(KMSP) - Update: The Wisconsin Department of Justice now confirms it is investigating allegations that the former District Attorney in Burnett County asked female defendants out on dates after they appeared in his courtroom.
A Fox 9 Investigation finds the Burnett County Attorney in Wisconsin has asked at least six women out on dates who have appeared in his courtroom as defendants, some even with current cases against the state.
The women said it put them in awkward positions and all but one refused his proposals.
William Norine retired at the end of August, but his fraternizing occurred well before his last days, which legal experts said might have violated the code of conduct for attorneys.
WOMAN BELIEVES SHE HAD NO CHOICE BUT TO ENGAGE WITH D.A ON FACEBOOK
Ange Johnson not only has a criminal case with the district attorney’s office, but also a child protection case with the county.
Her six-month old daughter, Arora, was killed last December.
As part of the case, police searched the trailer where she was living. They found a small amount of marijuana and a pipe.
The county’s Child Protective Services took her two other children into protective custody.
“What they’ve already done with my children, my life...they’ve done everything they can,” she told the Fox 9 Investigators.
A prosecutor under Norine’s supervision in the D.A.’s office officially charged Johnson with drug possession and having paraphernalia.
But Norine was in the courtroom during the bail hearing.
“He turned around in his chair in open session and said I may be getting charged for the death of my daughter as well,” she recalled.
Johnson was never charged in her child’s death, which took place in another county. A family acquaintance is the prime suspect.
Norine also signed some of the court orders taking away her children. And the Fox 9 Investigators have been told the district attorney’s office does handle child custody cases.
“The way I look at it this is a guy who took a big part of my life,” she said.
Norine asked her out on through Facebook Messenger.
“Omg what am I going to do,” she recalled thinking. “I have to say ‘hi.’ I have to say something back. I don’t want to jeopardize my freedom or my kids by ticking him off.”
The Fox 9 Investigators have seen the messages:
On June 24, Norine wrote: ‘Let me buy you dinner and we’ll compare notes. But if you would rather not I will understand.”
On July 6th she replied: “Compare notes? I’m not sure what that means…”
Norine responded: “Fancy word for chatting, hanging out, shooting the [blank] about nothing in particular. Now I’ve scared you off already.”
Norine: “Ok you’re pretty awesome if you don’t mind my saying so.”
A week later Norine reached out again: “You’re on my mind.”
She reminded him: “I do have open cases.”
Norine: “I’m resigning on Aug 24… I will have no more cases with you. But I will leave you alone if you prefer.”
Johnson believes Norine knew that she is desperate to get her two children back.
“I will do anything for my children, but there are things I won’t do for anybody, including my children. And it’s things of that nature, then I become all I despise,” she said.
OTHER WOMEN FEAR NORINE’S INFLUNCE
The Fox 9 Investigators found 16 of his Facebook friends were women who had criminal cases in Burnett County, and most are younger brunettes like Ange.
Fox 9 reached six of those women. They all said Norine had contacted them via Facebook to ask them out on dates. The women faced criminal charges ranging from drug possession to bad checks. One had an ex-husband charged with domestic violence.
Another woman got a Facebook friend request from Norine within 45 minutes of sitting across from him in the courtroom.
Most of the women told the Fox 9 Investigators they would not talk on camera because they were afraid to come forward due to the power Norine holds in the county.
The Fox 9 Investigators met Norine before court one day and he invited the reporter and photographer into his office.
When asked about his behavior, he replied, “No, I haven’t done that, I don’t believe.”
So, Fox 9 read him the messages he sent to Johnson.
And over the next few minutes, it was D.A. who would change his story.
When asked if it was appropriate, Norine said, “I don’t know, I guess, I’ve never taken any of them anywhere.”
But one of the women Norine contacted told us they did go out on a date and nothing romantic occurred. She also said the D.A. had paid one of her cell phone bills.
Jim McGlaughlin is a public defender in Burnett County who happened to be in Norine’s office.
“I’m not here to comment. I have no knowledge,” he told the Fox 9 Investigators. “I’ve known Mr. Norine for a very long time. These allegations are serious, but nothing I ever heard of.”
“FOOLISH IN HINDSIGHT”
Recently, Norine told us by phone that what he did was foolish in hindsight. However, Siren, Wisconsin is a small town and he never discussed specific cases.
After 10 years as the Burnett County District Attorney, Norine retired at the end of August, two years before his election.
He said he did not retire due to the questions about the women he asked out on dates.
In his resignation letter to Governor Walker, Norine wrote, “for various reasons, I believe it is time to 'stand down' from the task, if you will.”
But he may not be leaving for good; he said he is available to work pro bono for the D.A’s office.
LEGAL EXPERTS WEIGH IN
St. Thomas Law Professor Gregory Sisk, while not familiar with the details of this case, said it is against every code of conduct for an attorney to ask a client out on a date or get romantically involved. And for a prosecutor, to do that with a defendant, it’s even more egregious.
“Just sending the friend request is inappropriate,” he said. "If they become romantically involved what is in their best interest as an individual and not in the best interest of the public. It’s the very definition of a conflict of interest.”
“Incredibly unequal power dynamic," he added. “There is nothing more frightening in our society than to be the subject of a criminal prosecution.”
Attorney Noah Fiedler, from Hinshaw and Culbertson in Milwaukee, represents other lawyers in cases of misconduct. He did not know the details concerning Norine’s behavior but said there were many things that concerned him when learning about it from the Fox 9 Investigators.
“If these allegations are proven true, the question is: does this rise to the level of sexual harassment? Here in Wisconsin, the law prohibits lawyers from harassing on the basis of sex or gender.” Fiedler said.
The Fox 9 Investigators did not find any complaints against Norine made to the Office of Lawyer Regulation or ethics board. But after Fox 9 began asking questions, the Wisconsin Department of Justice contacted one of the women. The agent handling the case did not say whether the DOJ had an active investigation.