GOP rep had brush with law years ago; Kooyenga sign theft questions remain


RELATED STORY: Sing along serenades Dale Kooyenga

By Bill Dunn
July 24, 2017

Questions remain in the wake of state Rep. Dale Kooyenga’s admission he illegally removed a 40-by-30-inch sign in late May from the Wisconsin Capitol rotunda and wasn’t charged. Did the Brookfield Republican get a pass because he’s a legislator? Why won’t the Department of Administration release the video that shows him taking the sign when it has turned over such videos in the past?

Aspects of his statements to police and the media appear to skeptics to show either extreme naiveté or intent to deceive, yet there has been no follow-up. Now comes the revelation that Kooyenga was convicted in 2000 in Sheboygan in a case involving physical assault of a minor that was eventually amended from a criminal misdemeanor charge to noncriminal disorderly conduct.

According to the court complaint, police were called to a “dispute in progress” at Kooyenga’s apartment on July 3, a Monday. The dispute was between Kooyenga, then 21, and a 17-year-old male who was smoking marijuana with a female friend on the porch. Earlier, the 17-year-old and Kooyenga had had a disagreement at the boy’s residence. When the boy said he didn’t want to return to Kooyenga’s party and tried to run away, that “resulted in Dale tackling and punching him.”

The complaint continues: “Dale said he turned and chased [him] down and tackled him to the ground and struck him twice and then told him to get in the car. [He] followed Dale’s instructions at this time.”

The two then returned to Kooyenga’s party, which is when the marijuana smoking occurred on the second-story porch balcony and the 17-year-old nearly fell off when Kooyenga again tackled him, the complaint states. “He said he was never physical back towards Dale,” it says.

Kooyenga told police that the boy was supposed to be going to a religious retreat in Indiana but had told his parents, who were in Europe, that he had missed the bus.

The 6-foot-7 Kooyenga graduated that year from Lakeland College, where he’d been recruited to play basketball after graduating from Chicago Christian School and attending Moraine Valley Community College in Palos Heights, Ill.

A complaint for Class B misdemeanor disorderly conduct, maximum punishment 90 days in jail and a $1,000 fine, was filed July 25 in circuit court. The prosecutor later amended the charge and Kooyenga pleaded no contest Aug. 23 to noncriminal disorderly conduct with court costs and forfeiture (fine) totaling $181.25.

Asked to comment after being given a copy of this story and the redacted court complaint, Kooyenga responded today: “The 17-year-old was impaired by drugs and alcohol and he was attempting to drive through the city of Sheboygan. The altercation stemmed from my actions attempting to stop the juvenile from driving while under the influence.”

A double standard?

According to James Murray, a Madison criminal defense attorney, court documents “show that Dale Kooyenga caught two big breaks in 2000. The first was when they charged Mr. Kooyenga with the misdemeanor crime of disorderly conduct as opposed to a much more serious felony offense like physical abuse of a child, since the alleged victim was 17 and still a minor.

“The second break came when the criminal charge was amended to a noncriminal ordinance violation,” Murray said. “I don’t have any problem with that; I think it’s great most of the time for people, especially young people, to get a second chance the first time they are charged with a crime. I do, however, have a problem with 38-year-old Rep. Kooyenga, who already used up his second chance and should certainly know better than to steal a sign at his age, not facing any charges and getting a Department of Administration cover-up as a bonus.”

Murray said he read the police reports about Kooyenga’s latest offense and called it “just shameful” that “the Department of Administration are still hiding from the victim and the public the video that reportedly captured Rep. Kooyenga reading Mr. Johnson’s sign and then returning to steal it.”

Don Johnson covered two words that vigilante Rep. Kooyenga deemed too profane for children to see: groper and damned. (Lisa Wells photo)

Don Johnson, 80, of Madison, who has taken out several display permits for the rotunda, said it’s the first time one was stolen, although others have been slightly vandalized or turned to face the wall. “Overall, the very large majority of people have been respectful, and thankful. In fact, someone laid a big red lipstick smack on this sign.”

A copy of the display permit for May 8 to June 6 was attached to the back of the sign, which was placed on an easel. Johnson wonders why a four-term legislator “was not even aware that there was a permit process for a sign like this,” as he told a detective.

He thinks the Department of Administration won’t release the video because it reflects poorly on “the character or lack of character of a Republican legislator who has big dreams. He’s free to have his dreams but not at my expense.”

In an attempt to beat the press, so to speak, Kooyenga broke the story himself of the theft with a July 15 press release justifying his actions. It linked to the police report.

The Wisconsin State Journal reported the next day that Kooyenga said he released the report because he heard that Rep. Sondy Pope, D-Cross Plains, had been contacted by Johnson for help in getting copies of the police report and video.

“I would like to know who tipped off Kooyenga about that,” said Johnson. “As a result, he made the Friday news dump confession and so-called apology.”

In her July 17 press release, Pope called Kooyenga out for his “half-hearted apology” and for making “lame excuses for suppressing free speech and theft.” She also criticized the Department of Administration for claiming that release of the video would reveal camera locations and endanger public safety. The Capitol Police is a division within the DOA.

The DOA did, in fact, release video of another sign theft in the rotunda. On March 28, 2015, three persons were recorded removing the Freedom From Religion Foundation’s “In Reason We Trust” display. On April 2, an FFRF press release included images from the video.

Several citizens arrested for protesting and singing in the Capitol and for chalking outside have also been provided with footage from surveillance cameras. That Kooyenga got off by apologizing and saying he won’t do it again doesn’t sit well with the hundreds of people arrested and handcuffed at the Capitol from 2011 to 2014, including a husband and wife in their 80s. (Disclosure: I was one of those people, and attorney James Murray successfully defended several of them.)

Asked to comment today about taking the sign, Kooyenga declined an offer to talk about pushback to his July 15 statement, instead emailing the same press release he issued then.

How did the press do?

The Brookfield Patch, in Kooyenga’s back yard, was alone in noting this irony in its story headlined “Free Speech Bill Sponsor Caught Stealing Anti-GOP Sign.”

The story explained: “In an ironic twist, Kooyenga, an avowed proponent of free expression, is the co-sponsor of the ‘Free Expression Within the University of Wisconsin System’ bill, aimed at safeguarding the range of political speech at Wisconsin campuses.”

The bill reads in part: “An institution must strive to ensure the fullest degree of intellectual freedom and free expression. 2. [It] is not the proper role of an institution to shield individuals from speech protected by the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, including ideas and opinions they find unwelcome, disagreeable, or even deeply offensive.”

Generally, it was “one and done” for most media, which seemingly accepted what Pope called “lame excuses” and baseless claims and shifting explanations by Kooyenga, that on closer examination, don’t hold up.

The Associated Press did the worst job with a cursory story that bungled badly the sign’s message, instead relying on what Kooyenga said it said. The AP issued a correction two days later that was partially misleading: “A photograph shows the sign actually described President Donald Trump as a groper and referred to all Americans as damned.” It did not say that. It said “and We the People be damned,” which is needed context.

The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel chose to do no independent reporting and ran the flawed AP story. An Isthmus editorial cartoon published July 20 did better with its blurb “Look who got caught on video.”

No media attempted to interview him that he’s aware of, Johnson said.

Kooyenga is seen as a GOP rising star and policy wonk and is vice chair of the powerful Joint Committee on Finance. He touts traditional Republican values of God and country and personal responsibility. He sees himself as a “citizen-legislator,” according to his website. Recently he has said that he’ll decide whether to run against U.S. Sen. Tammy Baldwin after the state budget is finalized.

He also sees government as sort of a necessary evil, the smaller the better. In an April profile on, the reporter details Kooyenga’s visit to St. Margaret Mary Catholic School in Milwaukee:

“The kids are curious about the Important Man before them. He’s asked if he has a limo. A mansion. (No, no.) Pipes up another bite-size voice: Since you can pass laws, can you cancel laws? ‘I love to cancel laws,’ the conservative jumps. ‘I am the king of canceling laws.’ ”


Don Johnson with his permitted display in January 2015. (Erica Case photo)

Johnson wears his heart on his signs

Don Johnson of Madison comes to the Wisconsin Capitol a lot, usually carrying a bag of signs meant to wake people up to the havoc he believes the state, nation and world are being subjected to by Republicans and neoliberal Democrats.

Born in Iowa 80 years ago, he’s a soft-spoken Berniecrat who stands 6-foot-3. At age 18 he enlisted in the U.S. Army and ended up being assigned to the Army Security Agency, its signals intelligence branch (motto: Semper Vigilis). The motto is said to echo Thomas Jefferson’s declaration that “The price of freedom is eternal vigilance.” Johnson would agree.

After a three-year hitch, two of them spent on the border between East and West Germany, he enrolled at the University of Iowa, eventually earning a B.A. in art and German and an M.A. in design. “On the day I graduated with my first degree, the G.I. Bill was passed and since I had spent most of the past four years washing dishes, I decided the U.S. could pay for my advanced education,” he said.

In between studying and scullery, he fell for a woman named Norma. They’ve been married for 55 years. Johnson then taught for five years an Iowa junior college, followed by European stints filming and photographing architecture for use in art history classes and teaching at the Royal Academy of Fine and Applied Arts in The Hague, Netherlands.

“Then we decided it was best for our two kids if we returned to the U.S. so they could grow up in their home country and so we came back, penniless, and settled in the great state of Wisconsin. I ended up at MATC in 1974 teaching commercial art until my retirement in 2003, and I have a quartz clock to prove it.”

Johnson said he’s always been interested in politics but got more active when Scott Walker “started shredding everything in this state, particularly education and unions.”

The signs he often held at the noontime Solidarity Sing Along (now at 1,663 straight weekdays) evolved into larger displays mounted on foam core and placed on a tripod on the Capitol rotunda’s first floor after permits were received. Fliers attached to a tripod and easel summarize the display and invite people to take a copy (but not the whole sign!).

His basic point is that the Republican agenda is dangerous and that progressive ideas are what most people want. Messages like “Welcome to our beautiful Wisconsin Capitol, a wholly owned subsidiary of Koch Industries,” “Is the Dem primary rigged?” “The TPP: conceived in secret by big corporations” and “Together, we have the power to resist — and we have the power to win.”

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One Comment on “GOP rep had brush with law years ago; Kooyenga sign theft questions remain”

  1. bbead July 25, 2017 at 5:56 am #

    WCMC has the best words.

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