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Critics Question Letter to Judge by Sensenbrenner

Two private citizens, one of them a retired attorney, have filed a request with the Wisconsin authority that oversees lawyers asking that it investigate whether House Judiciary Chairman Jim Sensenbrenner (R-Wis.) improperly attempted to intervene in a Chicago drug-trafficking case.

The new action comes as a former Democratic challenger to the Wisconsin Republican is trying to get the House ethics committee to look into the Chicago incident as well. Sensenbrenner has already dismissed a Judiciary Committee aide who originally brought the case to his attention.

Deborah McFarland of Edgewater, Md., a retired Federal Election Commission lawyer and ex-Capitol Hill staffer, and her sister Barbara McFarland of Middleton, Wis., wrote to the Wisconsin Office of Lawyer Regulation on Thursday seeking a probe into Sensenbrenner’s actions. Both women said they had no affiliation with the Democratic Party but were instead motivated by their unhappiness with Sensenbrenner’s actions.

Keith Sellen, director of the Office of Lawyer Regulation, would not confirm or deny whether his office had received the McFarlands’ complaint. Sellen said the normal procedure was for his office to do “preliminary evaluation” into the merits of any allegation it receives, a process that takes about two months.

Under Wisconsin law, a lawyer may not “seek to influence a judge, juror, prospective juror or other official by means prohibited by law,” or have “ex parte” communications with any such person. Sensenbrenner is licensed to practice law with the Wisconsin bar.

Sensenbrenner has repeatedly denied any wrongdoing in the Chicago case, and his aides see this as part of a coordinated Democratic attack on their boss.

“It’s simply a partisan move,” said Tom Schreibel, the chief of staff in Sensenbrenner’s personal office, who added that Democrats were trying to “gin people up” to offer criticism of Sensenbrenner.

On June 23, Sensenbrenner wrote to Chief Judge Joel Flaum of the 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Chicago urging him to alter the decision in Chicago police corruption case. Sensenbrenner did not feel that the 97-month sentence handed down to a defendant in the case by a three-judge panel of the appeals court was lengthy enough. Sensenbrenner wanted to see the defendant sentenced to 120 months, and demanded that Flaum inform him what he planned to do to “rectify the panel’s actions.”

Sensenbrenner’s letter to Flaum was first reported by The Chicago Tribune.

Flaum sent a letter back to Sensenbrenner telling the Wisconsin Republican that it was inappropriate to comment on the matter, although the three-judge panel amended its sentencing report to explain why it did not take the path Sensenbrenner suggested.

Wisconsin Democrats, judicial groups and liberal advocates have both publicly criticized Sensenbrenner’s attempt to intervene in the case.

Democrat Bryan Kennedy, a University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee professor who ran unsuccessfully against Sensenbrenner last year, has written a letter to the House ethics committee questioning the propriety of the veteran lawmaker’s actions.

“House ethics rules bar Members of the House of Representatives from making off-the-record communications to judges involving cases in which the judges are presiding over,” Kennedy wrote in a July 26 letter to the ethics Chairman Doc Hastings (R-Wash.).

Kennedy requested a formal review into Sensenbrenner’s actions. However, his letter does not constitute a formal complaint to the panel because the House ethics committee only looks into complaints made by sitting Members.

Kennedy has already declared his intention to again challenge Sensenbrenner in the Badger State’s 5th district. The district is solidly Republican, and the powerful chairman is considered a heavy favorite to win a 15th term.

Schreibel said Sensenbrenner’s only mistake in this case was to not notify the defendant’s lawyer of his views. Schreibel said the Justice Department and Rep. John Conyers (D-Mich.), ranking member of the Judiciary Committee, both were given copies of the letter at the same time it was sent to Flaum.

“Clearly the letter my boss sent was an oversight letter,” said Schreibel. “Mr. Sensenbrenner is very active on oversight, and will continue to” be.

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