WISCONSIN — Amid four concurrent investigations into allegedmisconduct in its student government, the University of Wisconsin at Milwaukee Post has decided to sue two formerStudent Association leaders for the theft and destruction of approximately 800newspapers.
The newspapers went missing Oct. 31, an apparent reaction toa story critical of an event hosted by former SA Vice President Brent Johnson,who was not involved in taking the newspapers, said Post Editor-in-Chief Zach Erdmann.
The newspaper has zeroed in on the former SA president and aformer student Senate committee chair as suspects. The alleged thieves actedout of a desire to shield Johnson from the criticism, the paper is reporting.Both officials resigned at an emergency meeting Sunday.
Johnson resigned from his post a week earlier after separateallegations of sexual assault surfaced last week.
The weekly paper’s investigation into the thefts began theday they were reported but soon ran cold. Editors filed a police report, butthat query turned up nothing. A newspaper staffer who also works at the studentunion procured video footage showing someone, in a costume, taking the papersfrom the racks.
“But it was such poor quality and there was nothing reallyidentifiable in the footage that was going to give us a lead, so we just heldon to it,” Erdmann said.
It wasn’t until the paper began looking into otheraccusations lobbied at the upper echelon of the Student Association thatsources came forward who said they’d seen the stolen newspapers.
“I think that as the house of cards started to fall, thepeople that were still interested in being in student government realized thebest thing to do was to come forward with everything and be totally honest,’”Erdmann said. “It started making things easier. In the beginning, we weregetting a lot of stonewalls and then as things kept coming out, people startedopening up.”
Eventually, one of these sources became Andy Hapka, the SAoffice manager, who confirmed he was the man in the video footage taking newspapers,dressed in costume for a later Halloween party.
Once Hapka “realize(d) he’s been sold up the river” by hissuperiors, he named former SA President Alex Kostal as the one who told him totake the papers — in something dubbed “Operation Boston Tea Party” — a chargeKostal denied in an interview with the Post.
In exchange for their cooperation, the newspaper opted notto press criminal charges against Hapka and his friends, whom the paper’s staffhas chosen not to identify. Instead, the Postplans to sue Kostal and David Sidhu, former Senate Oversight and RulesCommittee vice chairman, for First Amendment violations, reads a story inMonday’s issue.
“The Post believesthat both Kostal and Sidhu participated in the theft and destruction of 800 copiesof the The UWM Post and that becausethey were both acting as representatives of the state, as per Wisconsin StateStatute 36.09(5), they should be held accountable under applicable civil rightslaw,” the article reads.
Erdmann puts the cost of the stolen papers at $600. Thepaper has been evaluating its legal options with Bob Dreps of Godfrey &Kahn in Madison, Wis.
Dreps said he’s not yet convinced the paper has grounds fora civil rights battle, as it is necessary to prove Kostal and Sidhu were actingwithin the capacities of their governmental duties when swiping and disposingof the papers.
“If a cop is out drinking at a bar and gets in a bar fightwith somebody and beats the hell out of them, it doesn’t necessarily give riseto a civil rights action. He’s on his own time,” Dreps said. “Here it’sarguable, I hope, (Kostal) was acting under color of law, but it isn’tnecessarily so.”
Dreps said he and the students were in “no position to fileanything soon,” but he would be reviewing the facts and case law over thecourse of the week.
Kostal resigned after the University Student Court issued anorder last week barring him from the SA office for the course of the internalinvestigation. He said in the meeting that he will be leaving school for thesemester and joining the National Guard.
Sidhu has also resigned from his position. Sidhu told thepaper he was not involved in stealing the paper but offered no comment whenasked about his role in throwing the papers in an off-campus trash bin.
Kostal and Sidhu did not respond to requests for comment.Calls for comment to the Student Association office and university mediarelations were not immediately returned.
Erdmann said editors came to the decision to sue afterspeaking with SPLC Attorney Advocate Adam Goldstein, who said the theft provesthe paper’s original point.
“The motivation was they didn’t like the criticism they weregiven,” Goldstein said. “Their action justified the criticism.”
On the decision to not press charges against Hapka, Erdmannsaid it was because he and his friends “clearly didn’t really understand whatthey were doing.”
“The investigation into this climate in this office has justbeen remarkably hostile. There’s allegations of intimidation. Last week we hada story about an incident of hazing,” he said. “It becomes really clear howthis sort of stuff happened. You’ve got these following-orders kind of peoplearound because if you didn’t, you didn’t know what was going to happen.”
There are four separate investigations underway on theMilwaukee campus. One is the internal investigation by the student Senatethrough the oversight committee. The university is also conducting threereviews through the Office of Student Life, the dean of students and the Officeof Equity and Diversity, respectively.
“It’s not a good thing, by any means, to have a studentgovernment that is almost dysfunctional — that is dysfunctional,” Erdmann said.“But in this case, it worked to bring more to light than would’ve come to lightnaturally.”