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Ryan Owens for AG: Are Conservative Donors Backing the Right Horse?

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In a podcast analyzing Evers’ Safer at Home actions, Ryan Owens criticized people “on the right” who are “saying the governor is a tyrant and all this,” calling it “that nonsense.”

Republican Attorney General primary candidate Ryan Owens, who is a political science professor at UW-Madison, hasn’t appeared on a court case since at least 2005, and his campaign could only come up with 10 court/legal cases he’s ever been involved in outside of friend of the court briefs – none criminal cases.

In some of those 10 cases, he was giving advice and doing research for an old law firm, not appearing in court as the attorney of record. In other words, he was helping other lawyers with their cases.

He’s never prosecuted or handled a criminal case in court. Furthermore, in four of the 10 cases his campaign provided, Ryan Owens is not listed as an attorney of record in court records for them, Wisconsin Right Now found. Four of the other cases are administrative law cases in the public service docket. None of the cases is a criminal case. The most recent court case is a 2002 case involving Wisconsin Bell and the Public Service Commission of Wisconsin that wound through the appellate court system until 2005.

Does this matter?

The Attorney General’s primary is just getting started. Two Republican candidates are vying to replace Democratic Attorney General Josh Kaul – Ryan Owens and Fond du Lac District Attorney Eric Toney, who has handled hundreds of cases of all varieties, including many serious criminal cases, both as a prosecutor (DA for about nine years) and as an attorney in private practice before that. We think it’s important for conservatives to thoroughly vet their candidates; those concerned about, say, the Brian Hagedorn election to state Supreme Court have learned that lesson the hard way.

Because Ryan Owens is a relatively new political player on the scene, and because he’s way ahead in fundraising, we decided to examine his background. Is it a house of cards? You be the judge. If we don’t raise these issues, Kaul and his well-oiled political machine certainly will. Owens raised more than $300,000 since entering the AG race in April 2021, including from some political heavyweight donors, which is an astonishing figure for a little-known candidate in a low-key race; Kaul, though, has raised more than $400,000. Toney raised $41,000, although the race is early.

“We both come from very different backgrounds. He comes from being a professor, being an academic. I come from personally prosecuting violent crimes and criminal cases in Wisconsin,” Toney told Wisconsin Right Now in an interview. “Josh Kaul – we are seeing the consequences of his experience in the AG’s office. The AG is our top cop, our top law enforcement official.”

We searched Ryan Owens’ state bar ID number in Wisconsin online court records under “prosecuting attorney” and came up with no cases. We searched his ID under “party attorney” and came up with a single case, a civil case from 2002 involving a money judgment in which he’s listed as the attorney for a bank.

The case is described as involving a bankruptcy. We searched Owens’ name in Wisconsin appellate courts and got only the case involving Wisconsin Bell, which lists many lawyers. In federal court, we found one case for Ryan Owens, dating to 2002-03.

When we search Toney’s state bar ID, we get 76 pages of cases under party attorney, and 154 pages of cases, including serious felonies, as a prosecuting attorney. Toney has highlighted his experience as a “frontline prosecutor” in the race. We get 599 cases for Toney under Wisconsin appellate courts.

“As a front-line prosecutor, it’s critical we have an attorney general who’ll support law enforcement and has firsthand experience fighting crime. As the next attorney general, my primary focus will be the on the safety and security of families all across Wisconsin,” Toney says prominently on his campaign website.

“I have been fighting for justice and to uphold the rule of law by locking up violent criminals and sexual predators for nearly 10 years as the Fond du Lac County District Attorney,” Toney told Wisconsin Right Now. “I’ve personally prosecuted hundreds, if not thousands, of cases and I have prosecuted dozens of jury trials. This includes; cold case homicide, child homicides, violent crime, rape, domestic violence, drunk driving, complex drug conspiracies, drug deaths, and racketeering.”

Yet some prominent conservative donors have been heading the other way, although it’s early.

Are conservative donors backing the right horse? That’s up to them, and you, to decide. We aren’t picking a horse ourselves in this race; our goal is to educate primary voters on their choices. We previously wrote a story examining Toney’s COVID prosecutions. We’ve also turned a spotlight on the record of the Democrat, Kaul, exposing his failures in the state Crime Lab.

It would be very unusual to elect an AG in Wisconsin with no criminal prosecution experience. There is concern in some corners that the highly financed, politically crafty Kaul will jam the UW-Madison’s political science professor’s lack of prosecution experience down his throat in a general election, that there is a difference between theory and doing, the old adage of the man in the arena counting more than the critic. At the same time, Toney is facing questions from some conservatives concerned over the COVID-19 prosecutions, which may be a bigger primary problem for him than a general election hurdle.

However, we’ve learned Owens was not always as tough talking on Evers and Safer at Home as he is now.


Ryan Owens on Evers’ Safer at Home Actions

“My stance on the Safer at Home order has remained the same,” Ryan Owens told us.

However, we found audio in which Owens, in a podcast analyzing Evers’ Safer at Home actions, criticized people “on the right” who are “saying the governor is a tyrant and all this,” calling it “that nonsense.” He also criticized the left in that same statement.

“There’s been a lot of dust up over this about, you know the Legislature wants you know the elderly and the immunocompromised to die, and the people on the right are saying the governor is a tyrant and all this,” he said in the podcast.

“You know if we can cut through that nonsense and just say you know what do think aside from the sort of the interpretation here of the law what do think are potentially some of the benefits of the court’s decision? And here I’m thinking a little bit about getting everybody to the table.”

He then indicated that the topic “isn’t about Republicans good, Democrats bad,” and said he was “willing to attribute good faith to everybody in this…everybody I think is trying to do their best.” He said it’s regrettable that “we hear more from the loudmouth at the end of the bar than we do from anybody else over stuff like this,” and said, “I think it’s unseemly that some people are fundraising off of this; that’s a little obnoxious.”

Milwaukee Journal Sentinel‘s Dan Bice wrote about another podcast, the “1050 Bascom” from April 6, 2020 in which Owens said this about Evers’ ‘safer at home’ order,

“The governor, to his credit, was ahead of the game when it came to the ‘safer at home’ order,” and “We can quibble around the edges about the treatment of religion and things like that with it, but he was well ahead of a lot of states when he issued that order, to his credit.” and “I’m glad I’m not the one who’s having to make these decisions right now because no one is happy about them.”

In an interview with Wisconsin Right Now, Ryan Owens said he decided to run for AG in part because of “the leadership deficit we have right now in this state in the attorney general’s office. What worries me is that leadership deficit is turning into a freedom deficit. I think Wisconsin deserves better than this.”

He added: “Every major issue this state faced, the AG has been on the wrong side of it; I couldn’t sit on the sidelines anymore. I needed to get out there and try to do something about it.”

During the last Attorney General’s race, incumbent Brad Schimel made a big deal about the fact that Kaul had never prosecuted a single Wisconsin criminal case, although Kaul did work as a federal prosecutor in Baltimore. Schimel was Waukesha County DA before being elected AG; JB Van Hollen, Kaul’s mother Peg Lautenschlager, and Jim Doyle were all DAs before being elected AG and Van Hollen and Lautenschlager were also former US Attorneys. AGs Don Hanaway and Bronson La Follette had worked as prosecutors too. That takes you back to the 1970s, at least. Today, Kaul comes up under a single Wisconsin criminal case as a prosecuting attorney in CCAP, although more civil cases come up for him as a party attorney.


Pardons & Friend of Court Briefs

Ryan Owens highlights his experience working for Gov. Tommy Thompson’s pardon office. “For Gov. Thompson he worked for the pardon advisory board and worked with other states to bring fugitives back to Wisconsin,” his campaign says.

But his resume reveals that’s something he did as an assistant for one year in 1998 before he was a lawyer. He graduated from law school in 2001, according to the State Bar of Wisconsin.

He says he “represented Mike Lee and Ted Cruz at the United States Supreme Court.” But these were friend of the court briefs, his campaign confirmed. The legal dictionary explains that friend of court briefs mean “literally, friend of the court. A person with strong interest in or views on the subject matter of an action, but not a party to the action, may petition the court for permission to file a brief, ostensibly on behalf of a party but actually to suggest a rationale consistent with its own views.”

According to Ryan Owens’ website, “He is the author of three books.” He’s listed as a co-author on books about the Supreme Court. He’s also written a number of columns; one advocated for criminal justice reform. The 2018 article was headlined, How to Keep people Out of Prison. (You can read more of his articles here.)

In July 2021, while running for AG, he struck a different message in a column arguing, “Wisconsin needs to make crime criminal again.”