Tuesday, November 26, 2019

Oshkosh man detained at Mercy said he carried fireworks for protection, forgot them when admitted

A patient who brought explosive devices into Mercy hospital faces a Class H felony charge.

By Miles Maguire
The explosive devices that were discovered this month at Mercy hospital were brought into the facility by a patient who said he carried them for protection because, as a felon, he cannot own a gun.

Steel M. Lee was charged Nov. 26 with possession of improvised explosives. In speaking with police, he called them “firecrackers.”

Authorities described the devices as 1-inch tubes packed with “pyrotechnic or flash” powder. One was 4 inches long while the other was 5 to 6 inches long. They each had a wick inserted in the middle.

Lee, 29, told police he never intended to hurt himself or anyone else and that he forgot that he had the devices when he checked himself in for treatment of an infection.

When police arrived at the hospital, Lee “appeared to be very paranoid and was potentially having a mental health crisis,” according to court papers. “He believed that the government was out to get him and that there was a ‘hit’ out for him.”

Friday, November 22, 2019

Oshkosh OKs sale of south-side land for 'Sawdust Lofts'

Photo used by permission of Google Street View.

The city has agreed to sell this contaminated site on South Main Street to a developer for $1.

By Miles Maguire
The city’s Redevelopment Authority has agreed to sell a south-side parcel valued at $150,000 for $1 to a local development company that is proposing to build 60 units of “workforce” apartments there.

Northpointe Development Corp., which is owned by Andy Dumke and Cal Schultz, won out over three other entities that had ideas for the contaminated lot, which is in the 700 block of South Main Street.

Dumke and Schultz are proposing to put almost $11 million into the project. They plan to build a four-story building of one-, two- and three-bedroom apartments to be known as Sawdust Lofts. Dumke was out of the office and not immediately available for comment.

Subsidized rents would start at $385. Nine market-rate units would rent for as much as $975 a month, according to bid documents.

Allen Davis, the city’s director of community development, said the cut-rate price for the property was justified by the potential for the apartment project to serve as a catalyst for future development in the Sawdust District.

He said the RDA board liked the relatively large number of units and their proposed rental rates. “It’s a workforce solution that we need in that area,” he said.

The project would also include three levels of underground parking as well as a plaza that would be available for public use with food trucks or other community events, he said.

The site is heavily contaminated and will require “lots of remediation,” Davis added. The possibility of a subsidy in the form of tax increment financing was not discussed but could come up at a later time, he said.

A TIF proposal and specific building plans would have to be approved by the Common Council, but the sale of the land does not require further review, Davis said.

Thomas Belter, the vice chair of the RDA, said all of the proposals for the site were “very nice uses.” He and Davis said they hope that the other projects will eventually come to fruition under the Sawdust District redevelopment plan, which is expected to be released in a matter of months.

“There is a lot of land across the street and down the street,” Belter said. “So there are alternative sites for some of the other projects.”

The other bidders for the site were:

  • Alexander & Bishop, an Oshkosh real estate company that has been active in residential and retail projects across the city. It proposed to use the site for four buildings, each of which would contain four townhouses and garage parking.
  • Bridgeview Holdings, the owners of the Miles Kimball building next door. It proposed to use the site for parking to serve tenants and customers for a planned restaurant in the historic structure after it is renovated.
  • Oshkosh Bier & Brewing Co., whose owner, Jeffrey Fulbright, founded one of the first craft beer companies in the state. Fulbright has been working on developing a brewery and “bier garten” in Oshkosh and previously pursued a site on Jackson Street.

“There is a lot more land” in the Sawdust District, Davis said. “We’re hoping [Fulbright's] project could land on one of the other sites.”

Although the neighborhood already has one craft brewer, Davis said he could imagine as many as three operating in that section of the city.

“We have Fifth Ward, but it would help to have a second or a third,” Davis. “It would help to make Oshkosh a destination.”

Thursday, November 21, 2019

Former top UW Oshkosh officials Wells and Sonnleitner renew their calls for criminal case to be dismissed

The state says financial commitments to support biodigesters and other projects violated the state constitution.
By Miles Maguire
Two former UW Oshkosh officials have renewed their calls for criminal charges against them to be dismissed in a case relating to the school’s charitable foundation.

The state’s recently amended complaint against former Chancellor Richard Wells H. Wells and former Vice Chancellor Thomas G. Sonnleitner still contains defects and should be rejected, their lawyers argued in a brief filed Nov. 15.

The two men face five felony counts of misconduct in office for their role in facilitating real estate transactions by the UWO Oshkosh Foundation. While the two did facilitate those transactions, the unresolved issue is whether they were criminally exceeding their authority in doing so.

The state argues that what the two did, giving banks financial commitments backed up by UW Oshkosh, was a violation of the Wisconsin Constitution. But this argument has been shot down by two judges, and the University of Wisconsin System ultimately did make good on those commitments, undercutting the idea that those promises were outside the law.

In its amended complaint, the state Department of Justice points to a 2013 email that was sent to Sonnleitner warning him that certain proposed financial promises on behalf of the university were illegal. But this email did not reference earlier financial promises that had already been extended to the foundation in the form of memorandums of agreement.

This email “does not provide a sufficient factual basis to establish, for probable cause purposes, that the defendants were without authority and knew they didn’t have authority and were acting illegally in 2012,” the defense asserts.

At least one senior UW System official, Vice President of Finance Deborah Durcan, knew about the promises made by the former officials and did not try to block those commitments. The defense has seized on this fact to show that the men had reason to believe that they had not exceeded their authority.

“Durcan knew or should have known at least the same as the defendants, and she never disputed the defendants’ authority to act,” the defense brief states.

The prosecution has also raised some new legal arguments by citing previous decisions that it says support its view about how to evaluate the defendants’ state of mind.

But the defense argues those decisions are not on point, in part because of the underlying facts. One case involves a sexual assault by a therapist and the other involves a defendant who desecrated an American flag by defecating on it.

The next steps in the case are now up to Winnebago County Circuit Judge John A. Jorgensen, who has has scheduled an oral ruling for Jan. 15.

Friday, November 15, 2019

Winnebago County court filings show string of bomb threats preceded Nov. 6 explosives incident at Mercy

Police were called to Mercy Hospital early on the morning of Nov. 6 after an explosive device was found.
By Miles Maguire
The Nov. 6 incident involving explosive devices at the Mercy campus of Ascension hospitals followed a string of threats by a local man who has a history of raising false alarms and who is facing five felony counts in Winnebago County Circuit Court for bomb scares.

The man was ordered to undergo a competency examination Nov. 5 based on threats that were made mostly in Menasha. The next day the Oshkosh Police Department said it had found two explosive devices “in an individual’s property” at the hospital in the early morning hours.

The carefully worded press release said the man was not a hospital employee but did not provide a name or any of the details about how the devices were found or what they consisted of.

Neither the hospital nor the police will go beyond prepared statements, and neither would confirm or deny whether the man who has been making the bomb threats was the same man who was detained for the explosive devices.

No charges have been filed in the Mercy case.

The man who is accused of making the bomb threats is 29-year-old Joshua Cheek, who has been living in a group home in Menasha. The age of the man described in the police press release was given as 39, and he was said to have a home in Oshkosh as opposed to Menasha, although Cheek has lived in Oshkosh, according to court records.

Cheek has been making bomb threats for more than a decade, court documents show. In January 2009 he was arrested in Gainesville, Florida, after using a public library computer to write that there were explosives at three local courts. The charges were dismissed in 2011 based on an “out of state commitment,” according to online records of Alachua County.

By then Cheek had been declared “guilty but not guilty due to mental disease/defect” on three counts of making bomb threats in Winnebago County. Based on a complaint that was filed in March 2010, Cheek wound up at Mendota Mental Health Institute in Madison.

In this case Cheek accessed the internet through a PlayStation 3 video game console and entered a California-based chat room, where he left a message: “There is a bomb in Oshkosh Wisconsin 54902, I have no phone,” according to court papers.

Police were able to trace an online address to Cheek’s physical address, on West Sixth Avenue. Initially Cheek denied making the bomb threat but later acknowledged that he was worried “because he had previous troubles in Florida for ‘similar things’ and that if he were to get arrested again he would get 45 years in jail,” according to a criminal complaint.

He eventually said he had made bomb threats about the Oshkosh Public Library, City Center and the nearby hotel.

But before that case was completed, Cheek was charged with an additional count of bomb scares, according to court records. In August 2010 he borrowed his uncle’s cellphone, first to look up bomb threat cases against him in Florida and Tennessee.

Then he sent an email to the Oshkosh Police Department with the message, “bomb in downtown Oshkosh going off in one hour,” court papers show.

Court records indicate Cheek was released from Mendota in June 2014. During his stay there, he got into a physical alteracation with a female nurse who was forced to bite his hand to get him to stop strangling and suffocating her, according to a court document.

He later filed a federal lawsuit alleging excessive force by the nurse. The lawsuit, which was filed while Cheek was being held at Waupun Correctional Institution, was dismissed.

By the time Cheek left Mendota, he was facing an additional charge in Dane County of making a bomb threat. That case ended in 2016 with a guilty plea and a sentence of two years’ probation.

In May 2017 Cheek was charged in Brown County with “battery or threat to judge, prosecutor or law enforcement officer.” He was found guilty but not guilty due to mental disease/defect and committed to a mental institution. The commitment ended in March.

Cheek’s latest round of bomb threats began after he received a watch from his mother that was capable of making phone calls but was restricted to dialing only 911, according to a criminal complaint. Police say that this device made more than 200 calls to 911 from Oct. 21 to Oct. 31, at least 10 of which involved bomb threats.

Cheek told police that he started calling 911 because he was “having suicidal feelings, but hung up immediately after calling,” according to a criminal complaint. “Cheek stated that once he realized he was going to be in trouble for calling and hanging up on 911 he decided he might as well keep doing it.”

He told police that he preferred going to jail to living in the group home where he resided.

The criminal complaint describes five specific bomb threats:

  • To Menasha High School on Oct. 29.
  • To Family Dollar stores on Oct. 30.
  • To Family Dollar again on Oct. 31.
  • To the White House on Oct. 31.
  • To Valley Packaging Industries, a sheltered workshop in Appleton, on Oct. 31.
Menasha police took Cheek into custody at Valley Packaging and formally arrested him the next day at his home on Pleasant Lane, court papers show.

Cheek’s lawyer declined to comment.

Friday, November 8, 2019

State amends charges against former UWO officials

State lawyers assert the UW Oshkosh Foundation did not pursue a public purpose in a hotel investment.
By Miles Maguire
The Department of Justice has amended its criminal complaint against two former UW Oshkosh officials, zeroing in on the question of whether they knew that loan guarantees the school issued were against the law.

“The amended complaint recites statements made by the defendants which establish probable cause to believe that both defendants knew that the loan guarantees were illegal when they were made,” states the new filing, dated Nov. 1.

The defendants in the case are former Chancellor Richard Wells H. Wells and former Vice Chancellor Thomas G. Sonnleitner. They face five felony counts of misconduct in office for allegedly exceeding their legal authority.

Each count relates to a different real estate project for which the university issued loan guarantees to back up borrowings made by the UW Oshkosh Foundation.

On at least one occasion the Oshkosh officials were notified in writing about the impermissibility of the university issuing a memomorandum of understanding (MOU) to the foundation promising to make good on financial arrangements, according to the amended complaint.

This MOU was related to the house Wells was using as his residence and that he sold to the foundation. This is not one of the real estate transactions included in the charges against Wells and Sonnleitner.

In the case of the chancellor’s residence Tomas Stafford, a former general counsel for the UW System, wrote to Sonnleitner in January 2013 to tell him that the MOU was illegal.

“The language in the MOU in which the university agrees to pay the house’s monthly debt service for the foundation is not legal,” Stafford wrote in an email. “At this point and for that reason my advice is that we should consider the MOU rescinded and not provide copies to any other parties or cause anyone to rely upon the MOU in any fashion.”

According to the amended complaint, Wells and Sonnleitner ignored this legal advice and “did not warn the foundation and lenders not to rely on them.”

The new version of the complaint also focuses on a conversation that Wells had with retired Judge Patrick J. Fiedler, who was hired by the UW System to investigate the relationship between the university and its foundation. In that exchange Wells reportedly said that he knew that he did not have the authority to enter into legally binding arrangements that would obligate the state to make good on loans taken out by the foundation.

"I couldn't bind the state of Wisconsin to debt," Wells told Fiedler, according to the complaint.

It’s not clear how this statement would necessarily implicate Wells, since this is the same position that the UW System initially took--that the loan guarantees issued to the foundation were not worth the paper they were written on and could not be enforced in court. Two judges subsequently rejected that interpretation and said that the loan guarantees were valid.

The attorneys for Wells and Sonnleitner have arged that they are being charged under laws that should be considered “void for vagueness” because there was confusion about the extent of their authority to act on behalf of the university.

But the state is not buying that argument. “With their education and available legal resources, it is simply not credible for the defendants to argue that they were unable to discern” the extent of their authority.

The defense attorneys declined to comment.

In another filing, the state also takes aim at the argument that the university’s support of the outside real estate investments was justified because the projects were undertaken for a public purpose even if the foundation was a private entity.

The filing cites one project, to purchase and renovate a waterfront hotel in Oshkosh, which benefited private investors as well as the foundation.

“Using state money to finance the construction of a privately owned hotel is a violation of the [Wisconsin] Constitution,” the filing states. “The state asserts that there is no portion of the hotel that is designated as state operated or controlled.”

At the time of the sale, the university issued a press release touting the public purpose of the project. “The new hotel owners said they also remain dedicated to using the revitalized hotel as an additional source of public good,” the press announcement said. “They propose spinning off some revenue annually as UW Oshkosh Foundation scholarships for Oshkosh high school graduates.”

Saturday, November 2, 2019

Oshkosh arena says it lost $6 million in first 9 months of 2019 as court is asked to OK change of vendors

Arena lawyers say the facility is moving to exit bankruptcy and attain profitability.
By Miles Maguire
New court filings that provide a previously unreported degree of detail about operations at the Menominee Nation Arena show that its owner lost $6.36 million during the first nine months of 2019, with its single largest expense listed as $4 million in interest.

The arena owner, Fox Valley Pro Basketball Inc., filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection in August and has previously disclosed its outstanding liabilities, which are now approaching $30 million. But the recent filings provide new insights about how much money the arena has earned and where its funds have been going.

As of Sept. 30, the arena owner had negative equity of $5.1 million.

But the situation “is not as bleak as the numbers appear on their face,” said Jerome R. Kerkman, who is representing the arena in the bankruptcy case. In addition to the high cost of interest, Kerkman noted that the arena recognized more than $1 million in depreciation and paid $140,000 in professional fees during the first nine months of 2019.

“The loss on an operating basis is more like a million dollars,” he said.

Fox Valley is moving to become more profitable by changing some suppliers and lining up additional performers and sponsorships for the arena, Kerkman said.