Drunken Driving Plea Tarnishes Wisconsin Attorney General
By Steven Walters, Special to Stateline
Wisconsin's first female attorney general is fighting for her political life after an arrest for drunken driving led not only to her embarrassment but also to the discovery she was misusing a state-owned car to commute to work.
Peg Lautenschlager's career hit bottom when she drove her state-owned 1999 black Buick into a Dodge County ditch, east of Madison, shortly before midnight Feb. 23.
Police used squad car video cameras to record Lautenschlager failing roadside sobriety tests. Tapes of her arrest made available under the Open Records Law that her office enforces have run for weeks with TV news stories on the 48-year-old former Democratic legislator and woman's advocate.
Since the incident, Lautenschlager, a former U.S. attorney appointed by President Clinton, has insisted she is not an alcoholic and is reimbursing taxpayers for driving a government car on personal trips. Stripped of her driver's license for a year for refusing to take a blood test upon her arrest, she is relying on friends, coworkers and family members to drive her to official duties statewide and to ferry her back and forth from her family home in Fond du Lac, 70 miles from the Capitol in Madison, where she rents an apartment.
The attorney general also is taking political heat, not just from Republicans who covet her post in the 2006 election, but also from fellow Democrat, Gov. Jim Doyle, who served as attorney general for 12 years.
A hockey mom with a teenage daughter, Lautenschlager chokes back tears when she talks about how hard it was to tell her family -- her retired-cop husband, Bill Rippl, their children from previous marriages and a stepson who is a sheriff's deputy in another county -- of her wrong decision to drive home to Fond du Lac after drinking with friends she won't identify at a working-class bar near the Capitol.
Although she insists she had only two "full" glasses of wine, blood-alcohol charts suggest that based on average weight and frame, she may have had more. The night of the accident, she blew 0.12 into a breathalyzer -- above Wisconsin's new 0.08 standard that is evidence of intoxication -- though that preliminary reading would not have been admissible in court.
After hiding for a day, Lautenschlager paid a $784 fine for first-offense drunken driving and was required to undergo an alcohol assessment, which she won't discuss. She refused to take questions at a news conference. She and her husband then went on a long-planned week-long vacation to Italy.
Meanwhile, an outraged Gov. Doyle suggested that Lautenschlager make public more details about the incident and impose a "higher standard" on herself, as the state's top law officer, than on any other state worker nabbed for drunken driving in a state car. Doyle, who currently is on a trade mission to China, still hasn't spoken to the attorney general.
After days of ducking reporters, Lautenschlager repaid taxpayers $3,250, equal to 10 days of take-home pay in a job that pays $127,838 a year. She also paid the towing charge for the damaged Buick and said she will pay whatever it costs to repair it.
If they were bothered by the drunken-driving charge, voters who elected Lautenschlager 16 months ago at least understood it, because Cheeseheads like a beer to wash down their brat. About one of every nine Wisconsin drivers has been convicted of first-offense drunken driving, and letters, cards and emails to the attorney general largely have expressed support for her.
Even though it drives the advocacy group Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD) nuts, Wisconsin is still a state in which first-offense drunken driving is a civil offense and not a crime.
What really made taxpayers angry was that Lautenschlager was using her state car to commute between Madison and Fond du Lac without reimbursing taxpayers, a violation of state law. When he was attorney general, Doyle kept exact records of his personal miles and dutifully wrote a monthly personal check to pay for them, aides to the governor noted.
After an investigation by the state Ethics Board, Lautenschlager agreed March 29 to repay taxpayers $672.02 for 1,969 miles spent commuting, plus a $250 fine for breaking the law requiring state workers to reimburse for personal miles. The Ethics Board probe also caught her deputy, Dan Bach, doing the same thing, so he will cough up $512.74 for personal use of a state car and pay his own $250 fine.
Trying to put the dual controversies behind her, Lautenschlager said she never thought of resigning and hasn't decided whether to seek re-election in 2006.
But state Republican Party officials, itching to elect a GOP attorney general for first time in a generation, are already writing the pre-election sound bites to defeat her and are insisting she got only a "slap on the wrist" from a spineless Ethics Board. State Republican Chairman Rick Graber stopped short of calling on her to resign, but said her future "will be up to the voters to decide."