Bice: New deputy city attorney earns $131,000 a year while representing dozens in private practice – Milwaukee Journal Sentinel

You’d think Odalo Ohiku has enough on his plate as a new deputy city attorney. 

Appointed Oct. 23, Ohiku is making $131,000 a year to oversee about 10 staffers, including seven assistant city attorneys handling cases in Municipal Court. 

But Ohiku is doing double duty. 

The 43-year-old lawyer has 45 open court cases in which he is the attorney of record for one of the parties, mostly criminal defendants. Twelve of the cases have trials already scheduled.

Since taking the city job, Ohiku has made more than a half-dozen appearances in court during the workday. Records show he also missed one court hearing and incorrectly showed up for another via Zoom instead of in person. He has asked to withdraw from at least three cases; he also just added a new client

Officials said they cannot remember a similar situation in recent years in which someone began work as a high-ranking city attorney with so many open cases and no deadline for exiting them. 

“That’s very troubling,” Ald. Michael Murphy, chairman of the Common Council’s Finance and Personnel Committee, said of Ohiku’s employment arrangement. He said he was not told of his outside work when his panel signed off on Ohiku’s salary. 

But this doesn’t appear to be a major concern to Ohiku’s boss, City Attorney Tearman Spencer. Ohiku did not return calls or an email. 

In an interview last week, Spencer said he and his new deputy have agreed that Ohiku will begin winding down his private practice as soon as he can. But the two didn’t put any deal in writing and set no timeline for Ohiku to end his private practice.

Spencer noted that it has taken him five to six months to finish up his own outstanding cases after he was elected in April. 

“We have an understanding,” Spencer said. “I’m sure my deputy took copious notes on what we agreed upon and how to get this done.”

That’s not all. 

Equally troubling are the types of cases Ohiku is still handling in his private practice.

Of his outstanding cases, he has 20 felony and four misdemeanor cases in Milwaukee County Circuit Court, including ones for armed robbery, substantial battery, pointing a firearm at an officer and eluding an officer. In some of these, he will be challenging the work of the Milwaukee Police Department.

But as a deputy city attorney, Ohiku has MPD as a client — and his team of assistant city attorneys represent Milwaukee police officers in Municipal Court.

Again, Spencer was dismissive. 

“Absolutely, no conflict,” Spencer said. “The man is an impeccable guy, he’s a great character.”

Spencer finished by noting that Ohiku is on Gov. Tony Evers’ judicial selection committee.

The head of the Milwaukee police union said he was baffled by Spencer’s response. 

“I see a major problem with the whole thing,” said Milwaukee Police Association President Dale Bormann Jr. “How can Tearman not see an issue with that?” 

Bormann said Ohiku should drop his criminal cases immediately or resign as deputy city attorney. Bormann said Okihu cannot continue to represent cops in one forum and oppose them in another. 

Murphy was a little more measured, though just as concerned. He said he believes Spencer should get an ethics opinion on Ohiku’s dual roles with the Milwaukee police in his public and private practices.

“It looks like an inherent conflict of interest,” Murphy said. 

Spencer, who had not run for public office before, defeated longtime City Attorney Grant Langley in April. 

Since taking office, Spencer has shaken up his top staff, creating a new chief of staff’s slot and hiring a couple of new deputy city attorneys, including Ohiku. Spencer asked that Ohiku’s salary be on the high side for people in his position given his experience in private practice. 

A 2002 graduate of Marquette University Law School, Ohiku runs a four-person private practice, including him and a second attorney, that focuses on criminal defense and family law cases. 

Online records show that Ohiku has one open federal case and 44 state ones. Of the state cases, he has 29 in Milwaukee County, 10 in Racine County, two in Waukesha County and one each in Kenosha, Dodge and Sauk counties. 

Ohiku also is an arbitrator and mediator. It is not known how many of these cases he has.

Because he is not with a large law firm, Ohiku cannot simply hand off his cases to another partner or associate. 

Over the past three weeks, Ohiku has appeared in court, either in person or via Zoom, seven times, including once in person in a Racine County drug case on Oct. 26, his first full day on the job with the city. It appears that he missed a pretrial hearing for another client on that same day. 

“Petitioner and attorney do not appear,” say online records for that case. “Petitioner appeared after respondent and respondent attorney had left.”

In three of those seven cases, he has filed motions to withdraw as an attorney. In one of those cases, he cited a conflict of interest. The defendant, Jamel D. Barnes, is accused of a host of crimes, including intentionally pointing a firearm at a police officer

On Nov. 3, Ohiku appeared via Zoom for a final pretrial hearing when he was supposed to be physically in the courtroom. Online records say his audio was very poor, and he couldn’t discuss a plea deal with his client, who is accused of repeated sexual assault of a child. Milwaukee County Circuit Judge Janet Protasiewicz had to set up “additional IN PERSON final pretrial” on Wednesday, online court records say.

Ohiku’s law partner, Asia Patterson, has substituted for him in at least seven cases over the past three weeks. 

Ohiku has a three-day Racine County trial scheduled to begin Tuesday afternoon, but a law clerk said the trial is going to be delayed and rescheduled. 

Asked about all these court cases, Spencer said Ohiku could be disciplined by the state Office of Lawyer Regulation if he did not do his job and show up in court for his clients. Spencer said he will make reasonable accommodations for his new deputy.

“It does not clear up overnight,” Spencer said of the private caseload. But Spencer said he understood the concerns people might have about a possible conflict: “We don’t take it lightly.”

Bormann, the police union chief, said Spencer doesn’t appear to understand his agency’s relationship to the Milwaukee Police Department. Bormann recently accused Spencer of being “derelict of duty” for trying to negotiate a settlement with Milwaukee Bucks guard Sterling Brown in a police misconduct case without informing the officers involved or the union. 

Bormann said he can’t believe that Spencer is allowing Ohiku to continue opposing police in his criminal defense work and then supposedly backing police as a deputy city attorney. 

“They’re not doing the right thing,” Bormann said. “They’re not defending officers. They’re fighting officers when their office is supposed to be defending our officers.”

Contact Daniel Bice at (414) 313-6684 or dbice@jrn.com. Follow him on Twitter @DanielBice or on Facebook at fb.me/daniel.bice.

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