MADISON —Milwaukee-based Michael Best & Friedrich LLP has a long history of serving as attorney for the Village of Bristol. The powerhouse law firm also represents the Seminole Tribe of Florida, which has its eye on about 60 acres of prime development land owned by the small Kenosha County community for a casino.
It’s a an overlapping relationship that may feel a little too cozy for ethical comfort.
But Bristol Village Administrator Randy Kerkman insists there’s no conflict of interest here.
Kerkman tells Wisconsin Spotlight that Josh Gimbel, of Milwaukee-based Gimbel, Reilly, Guerin & Brown, LLP, was brought in to represent the village in the fast-tracked land deal that could bring Bristol millions of dollars — and a Hard Rock Casino and hotel as a next-door neighbor.
“That’s why we hired Josh,” to avoid any conflicts of interest, Kerkman said.
But where did Josh Gimbel work before he joined the law firm his father, Franklyn Gimbel, opened in 1968? Michael Best & Friedrich. He worked there for 25 years, specializing in “land use and zoning, real estate and municipal law,” according to a press release.
“Josh also represents developers and individuals in special and conditional use permit approvals, zoning changes, and developer agreement negotiations,” the release states.
Gimbel has been with Gimbel, Reilly, Guerin & Brown for nearly nine years, but several of his former Michael Best colleagues have done legal work for the Village of Bristol. That includes attorney Thomas O. Gartner, who, most recently, provided Bristol legal guidance in Wisconsin Spotlight’s open records request regarding the land deal.
“When your open records request came in we sent it to Thom,” Kerkman said. “Josh (Gimbel) didn’t see any issue with us sending it to Thom. We have used him on open records in the past.”
The village also used him last last year in representing their interests in the issuance of $2.24 million in general obligation bonds. Gartner was listed as the Village Attorney.
Bristol also has used the services of Nancy Haggerty, a partner in Michael Best’s Real Estate Group. Kerkman said Haggerty has provided legal counsel on tax increment financing issues. And the law firm also represented the village in a cooperative plan with the city of Kenosha.
Which brings us to the land deal at hand.
Michael Best partner Michael Green is representing an entity known as Kenosha LandCo LLC in an agreement that could be worth as much as $15 million to Bristol. Kenosha LandCo just so happens to have the same address as Hard Rock International, operator of a brand of hotels, restaurants and casinos owned by the Seminole Tribe of Florida.
As Wisconsin Spotlight first reported, the tribe is hoping to resurrect its long-dead plan to build the casino and hotel in Kenosha, according to multiple Capitol sources.
Bristol, a village of some 5,000 residents, is located about 14 miles west of Kenosha. The approximately 60 acres is owned by the village but is actually located in the city of Kenosha. The property was part of a land settlement more than a decade ago between Bristol and Kenosha that expanded the city’s western boundary while giving Bristol the right to keep the proceeds from the sale of the property.
A letter of intent, quickly pushed through last month by the Village Board at a hastily called meeting, would give the Seminole the option to buy four extremely valuable parcels of land on the east and west sides of 122nd Avenue between Highways’ 50 and K. If all goes as planned — with the tribe receiving the necessary state and regulatory approvals to build the casino — it could go forward with the purchase. The total price, according to the proposal, would be as much as $15.2 million, nearly $9.8 million alone for two prime parcels.
In the meantime, Kenosha LandCo would have to pay a $50,000 option fee to the village to hold the land over the next year. The agreement comes with a one-year option extension, bringing the total payment to $100,000. The fees would be applied to the sale, should it go through.
It’s a sweetheart deal for the Seminole, not so sweet for Bristol, industry experts tell Wisconsin Spotlight. The village would have to sit on extremely valuable land for as long as two years with just $100,000 to show for it. But Bristol community leaders are gambling on the bigger payout that an ultimate sale would bring.
The village is looking at an expensive water tower project. The school district earlier this year unanimously rejected a proposed water tower on school property, estimated to cost $3.6 million.
According to one report, school board members and school officials said at the February meeting they felt they were being pushed by the village into making a snap decision on the land transfer without getting full information. Some felt misled.
“I’m completely against the water tower on the Bristol School property,” school board member Michael Saad said. “There’s been nothing but misinformation.”
The land sale to Kenosha LandCo could bring in the cash needed to pay for the project, Kerkman acknowledged.
Village officials still claim they know nothing about a casino project on the land. Board President Mike Farrell has said the use would be up to the city of Kenosha, which pushed hard for a similar casino project nearly a decade ago. The proposal was ultimately rejected by then-Gov. Scott Walker.
“The intent is very simply to maximize our return to our taxpayers in the village of Bristol. We accepted the highest offer, and that doesn’t include uses. It’s simply a land sale,” Farrell said.
But it’s not quite that simple.
Critics of the original Hard Rock plan worried a casino would change the character of Kenosha, inviting higher crime and other societal problems and costs. And should the casino proposal receive local, state and federal approvals, the road to gambling expansion on the property will be much easier in the years ahead. Once the tribe secures the land, it can do just about whatever it wants with it.
Some Bristol residents, including a former long-time village board member, have complained community leaders are so focused on a potential windfall that they’re not protecting the best interests of Bristol. And they say the board has been less than transparent in fast-tracking the land deal.
Kerkman said he had hoped to get the final agreement on the agenda for the board’s meeting this coming Monday, but it’s looking less likely that will happen.
“We are (still) working out those details on an agreement,” the village administrator said.
Those details are being discussed by two attorneys with long ties to the same law firm.