Student government president implicated in newspaper theft at UW-Milwaukee; lawsuit planned
President, others resign amid misconduct allegations
WISCONSIN — Amid four concurrent investigations into alleged misconduct in its student government, the University of Wisconsin at Milwaukee Post has decided to sue two former Student Association leaders for the theft and destruction of approximately 800 newspapers.
The newspapers went missing Oct. 31, an apparent reaction to a 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 a former student Senate committee chair as suspects. The alleged thieves acted out 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 separate allegations of sexual assault surfaced last week.
The weekly paper’s investigation into the thefts began the day they were reported but soon ran cold. Editors filed a police report, but that query turned up nothing. A newspaper staffer who also works at the student union procured video footage showing someone, in a costume, taking the papers from the racks.
“But it was such poor quality and there was nothing really identifiable in the footage that was going to give us a lead, so we just held on to it,” Erdmann said.
It wasn’t until the paper began looking into other accusations lobbied at the upper echelon of the Student Association that sources came forward who said they’d seen the stolen newspapers.
“I think that as the house of cards started to fall, the people that were still interested in being in student government realized the best thing to do was to come forward with everything and be totally honest,’” Erdmann said. “It started making things easier. In the beginning, we were getting a lot of stonewalls and then as things kept coming out, people started opening up.”
Eventually, one of these sources became Andy Hapka, the SA office 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 his superiors, he named former SA President Alex Kostal as the one who told him to take the papers — in something dubbed “Operation Boston Tea Party” — a charge Kostal denied in an interview with the Post.
In exchange for their cooperation, the newspaper opted not to press criminal charges against Hapka and his friends, whom the paper’s staff has chosen not to identify. Instead, the Post plans to sue Kostal and David Sidhu, former Senate Oversight and Rules Committee vice chairman, for First Amendment violations, reads a story in Monday’s issue.
“The Post believes that both Kostal and Sidhu participated in the theft and destruction of 800 copies of the The UWM Post and that because they were both acting as representatives of the state, as per Wisconsin State Statute 36.09(5), they should be held accountable under applicable civil rights law,” the article reads.
Erdmann puts the cost of the stolen papers at $600. The paper 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 for a civil rights battle, as it is necessary to prove Kostal and Sidhu were acting within the capacities of their governmental duties when swiping and disposing of the papers.
“If a cop is out drinking at a bar and gets in a bar fight with somebody and beats the hell out of them, it doesn’t necessarily give rise to a civil rights action. He’s on his own time,” Dreps said. “Here it’s arguable, I hope, (Kostal) was acting under color of law, but it isn’t necessarily so.”
Dreps said he and the students were in “no position to file anything soon,” but he would be reviewing the facts and case law over the course of the week.
Kostal resigned after the University Student Court issued an order last week barring him from the SA office for the course of the internal investigation. He said in the meeting that he will be leaving school for the semester and joining the National Guard.
Sidhu has also resigned from his position. Sidhu told the paper he was not involved in stealing the paper but offered no comment when asked 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 media relations were not immediately returned.
Erdmann said editors came to the decision to sue after speaking with SPLC Attorney Advocate Adam Goldstein, who said the theft proves the paper’s original point.
“The motivation was they didn’t like the criticism they were given,” Goldstein said. “Their action justified the criticism.”
On the decision to not press charges against Hapka, Erdmann said it was because he and his friends “clearly didn’t really understand what they were doing.”
“The investigation into this climate in this office has just been remarkably hostile. There’s allegations of intimidation. Last week we had a story about an incident of hazing,” he said. “It becomes really clear how this sort of stuff happened. You’ve got these following-orders kind of people around because if you didn’t, you didn’t know what was going to happen.”
There are four separate investigations underway on the Milwaukee campus. One is the internal investigation by the student Senate through the oversight committee. The university is also conducting three reviews through the Office of Student Life, the dean of students and the Office of Equity and Diversity, respectively.
“It’s not a good thing, by any means, to have a student government 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 light naturally.”
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