State to pay $30,000 to settle sign theft lawsuit

MADISON, Wis. - State taxpayers will pay $30,000 to settle a federal lawsuit filed against a lawmaker who stole a sign from a protester referring to President Donald Trump as "sadistic," "racist" and a "serial groper."

State Rep. Dale Kooyenga, a Republican from Brookfield who is running for state Senate, took the sign from the state Capitol Rotunda in May and put it in his office. Protester Donald Johnson, who was 80 at the time, made the sign and filed a federal lawsuit in October seeking damages and accusing Kooyenga of violating his free speech rights.

Johnson's attorney, Lester Pines, said Monday that the settlement was a "sufficient admission" that Kooyenga stole the sign. Pines said Johnson was happy with the settlement.

"It's absolutely inexplicable and unacceptable to take down a sign just because you don't like what it said," Pines said.

Kooyenga said in a statement that he thought the sign, which was unattended, was "inappropriate," but he didn't intend to cause Johnson any harm by removing it. The sign said that Republicans backed Trump, "we the people be damned."

Kooyenga told police at the time that he took the sign because it contained the words "groper" and "damn" and that children in the Capitol saw it, and that he didn't consider his removing it to be a big deal.

Capitol police recovered the sign from Kooyenga's Capitol office after surveillance video showed him taking it. Kooyenga was not cited by police or charged with a crime.

Faced with the lawsuit, Kooyenga said the settlement was the best option to avoid a prolonged legal battle "or further divert time or energy from the actual public policy priorities facing our state."

Gov. Scott Walker's administration has refused to release video showing Kooyenga taking the sign, saying that doing so would reveal the placement of hidden cameras in the Capitol. Requests from The Associated Press and other news organizations to see the video have been declined.

Under a deal reached with Pines, Walker's administration agreed to show him the video, but not to make it public. Pines said the settlement was reached before the video was turned over to him for viewing.

Attorneys have agreed to the settlement amount but it has not yet been finalized or entered into the court record, Johnny Koremenos, a spokesman for the state Department of Justice, said Monday afternoon.

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