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Tom Kertscher
By Tom Kertscher March 21, 2012

Funding eliminated for Milwaukee County sheriff's role in presidential security, sheriff says

With Wisconsin’s presidential primary less than two weeks away, the matter of the candidates’ security has become an issue in the state’s largest county, where two of the top elected officials are taking potshots at each other.

Conservative Milwaukee County Sheriff David A. Clarke Jr., who has called Milwaukee County Executive Chris Abele a soft-on-crime liberal, took aim at Abele on Feb. 19, 2012, four days after President Barack Obama visited Milwaukee.

In an interview with Milwaukee’s WTMJ-TV (Channel 4), Clarke claimed that Abele used the 2012 county budget to kill Sheriff’s Office funding for providing security for presidential and presidential candidate visits.

"The county executive, Chris Abele -- and he again substitutes his judgment for mine," Clarke said, pausing in mid-sentence.

"I asked for an increase for this year because it is a presidential campaign year. Wisconsin is a swing state; we're going to have a lot of presidential visits, campaign visits. We need additional money this year. Not only did they not give me additional money for this activity, they completely eliminated it."

Was such funding really completely eliminated?

Asked for evidence to support Clarke’s claim, sheriff’s spokeswoman Fran McLaughlin cited the county budget’s elimination of the sheriff’s community relations division.

"Because mounted patrol, dignitary protection, neighborhood watch and public demonstrations are not core services and can be provided by municipalities, this division is eliminated," saving nearly $450,000, Abele’s budget says.

"Dignitary protection" is the part of that allocation that covers sheriff’s security for presidential and presidential candidate visits.

So, literally, Abele did eliminate funding earmarked in the budget for such security, as Clarke claimed.

McLaughlin said because of the budget cut, the Sheriff’s Office did not cover freeway ramps during Obama’s visit -- a task that normally accounts for the largest portion of the manpower assigned to dignitary protection. That was done instead by the State Patrol.

But does that mean no money is available from other parts of the budget for this task? No.

For instance, the Sheriff's Office participated in planning for the president's visit and contributed help with SWAT and K-9 teams at the airport and with some officers participating in the presidential motorcade, McLaughlin said.

Two days after Obama’s visit, in the wake of criticism that Clarke was playing politics with the issue, the sheriff issued a statement suggesting that the elimination of the $450,000 line item wasn’t the only hindrance in providing dignitary protection. He said he could not simply "move money around" to provide the usual presidential visit security because his overall budget, which is about $152 million, had been cut by $12 million.

We asked Abele’s deputy chief of staff, John Zapfel, about Clarke’s claim in the TV interview.

He said Clarke "could have chosen to use his staff for protection (of Obama) rather than attending the Association of SWAT conference and vendor show."

Zapfel’s reference was to a three-day Wisconsin Association of SWAT Personnel conference held in suburban Milwaukee; the final day was the same day as Obama’s visit. Zapfel cited a report by Milwaukee’s WISN-TV (Channel 12) that "more than 15 and as many as 25" SWAT team members were at the conference during Obama’s visit.

Clarke’s response to that report was a statement saying presidents are well protected by the Secret Service and that "local law enforcement provides a support role."

Interestingly, the WISN-TV story was done by reporter Brendan Conway, who two weeks later announced he was becoming Abele’s spokesman. In his new role, Conway also responded to our request for information on Clarke’s claim.

Conway said Clarke has the flexibility to reallocate money in his budget if he wanted to provide the same level security as in the past for presidential campaign visits. To underline his point, he noted that during the 2012 budget process, Clarke in October 2011 said he would refuse to make most of the changes that Abele called for in his budget, such as eliminating a boot camp-style inmate program and using deputies to patrol parks and the Milwaukee lakefront.

Indeed, Clarke, as an independently elected official, isn't required to allocate the money as specified by the overall county budget. He can shift funds internally as he deems necessary, even if that strays from budget language. County supervisors have readily acknowledged the sheriff's power trumps the county board and executive's budget authority.

Our rating

Clarke said Abele "eliminated" sheriff’s funding for providing security for presidential and presidential campaign visits.

So-called "dignitary protection" was among the services included in a nearly $450,000 line item that Abele deleted from Clarke’s budget. Moreover, Clarke’s total budget was trimmed, limiting his overall ability to provide various services.

But despite the line-item cut, Clarke did provide some security services for Obama’s visit. And he has the authority, as an independently elected official, to reallocate funds allocated to him by Abele and the County Board.

Clarke’s claim is partially accurate but leaves out important details. We rate it Half True.

Featured Fact-check

Our Sources

WTMJ-TV, Milwaukee County Sheriff David A. Clarke Jr. interview, Feb. 19, 2012

Milwaukee County 2012 budget, sheriff’s office allocations

Milwaukee County Sheriff David A. Clarke Jr., news release, Feb. 17, 2012

Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, "Citing budget cuts sheriff to limit security for Obama’s visit," Feb. 14, 2012

Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, "Sheriff Clarke takes heat for security cuts on Obama visit," Feb. 15, 2012

Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, "Brendan Conway leaves Channel 12 for county post," March 1, 2012

Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, "Clarke says he’ll refuse to implement Abele cuts," Oct. 11, 2011

Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, "Sheriff criticizes county budget cuts," Nov. 20, 2011, "Clarke says Obama protection an ‘insignificant issue,’" Feb. 16, 2012

Email interview, Milwaukee County sheriff public information officer Fran McLaughlin, Feb. 29 and March 12, 2012

Email interview, County Executive Chris Abele deputy chief of staff John Zapfel, Feb. 29, 2012

Email interview, County Executive Chris Abele communications director Brendan Conway, March 5 and 12, 2012

WISN-TV, "Sheriff sends SWAT team to conference instead of presidential protection," Feb. 17, 2012

Interview, Milwaukee County budget analyst Steve Cady, March 12, 2012

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Funding eliminated for Milwaukee County sheriff's role in presidential security, sheriff says

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