SENATE (copy)

Sen. Kathleen Vinehout, D-Alma, was one of about a dozen people who wrote character reference letters for David L. Lovell, a former Legislative Council attorney who was found guilty in June of five Class D felony counts of child pornography possession. Vinehout was the only sitting legislator to write in Lovell’s support.

PHOTO BY MICHELLE STOCKER

State Sen. Kathleen Vinehout, a Democratic candidate for governor, says she doesn't believe people will find anything objectionable in a character reference letter she wrote for a legislative attorney found guilty of possession of child pornography.

The Alma Democrat was one of about a dozen people who wrote character reference letters for David L. Lovell, a former Legislative Council attorney who was found guilty in June of five Class D felony counts of child pornography possession. Vinehout was the only sitting legislator to write in Lovell’s support.

"My mother taught me to hate the sin but not shun the sinner," Vinehout said in an emailed statement. Her campaign spokesman said she was not available to discuss the letter by phone. 

Vinehout’s letter, printed on her official state letterhead and dated Nov. 11, 2015, describes Lovell as a "hardworking, intelligent, persistent, dedicated public servant" with "extraordinary diplomatic skills." Lovell was the Legislative Council staff member assigned to a committee she chaired for four years. Vinehout worked with him on that committee and in several other instances, during which he "went above and beyond the call of duty in his work."

"I was shocked and disturbed when I learned of the allegations against Mr. Lovell," Vinehout wrote in the letter. "The allegations are completely inconsistent with the skilled expert I worked with for eight years. I never observed him to engage in any behavior other than that of a dedicated professional."

Vinehout noted that Lovell had sought counseling, "taken responsibility for his actions" and shown "deep remorse for his mistakes." She did not — as some others who wrote letters did — offer a recommendation as to whether he should serve time in prison.

"I was asked to write a letter to the judge about Mr. Lovell’s work in the Capitol and his job performance as legal counsel to the Senate Committee on Agriculture and Higher Education, of which I was chair. I did so. I also wrote that I was 'shocked and disturbed when I learned of the allegations against Mr. Lovell,'" Vinehout said in the emailed statement.

Vinehout said she believes anyone who reads the full text of the letter "will not find anything they object to." A copy of the letter is available here.

"It is appalling that Kathleen Vinehout would abuse her platform as a public official to defend the character and excuse the actions of a man found guilty of possessing child pornography. Sen. Vinehout must apologize to Wisconsin's families for her poor judgement, and Democrats statewide should disavow her actions," said Republican Party of Wisconsin spokesman Alec Zimmerman.

Lovell’s Maple Bluff home was searched in May 2015 after a state Division of Criminal Investigation special agent identified his computer as a source offering to distribute known child pornography on the file-sharing service BitTorrent. Files distributed from Lovell’s computer depicted nude, "early pubescent" females, according to court records.

The search of his personal computer and an external hard drive turned up 10 images, accessed in 2014 and 2015, depicting nude, prepubescent females, according to court records.

Lovell, now 60, received concurrent three-year prison sentences for each count of possession of child pornography, with three years of extended supervision. Five additional counts of possession were dismissed. He has been in prison since June 27, 2017, and will remain on the state’s sex offender registry until 2038.

Lovell, who first started his work with Legislative Council in 1985, received letters of support from several of his Legislative Council coworkers and from two former lawmakers — former Senate Majority Leader Joseph Strohl and former Rep. Marlin Schneider, who served four decades in the Assembly.

Strohl, in his Sept. 25, 2015, letter, encouraged Judge Nicholas McNamara to consider Lovell’s "decades-long commitment to the betterment of our society through his professional work."

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Schneider, in his Sept. 24, 2016, letter, urged McNamara to "show mercy" in his sentencing, adding that Lovell had sought help and counseling and had the support of his family in righting "the wrongs that were done by him.”"

Schneider argued that prison time would not "serve any particularly good purpose including the idea of ‘sending a message’ to others who engage in similar activities."

"He is now a pariah with his former colleagues, shunned by all but one current member of the legislature, and feeling a great deal of remorse for his situation," Schneider wrote. "I suppose we all feel that way when we are caught doing something wrong and publicly humiliated by our own actions."

Vinehout, 59, announced her plans to run for governor on Monday at an event in Black River Falls. She said she is running to "put people first." Vinehout’s platform includes offering free tuition at technical colleges and two-year colleges, access to affordable health care and higher wages for workers.

First elected to the state Senate in 2006, Vinehout won 4 percent of the vote in the Democratic primary in the 2012 recall election against Gov. Scott Walker, and briefly considered another bid in 2014. Vinehout’s Senate seat is up in 2018. She said earlier this week she is committed to her gubernatorial campaign and will not seek a fourth Senate term, but told the Associated Press on Tuesday she "can’t ever say never" about running for re-election.

Walker is expected to announce his own re-election plans later this year.

Vinehout is joined in the Democratic field by by Milwaukee businessman Andy Gronik, Eau Claire state Rep. Dana Wachs, Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Evers and political activist Mike McCabe. 

Spokespeople for the other Democratic campaigns declined to comment.

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Jessie Opoien covers state government and politics for the Capital Times. She joined the Cap Times in 2013 and has also covered Madison life, race relations, culture and music. She has also covered education and politics for the Oshkosh Northwestern.