Governor's Legal Counsel Resigns
MADISON, Wis. (AP) -- Gov. Jim Doyle's legal counsel, the daughter of a powerful state senator, abruptly resigned Friday amid revelations she is not licensed to practice law in the state.
The governor's office accepted the resignation of Chandra Miller Fienen and said in a statement that "she realizes that she has placed this office in a difficult position."
The resignation was an embarrassing setback for the Democratic governor, an attorney himself and former three-term attorney general. The resignation came hours after the state Republican Party filed a complaint alleging Miller Fienen has been falsely representing herself as an attorney when she does not have a license.
The governor's office had defended her Thursday, saying she didn't need a license because she only advised Doyle and never represented him in court.
Doyle spokesman Lee Sensenbrenner said the office knew she had been a practicing attorney in California and hired her with the understanding that she would pass the bar exam and get licensed. He said she has passed the test but, for reasons that were not disclosed, never received a law license.
"There was the assumption she had been properly licensed," he said. "Last night the governor was informed that wasn't the case."
The Republican Party's complaint with the Office of Lawyer Regulation alleged Miller Fienen has violated the rules of professional conduct for attorneys. The complaint cited a rule that allows punishment for those who use words like "attorney" or "counselor" to describe themselves if they do not have licenses.
The complaint includes a March response to one of the party's open records requests in which she listed her title as "chief legal counsel." The complaint also says Doyle failed to ensure she is complying with the rules as her supervisor.
Mark Jefferson, the Republican Party of Wisconsin's executive director, said the abrupt resignation appeared to be an attempt to shield the governor from blame.
"As an attorney himself, didn't the governor have a responsibility to see that his chief legal counsel was a licensed attorney in the state of Wisconsin?" he said. "There are a lot of licensed attorneys in Wisconsin. Couldn't he find one?"
Miller Fienen worked as an executive assistant at the Wisconsin Department of Commerce before joining the governor's office of legal counsel last year. Her father is Sen. Mark Miller, D-Monona, co-chairman of the Legislature's budget committee.
She and others referred to her $100,000-per-year position as the governor's legal counsel, but the office says her title was "senior advisor." In her brief letter of resignation, she wrote: "It has been an honor and a pleasure to serve as a senior advisor in the office of the governor."
A day earlier, the governor's office had said she did not practice law, never exceeded her authority, and was "a trusted and competent adviser."
The resignation comes days after The Capital Times newspaper sued Doyle and Miller Fienen for allegedly delaying the release of public records related to Dane County judicial applicants. The newspaper has claimed they were trying to stop the spread of negative information about one of the applicants, Amy Smith, who was later appointed to the bench.
Records with the State Bar of California show Miller Fienen was admitted to practice there in 2003 but has been suspended since last year for not renewing her license. Those records show Miller Fienen graduated from law school at the University of California-Berkeley.
Earlier Friday, her father had said his daughter was a licensed attorney and had passed the bar exam in Wisconsin. The Wisconsin Board of Bar Examiners said it could not confirm or deny that. She is also not listed as a member of the State Bar of Wisconsin, which is required for all practicing attorneys in the state.
Rep. Steve Nass, R-Whitewater, had urged the governor to replace Miller Fienen earlier Friday, calling her appointment "political patronage of the worst kind."
Miller had shrugged off that claim earlier Friday, saying: "I think the governor is lucky to have such a talented attorney in his office."
Miller is a legislative ally of the governor. Earlier this week, he helped give approval to Doyle's controversial plan for a $47 million, no-bid contract to purchase two passenger train sets from a Spanish company as part of a proposal to bring high-speed rail to the state.
(Copyright 2009 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)