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Mystery group targeted Ryan

DA's office: Campaign fliers free speech

Feb. 26, 2014

Franklin — A man who said he distributed anti-Basil Ryan literature around Franklin about a month before the mayoral primary election was exercising his freedom of speech rights and won't face charges, according to a police report.

On Jan. 15, police responded to former alderman Ryan's neighborhood after the candidate discovered "harassing" fliers posted on nearby telephone poles and street signs.

The fliers, which depict an illustrated clown, crossed out, and the headline: "Basil Ryan wants to be Mayor of Franklin: BAD IDEA!!"

The flier, allegedly distributed by an unregistered group called "Franklin Citizens United."

 

"Franklin needs good people, not clownish nastiness, in local government," the flier continues. It accuses Ryan of "abuse of power, blocking economic development" and "engaging in angry legal disputes and near-constant personal attacks on Franklin public servants."

"There's not one word in there that's true," Ryan said. "Why are they trying to make me the bad person? You don't see anything in the flier telling me about my record (as former alderman)."

In small print at the bottom, a statement reads: "Vote as you wish, this public service announcement from Franklin Citizens United is free speech and not authorized by any candidate or candidate's committee."

"I have no idea who they are, because they haven't registered," said City Clerk Sandy Wesolowski, who also serves as the filing officer for political committees.

State statute requires political organizations to register through the city and to identify all members, contributions, disbursements and communications.

Wesolowski first encountered the fliers Jan. 14 after she witnessed a man — later identified as Milwaukee resident Todd Rongstad — placing them on vehicles parked in front of City Hall.

Franklin police interviewed him Jan. 22.During the interview, Rongstad stated he was a professor at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee in the music department, according to the police report, and that he considered himself a "pioneer" in political mailings and advocacy.

When asked why Rongstad had an interest in Franklin, the man "stated he has friends that live in Franklin," but did not wish to identify members of the Franklin Citizens United because people in the group wanted to remain anonymous, the police report stated. He told police that he had printed 2,500 fliers at a cost of $300.

Through email correspondence with NOW, Rongstad said he was not a member of Franklin Citizens United and did not wish to comment further.

During the investigation, police contacted Milwaukee County Assistant District Attorney Bruce Landgraf, who later concluded the issue was free speech.

Landgraf cited a 2008 district court case that involved a Whitewater man who opposed a referendum through postcards and yard signs. The court declared state laws that require registration and identity disclosure unconstitutional as applied to the plaintiff.

"As a small organization, I believe (Franklin Citizens United) has the right to exercise their free speech without state regulations," Landgraf said

A quote at the bottom of the fliers adds more mystery. Orville Seymer, a member of the disbanded political action committee called Franklin Citizens for Responsible Leadership, is quoted as saying "He's (Basil Ryan) an embarrassment to the city."

"I'm not a fan of Basil Ryan," Seymer said, "but I don't recall saying that (quote)," adding that he does recall stating similar sentiments in the past. "I had no knowledge of these fliers and I've never heard of (Franklin Citizens United)," Seymer said. "I'm not involved with this in any way."

Ryan's foes in the primary, Steve Taylor and Steve Olson, condemned the activity. "I have no idea who they are," Olson said. "I don't want to know them. I want nothing to do with them. I don't want any involvement with groups that operate in the shadows."

Taylor concurred. "This type of politics is totally uncalled for," Taylor said. "People want to know what (we) can do for Franklin; they don't want this type of tabloid trash."

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