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The Badger Herald

Independent Student Newspaper Since 1969

The Badger Herald

Independent Student Newspaper Since 1969

The Badger Herald

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Sex offender returned to UW office Aug. 22

A professor who was convicted of child enticement reported to work at the University of Wisconsin Aug. 22, the first official day of the faculty semester, according to the chair of the Department of Comparative Literature.

Registered sex offender Lewis Keith Cohen, a professor in the department, continued to occupy his office in Van Hise Hall until yesterday, remaining on the UW payroll the entire time.

Reacting to this information Thursday evening, Provost Peter Spear vowed to recommend Cohen's termination today to the UW System Board of Regents.

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"We are now going to tell him he cannot come back to campus," Spear said. "We've prohibited him from coming in, effective [Friday], so he should not appear on campus."

Gary Sandefur, dean of the College of Letters and Science, requested in a letter Cohen return to his office Aug. 22, according to Comparative Literature Department Chair Mary Layoun.

"He got a letter that said he should report back to work from Dean Sandefur. … He was told to report back to work at the beginning of the semester," Layoun said.

Cohen worked out of his office gathering data and cataloguing and sorting boxes of books that were in a storage room, Layoun added.

"He had no official contact [with students]," Layoun said. "He was not teaching or advising and none of his duties involved direct contact with students."

Cohen, who was sentenced to a 30-day jail term and two years probation this summer, continued to work at UW after his incarceration began, through an unsupervised work release granted by the Milwaukee County Sheriff's Department Aug. 26.

Greendale Police apprehended Cohen March 15 when he attempted to meet a 14-year-old boy at a Subway restaurant for a sexual rendezvous. Cohen had previously contacted the boy via the Internet, sending nude images of himself, along with other pornographic photographs, and allegedly intended to counsel the boy on sexual matters. Cohen pled no contest on July 27 to the charges brought against him.

Though Cohen began his sentence four days after returning to UW for the fall semester, the terms of his work release allowed him to retain normal working hours on campus.

Cohen is currently serving his sentence at the Community Correctional Center in Milwaukee, but his correctional term is slated to end Sept. 18.

According to Spear, the university had little say in Cohen's return to the campus.

"When the legal system granted him work release, we had no choice. He has a job here, so we had to let him come work," Spear said. "So what we tried to do was give him duties that would fulfill the requirements of the Department of Corrections."

Spear said campus officials were then left to decide whether to assign Cohen work or deny him employment and opt to put him on paid administrative leave.

Though Cohen was not receiving pay at the time of his conviction, once the work leave was granted, the university could not keep him off the payroll, Spear said.

"Now that we've decided that we're going to seek termination, we've also said, 'We don't want you coming back to campus.' But [we] have no choice but to continue paying him," he said.

The controversy over convicted felons holding employment at UW has drawn much attention from the state Legislature. State Rep. Scott Suder, R-Abbotsford, repeated calls for Cohen's termination Thursday and demanded an overhaul of the UW System's employment policies.

"[Cohen] was involved in child enticement," Suder said. "He needs to be fired and not rewarded by being given work-release privileges at the UW campus."

Suder said the Legislature will take steps to change state statutes to allow UW more leeway in employment policies. The proposed legislation would require the university to begin investigations into employees charged with felonies sooner, Suder added.

"We are going to give the flexibility to the UW to fire convicted felons once they have been convicted," Suder said. "And we may go as far as to force them to fire convicted felons upon conviction."

Spear has decided to terminate Cohen's employment at UW, but until the UW System Board of Regents approves Spear's request, Cohen will remain on paid administrative leave. If Cohen decides to appeal the firing, he will receive paid leave until the appeal process is complete.

"Given that we had to pay him anyway under the law, we thought it would be best to have him doing some useful work for the university while we finished the investigation," Spear said.

The DOC put "very strict limitations" on what Cohen could do and where he could go, Spear added. Under these restrictions, Spear said, Cohen could not use the Internet or computers and had to remain at his desk. In addition, Cohen has been added to the Wisconsin Sex Offender Registry and cannot have contact with children under age 18.

Though Spear and Layoun said Cohen was not working with students, Suder disagreed.

"Unless he's in a cage, he is interacting with students," he said.

Suder also spoke out about the granting of Cohen's work release.

"This is akin to giving a work release to a drunk driver and giving that individual a bartending job," Suder said. "It's playing with fire."

John Dipko, a public information director of the Wisconsin DOC, said the goal of the correctional facility where Cohen is serving his sentence is for inmates to work.

"Our expectation for all offenders who were under community supervision is to have employment," Dipko said.

Since becoming embroiled in the controversy over the employment of felons, Spear said the UW is doing everything it can to rectify the situation as quickly as possible.

"We are just as horrified and upset about these crimes as everyone else and, frankly, we are just as frustrated as everyone else that the time required to resolve these things legally seems to be long," he said.

This is not Cohen's first run-in with the law. According to documents obtained by The Badger Herald, Cohen had been charged in 1998 for six counts of violating a restraining order, although the charges were later dismissed.

The order came as part of a messy divorce proceeding with Cohen's estranged wife. An affidavit signed by her during divorce proceedings stated she "feared for her safety and the safety of her son on numerous occasions," claiming Cohen "has been diagnosed as having a bipolar disorder (manic depression)."

Spear, who is unsure as to whether the university knew of this previous legal tiff, said that even if the school had known about it, UW would not have been able to investigate and take action unless a complaint was filed by a third party.

Other documents obtained by The Badger Herald include a letter from his wife to a judge.

"Neither therapy nor the domestic-abuse program were successful at getting Keith to accept responsibility for his actions. The fact that Keith was asked to leave a domestic-abuse program because he was too abusive offers little encouragement about his ability to change," she wrote. "He is tenacious, manipulative and unrelenting."

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