Pubdate: Wed, 08 Dec 1999
Source: Milwaukee Journal Sentinel (WI)
Copyright: 1999, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.
Contact:  414-224-8280
Author: Kevin Murphy, Special to the Journal Sentinel


Madison - A Madison firefighter sentenced Tuesday to one month in jail
for allowing cocaine to be delivered to his house was unfairly singled
out for prosecution in federal court because he is a public employee,
his attorney said.

Michael Merkel, 52, who earlier pleaded guilty to attempting to
possess cocaine, a misdemeanor, also was fined $1,000 and ordered to
serve 400 hours of community service.

His attorney, Mark Eisenberg, said he could not recall another case of
cocaine possession being prosecuted in federal court in Madison.

"Every case has gone to state court, where they get a chance to
undergo treatment and have the record wiped clean if they complete the
terms of probation," Eisenberg said.

Eisenberg said he would have agreed with Magistrate Stephen Crocker's
decision to punish Merkel because he is a firefighter if it had
affected his job performance. Although Merkel admitted being an
occasional cocaine user, he did not use the drug on the job, FBI agent
Ted Wasky said when Merkel pleaded guilty in October.

"He made a poor choice and should be punished for his poor choice, but
he's already been publicly ridiculed, fined and will be put on
supervised release. The jail was entirely discretionary and it was
given, I believe, because he was a firefighter," Eisenberg said.

U.S. Attorney Peggy Lautenschlager said she believed that Merkel's
drug activity was more extensive than simple possession and that
concerns over public safety were considered in his

"There's always a concern when the person using cocaine is subject to
24-hour call-in duties. Not only is (cocaine use) illegal, but there
was a possibility of his being called to duty after using cocaine off
duty," she said.

Merkel and Terry Rice, both longtime Madison firefighters, were
charged in federal court after an FBI investigation of a drug network
that smuggled up to 11 pounds of cocaine from California to Madison.

The package shipped to Merkel contained less than 2 ounces of cocaine,
authorities said. The FBI considered the firefighters minor players in
the network.

Rice is scheduled to be sentenced Friday in federal court. Merkel is
scheduled to begin serving his jail sentence Jan. 3.

Merkel and Rice have been suspended with pay pending the outcome of an
investigation by the Madison Fire Department.
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