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Upcoming 'Supreme' primary spurs partisan exchange; county mulls fines over health coverage; DNR sets panfish meetings, more state news

WDNR fisheries managers are asking for public input about how to best oversee the state's panfish resources.

MADISON -- State Supreme Court Justice Pat Roggensack has at least nine times as much campaign money as each of her two challengers, but it's not a lot, compared to some races.

New state reports show that Roggensack had $55,000 in her campaign fund at the start of the year. Milwaukee attorney Vince Megna had $6,900 in the bank, and Marquette law professor Ed Fallone had $5,400.

Roggensack, who's running for her second 10-year term, raised $34,000 in the second half of last year and the Journal Sentinel said over a quarter of it came from groups connected to Republicans. Megna says he's a Democrat, and he believes it's a sham to call Supreme Court races non-partisan. He said the new campaign figures prove that Republicans believe Roggensack will promote their agenda.

Roggensack consultant Brandon Scholz disputes that - and he says the campaign would be happy to take money from Democratic groups. Scholz also took issue with the claim that the incumbent's campaign money would influence her case rulings. "She rules by the law. That's what her job is as a justice," he said.

Megna and Fallone are funding most of their campaigns by themselves. On Thursday, former U.S. Senate Democrat Russ Feingold issued a fund-raising appeal on Fallone's behalf. A primary will be held Feb. 19th, which will eliminate one of the three candidates for the April general election.

Meanwhile, report filings by Gov. Scott Walker's campaign staff indicated he has around $800,000 in the bank for his next election in 21 months.

The Republican governor reported Thursday that he raised $474,000 in the last half of 2012, soon after winning his recall election in June. Walker had $794,000 in his campaign fund at the start of the New Year. That's a sizable amount, but it's not nearly as much as the $29.5 million he raised in the first half of last year, in the months leading to the June recall contest.

Walker filed a complete financial report Thursday with the state elections' agency. His campaign released a summary, but the breakdown of contributions was not immediately available.

State's ag interests will lobby en masse, March 6th

MADISON -- Wisconsin legislators will soon get a harvest of input from farmers they represent.

The Farm Bureau Federation's "Ag Day" is normally one of the biggest lobbying events of the year - and this year, it's set for March 6th. It starts with a lunch at Monona Terrace in Madison, where farmers will hear from a couple of lawmakers. Then, the group will take a one-block walk to the State Capitol to meet with their own Assembly and Senate representatives.

The Farm Bureau says the major topics will deal with the economics of agriculture, animal welfare, and environmental concerns. Those attending are urged to make their own appointments with their lawmakers in advance.

Not record cold -- but darned close; up north, snow conditions are good

SULLIVAN -- It's not the coldest morning of the winter in Wisconsin but it's close.

Hayward and Superior were the cold spots at 7 a.m., Friday with 18-below. Hayward got down to the minus-20's a couple weeks ago. None of Wisconsin's official reporting stations were above zero.

Milwaukee, West Bend, and Manitowoc were right at zero. Ashland had the state's coldest wind-chill at minus-35 - and it was cold enough in nearby Hurley to close school for Friday. Wind-chills were generally in the minus-20's-and-30's in the northern two-thirds of the Badger State, and the minus-teens-and-20's in the south.

The National Weather Service had issued wind-chill advisories until noon for most of Wisconsin. Tonight's lows could get down to 20-below in the north, and five-above in the south. A warming trend begins tomorrow, with highs in the teens tomorrow and Sunday, and the 20's on Monday and Tuesday.

Meanwhile, the Weather Service still has flood warnings out for the Sheboygan River, which is a half-foot above its flood stage in Sheboygan. The Fox River in Kenosha County dropped below its flood stage overnight at New Munster but a flood warning continues.

Meanwhile, tourism officials say snow conditions across northeastern Wisconsin are perfect for snowmobilers.

The National Weather Service says most of Vilas County has 10- to 16 inches of snow on the ground and other parts of the north have 7-to 15 inches.

Eagle River Chamber director Connie Heeg said 11 snowmobiles whizzed by his office while he was on the phone - and he saw more machines riding around Thursday than any other day this winter. Kim Baltus of the Minocqua Area Chamber said it should make for a good weekend for the riders.

Central Wisconsin also expects an influx of snowmobilers. Marathon County trails were to re-open at noon Friday and Wood County's trails will open Saturday morning. Most places in central Wisconsin, the Fox Valley, and Door County have 6- to 14 snow covers.

Walker's defense dwindles

MILWAUKEE -- Gov. Scott Walker's legal defense fund only has about $5,000 left and there's talk that he might be shutting it down, as a John Doe investigation into his former Milwaukee County aides appears to be grinding to a halt.

According to new campaign records, the Walker put $40,000 of campaign donations into his defense fund late last year, which made the total around $200,000.

Nicole Tieman of the Walker campaign told the Journal Sentinel that the latest transfer pays for work that was done to cooperate with authorities over the last year. Most of the $200,000 went to Milwaukee defense attorney Michael Steinle and Chicago lawyer John Gallo, who represented Walker in the investigation that resulted in six criminal convictions.

Three former aides in Walker's former Milwaukee County executive office were convicted, along with another Walker appointee, a campaign donor, and a domestic partner of a former aide. Most were either convicted of embezzling money from a veterans' program, or illegally doing campaign work on taxpayers' time.

Milwaukee County mulls trading health insurance for fines

MILWAUKEE -- It's not just private businesses that are talking about dropping their employee health insurance plans when the Obama health law takes full effect next year.

Milwaukee County Supervisor Deanna Alexander says it would be much cheaper for the county to pay the federal penalty for not offering employee insurance and let about 4,400 public workers get their own coverage under the government's new purchasing exchanges.

The idea does not appear to be going anywhere, but county employee benefits manager Matt Hanchek says it's "absolutely appropriate" to study it. Alexander asked the Milwaukee County Board's Finance Committee for a full study but the panel voted 8-to 1 against it Thursday.

The county plans to spend $110 million dollars on employee health benefits this year, and Alexander says the federal penalty for dropping the coverage under the Obama law would be a relatively small $7.1 million. She said tons of money could be saved, although some of it could go to other government health programs.

Supervisor Theo Lipscomb says there's no way he could support such a concept. He said the savings would result from the denying of health benefits to county workers. Lipscomb said it would violate the spirit of the new federal health care law, if not the letter of the law.

Workday fire damages flooring plant

WESTON -- Damage is estimated at $1.2 million from a fire at a plant near Wausau that makes hardwood flooring.

Authorities said a computerized sanding machine started on fire Thursday at a Weston business called From the Forest. Sawdust was reportedly ignited from a spark in the machine.

Employees tried putting out the fire with extinguishers but failed so they called 9-1-1. Officials said the fire was put out quickly, and no one was hurt.

Damage was estimated at $200,000 to the sanding machine, plus about $1 million in manufacturing flooring products that received damage from smoke and ash. From the Forest operates two plants in Weston, which is east of Wausau.

-- Larry Lee, WSAU, Wausau

Blaze at Burlington egg processor brought out 88 departments

BURLINGTON -- Authorities are poring through the rubble of a Burlington egg processing plant, to find out why it started on fire Wednesday night.

The blaze destroyed the production area of Echo Lake Foods, which makes a host of pre-cooked breakfast products. Most of it goes to wholesalers and large government facilities like schools and prisons.

Burlington Fire Chief Richard Lodle said the warehouse area was not burned, because it was separated by fire walls. No one was hurt.

About 50 nearby residents were allowed to return to their homes Thursday after being evacuated overnight due to concerns about a possible ammonia leak.

Mayor Bob Miller said the hazardous materials were contained. State emergency management officials said there was a minor release of ammonia residue from pipes and they're monitoring the air quality.

About 300 firefighters from 88 departments battled the blaze for more than 15 hours. State officials said some of the fire equipment froze up with temperatures in the teens - and runoff water also froze, which made the footing risky for the firefighters.

Echo Lake Foods has about 300 employees, and they can start filing for unemployment benefits next week. The mayor says he'll do what he can to help the plant rebuild. The Racine County Economic Development Corporation said it has some tax credits and loans available but they're not sure how much.

Construction boost fuels Manitowoc profits

MANITOWOC -- The Manitowoc Company said its quarterly profits more than doubled from a year ago, thanks to a nearly 12 percent increase in its sales of construction cranes.

The firm reported net income of $34.5 million from October through December, up 132 percent from the same quarter of 2011.

Earnings totaled 26 cents a share, much higher than the 11 cents from the year before.

A recovering U.S. economy was credited for the larger crane sales. They totaled $767 million, up from $687 million in the fourth quarter of the previous year.

CEO Glen Tellock said the Manitowoc finished the year on a strong note. Its net income for the entire year jumped by 8.5 percent from 2011. The firm released its figures late Thursday, after the stock markets closed. Manitowoc's stock was up 24 cents on the day, at $17.60.

Justice Dept. will review Madison officer shooting

MADISON -- The U.S. Justice Department will review the shooting death of a musician by a Madison police officer.

U.S. Attorney John Vaudreuil asked for the probe, after his office got dozens of letters asking for an independent review of Paul Heenan's death.

Recent news accounts said the 30-year-old Heenan mistakenly entered a neighbor's house while drunk on Nov. 9th and he got into a scuffle with Kevin O'Malley, who was trying to get Heenan to his own house.

Madison Police officer Stephen Heimsness saw the scuffle when he arrived. Reports said the officer told the men to settle down, and Heenan then grabbed the officer's arm and reached for his gun. Heimsness then pushed back and shot Heenan three times.

The Justice Department's Civil Rights Division is expected to take a few weeks to investigate.

Madison Police officials said the officer did not violate policies on deadly force and he was put back on the street after a few weeks on administrative leave. During that leave, WKOW TV said Heimsness got over $1,000 in overtime pay. Officials said Heimsness was called in for meetings, but the nature of those meetings was not disclosed.

WDNR assembling new panfish-management plan

MADISON -- Wisconsin fish experts are creating a new statewide management plan for panfish and they want to hear from anglers about their fishing experiences.

The Department of Natural Resources will hold two dozen public meetings around the state over the next two months to explain the management plan, and hear what people would like to include in it.

The DNR has management plans for the more popular game fish like musky and northern pike and both anglers and biologists want to see a similar plan for the panfish population.

The first meeting will be held in Stevens Point on Feb. 12th. For western Wisconsin residents, meeting options include:

Feb. 19, Eau Claire, DNR Eau Claire Regional Office, 7 p.m., 1300 W. Clairemont Ave.

Feb. 20, Hayward, Hayward High School Auditorium, 6:30 p.m., 10320 N. Greenwood Lane

March 12, Brule, Brule Ranger Station, 7 p.m. 6250 S. Ranger Road

March 14, Spooner, Spooner DNR Service Center, 7 p.m. , 810 W. Maple St.

March 18, Balsam Lake, Polk County Government Center, East Conf. Rm. 7 p.m., 100 Polk County Plaza

Botched ATF sting in Milwaukee has overseers' attention

MILWAUKEE -- The House judiciary chairman and three other congressional leaders are demanding answers about the ATF's botched operation in Milwaukee.

They fired off a seven-page letter Thursday to Todd Jones, the acting director of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives. The congressional leaders want written answers to over two dozen questions about a fake business set up by the ATF in Milwaukee called Fearless Distributing.

It was designed to take in illegal guns and drugs but the Journal Sentinel said somebody burglarized the place after it was open for 10 months and stole $35,000 worth of items, including an agent's machine gun. Further, the ATF allegedly left the building with thousands of dollars in damage, while leaving a sensitive document behind.

Milwaukee Police Chief Ed Flynn said his department and the ATF are still looking for the stolen machine gun.

House Judiciary Chairman Robert Goodlatte wrote the leader which demanded answers, along with House Crime Sub-committee chairman Jim Sensenbrenner of Menomonee Falls, House Oversight panel chairman Darrell Issa, and ranking Democrat Charles Grassley on the Senate Judiciary Committee.

Wisconsin Senate Republican Ron Johnson wrote a separate letter to the ATF, and Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett also wants an investigation. He's especially concerned about the stray document which included personal information about the agents in the operation. The mayor said the ATF got sloppy, and it put people's lives in danger.

Thirty people were arrested, although the Journal Sentinel said charges were sought against three of the wrong people. The operation also seized 145 guns.

Former Kenosha business man gets prizon for mortage fraud

KENOSHA -- A former Kenosha mortgage broker has been sentenced to 14 months in a federal prison for helping run a fraud scheme that netted $14 million.

Paul Zaleski, formerly of Twin Lakes, was one of five people convicted in an operation that ran from 2004 to 2006.

Zaleski, who now lives in Ojai, Cal., recruited people who assumed they were joining an investment group and they put up the money to buy 50 properties which had fake loan applications and false appraisals.

The properties were in southeast Wisconsin and northern Illinois, and most of the mortgages ended up in foreclosure. Zaleski pleaded guilty to wire fraud and money laundering.

Two co-conspirators each got one year in prison. An investor and a loan processor were each put on three years of probation.

Driver fans brave cold for retirement ceremony tickets

GREEN BAY -- How much do Packer fans love Donald Driver? Two fans showed up at Lambeau Field at 3 a.m., Friday and they were waiting for six hours in Green Bay's bitter cold to get free tickets to Driver's retirement ceremony next Wednesday.

Fans bundled up and put hand-warmers in their gloves to deal with sub-zero cold and a wind-chill factor that was 23-below at 7 a.m.

An undisclosed number of public tickets to the Driver ceremony were to be given away at nine and only those showing up outside the Packer ticket office on the north side of the stadium will get those seats.

The Packers' top management will speak at Wednesday's ceremony, which starts at 11 a.m. in the Lambeau Field Atrium. Driver announced his retirement Thursday after 14 years in the National Football League.

Green Bay was the only team he played for - and he said he owed it to his fans to retire as a Packer, and not play for anybody else. Driver, who turns 38 tomorrow, holds several Packer records including total catches and total receiving yards.