeting law. One provision relates to “medical or personal histories which, if discussed in public, would be likely to have a substantial adverse effect upon the reputation of any person referred to in such histories.”

The other provision allows for “conferring with legal counsel for the governmental body with respect to litigation in which it is likely to become involved.”

Wingren would not disclose the specifics of his committee’s discussion. “I am aware of Barry Busby’s civil rights,” Wingren said.