The annual number of tips about online sexual exploitation of children nearly tripled in just one year at a time when two state Department of Justice officials allegedly failed to timely pursue such cases, resulting in their departure from the agency, state records show.
Each year, the DOJ receives hundreds of tips from the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children. Some of the tips are investigated by agents for DOJ’s Division of Criminal Investigation and others are referred to local police agencies for followup.
In 2010-11, the center forwarded 366 tips to the DOJ and other law enforcement agencies, prompting the state agency to open 145 cases, according to a 2013 report by the Legislative Fiscal Bureau.
The following year, 2011-12, the national center forwarded 909 tips, resulting in 450 new DOJ cases, the report said. Throughout that time, budget figures show the number of DOJ staff members dedicated to investigating Internet Crimes Against Children cases remained the same, at 31.
The number of tips for 2012-13 is not yet available, DOJ spokeswoman Dana Brueck said.
Nationwide, there’s been a huge jump in such cases, said Rebecca Kovar, manager of public relations for the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children. Kovar said her group has referred 2.4 million tips to state ICAC task forces since it was established as a national repository in 1998 — half of them in just the past two years.
Attorney Dan Bach, who is representing a supervisor fired over investigative delays, claimed there were systemwide problems, including a ballooning caseload, that led to months or years of inaction in ICAC cases involving child pornography, enticement or similar crimes.
In addition, DOJ officials acknowledged in the January 2013 Legislative Fiscal Bureau report that the agency lacked the capability to electronically track such cases across the 181 law enforcement agencies investigating them.
Brueck did not answer questions about whether DOJ had the capability to electronically track its own cases.
Bach, a former No. 2 official at DOJ, is representing Willie Brantley, a former special agent in charge of the Milwaukee office who is fighting his termination. Anna King, a special agent in the Milwaukee office, also has left the agency after allegedly failing to aggressively pursue ICAC cases, but DOJ officials have not said whether she resigned or was fired.
Officials have said a third employee has been disciplined but declined to name the person or the action taken.
In Brantley’s termination letter, Deputy Attorney General Kevin St. John cited 43 cases held for four months or more, including one in which the delay allowed a suspect to allegedly sexually assault a child.
In one case, St. John alleged that Brantley failed to assign a tip about possession of child pornography by Robert Turk for more than a year, and then no action was taken until nearly two years later, in April 2013.
The delay caused evidence in the case to become “stale,” St. John wrote, prompting the Waukesha County district attorney’s office to agree to a non-felony plea deal for Turk, 37.
St. John also cited the Racine County case of Samuel Hawkins. Although an agent identified that a computer used by Hawkins was involved in child pornography in December 2012, a search warrant for it was not issued until more than a year later — and just days after Hawkins, 26, allegedly molested an 11-year-old boy, St. John wrote.
But Bach said both the large increase in ICAC cases and disagreement over who was in charge of tracking their progress may have led to some tips being overlooked and cases neglected.
“The backlog of ICAC referrals was an issue well known to the Department of Justice management officials long before Mr. Brantley’s termination, and was the result of factors over which he had no control,” Bach wrote in a letter sent last week to the Wisconsin Employment Relations Commission appealing Brantley’s firing.
In an interview, Bach said the 43 cases for which Brantley was terminated “do not even show up as cases that are assigned to him.”
He said the ICAC commander in Madison was responsible for tracking them and generating monthly reports. Jenniffer Price was the ICAC commander until December, when Matthew Joy took over.
Brueck disagreed, saying in an emailed response that Brantley was responsible for all agents in the Milwaukee office, including King, who was specifically assigned to investigate Internet crimes against children. She said Price and Joy do not supervise any agents.
Citing a growing workload, DOJ in mid-2013 secured about $450,000 a year to added three special agents and two criminal analysts to work on ICAC crimes, bringing the total staff for dedicated to such cases to 36.
Brueck said the agency also has expanded the number of local law enforcement agencies participating in the statewide ICAC task force to allow DOJ to refer out more cases.
— The Associated Press contributed to this report.
Editor's note: This story has been corrected to reflect that the state Department of Justice has not identified the work location of a third disciplined employee.