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Bill would provide more oversight on costly state leases

Fri, 03/10/2017 - 11:09

MADISON, Wis. — A last-minute deal — some say a “sweetheart deal” — between then-Gov. Jim Doyle’s administration and a Madison real estate will cost taxpayers more than $50 million over the extended life of the lease on the sprawling state Department of Corrections building in Madison.

MIG Commercial Real Estate, formerly known as Mortenson Investment Group, brokered the five-year extension Dec. 22, 2010, just days before Democrat Doyle’s second term ended and his successor, Republican Gov. Scott Walker, took office.

TAXPAYER PROTECTION:  A bill moving through the Legislature aims to provide more oversight on state agency leases. Taxpayers are paying tens of millions of dollars each year on state government department accommodations, including $2,631,116.28 this year for the Wisconsin Department of Administration headquarters.

That deal, and others like it, is precisely why such leases need more oversight, according to the sponsors of a bill that would lay out guidelines for the state Department of Administration to follow each time it enters into or renews a lease.

“This bill will add appropriate accountability each time the state enters into a leasing contract,” state Rep. Rob Hutton, R-Brookfield, said in a statement.

The legislation, co-authored by Hutton and state Sen. Chris Kapenga, R-Delafield, would require DOA to conduct a cost-benefit analysis before signing a lease, “ensuring Wisconsin is being a good steward of its citizens’ tax dollars,” Hutton said.

And the bill requires the secretary of the Department of Administration to sign the contract. All leases totaling more than $500,000 must be submitted for a 14-day “passive review” by the Joint Committee on Finance.

As Wisconsin Watchdog first reported in December 2015, the lease on the DOC headquarters at 3099 East Washington Ave. will cost taxpayers more than $51 million over a decade, between fiscal 2012 and fiscal 2021, according to a copy of the lease.

That’s more than three times the $14.38 million assessed value (2015) of the 14-acre property.

The state will pay nearly $1.1 million more in escalating lease payments over the period, with annual payments rising from $4.6 million in fiscal 2012 to $5.697 million in fiscal year 2021.

The deal was signed by then-state Department of Administration Secretary Daniel Schooff, a former Democratic state representative and longtime Doyle loyalist. Schooff managed Doyle’s 2006 re-election campaign.

The Doyle administration previously extended the lease five years — through June 30, 2016 — on Sept. 14, 2005.

Bradley L. Hutter, president of MIG, told Wisconsin Watchdog in 2015 the agreement took months to negotiate, and he denied suggestions that his thousands of dollars in donations to the Doyle campaign had anything to do with the lease extensions.

Hutter agreed the extended lease was a sweetheart deal — for taxpayers.

The deal did provide the state with hundreds of thousands of dollars in allowances, including carpet and lighting upgrades.

But the bigger savings came from the ability of a far-flung Department of Corrections to consolidate and put all of its administrative operations under one roof, the developer said.

“I’m really proud of the building and the transaction we put together with Gov. (Tommy) Thompson in the (late) 1990s,” Hutter said. “I am proud of saving the state a lot of dough by corrections being able to consolidate its offices around the state. …  In the electronic age it allowed them to centralize all of their electronic needs. And it is an incredibly secure building.”

Cullen Werwie, DOA spokesman in December 2015, told Wisconsin Watchdog the renewal “is not a good deal for taxpayers.”

“The previous administration’s approach to meeting the space needs for State operations has been the complete opposite of what is taking place under Governor Walker,” said Werwie, a longtime member of the Walker administration.

DEAL OR NO DEAL: Critics say taxpayers got burned on a “sweetheart deal” with the owner of the state Department of Corrections building on Madison’s East Washington Avenue.

At the time, Werwie said, the department was in the process of formulating “comprehensive space usage” policies and plans focused on saving taxpayer resources, reducing the state’s overall office space footprint and consolidating agencies to fully utilize shared spaces.

DOA spokesman Steven Michels said Walker’s Department of Administration is “consistently looking to make our processes more efficient while delivering more value through government that is accountable to the taxpayers.”

“DOA looks forward to working with the legislature to find efficiencies and savings,” he said in an email. “Specific to leases, based on the needs of the agencies, we seek low rates through competitive request for information and request for proposal processes.”

Taxpayers will spend nearly $15.4 million this year on the 10 most expensive state leases, according to a list provided by Hutton’s office. The list includes the Department of Administration property (a 17 ½-year lease), with an annual lease of $2,631,116.28 for just under 57,000 square feet. That amounts to $46.25 per square foot.

Director of State Courts operations are housed in a 52,000-square-foot space in a mixed-use building near the Capitol. Taxpayers will spend $1.53 million this year for the accommodations, or $29.42 per square foot.

The cheapest lease on the list is the Public Service Commission property, with a lease payment of $703,186.44, or $16.87 per square foot. The PSC property contract is for 23 years.

State Treasurer Matt Adamczyk has been a crusader for state lease reform. The Republican has spent a good portion of his first — and last — term in office reviewing state leases as part of his campaign pledge to “find government waste and eliminate it.”

He said he appreciates the lease oversight legislation and what it aims to do.

“This bill, for example, if it had passed in 2010, what Gov. Doyle did (with the Department of Corrections lease extension) he wouldn’t have been able to do,” Adamczyk said.

“The bill tries to get at some of these bad leases and hopefully stop the state from entering into them,” he added.

Kapenga said the review proposal is a common sense approach used in the private sector.

“This bill provides a tool for legislators and the public to better understand the state’s physical footprint costs … ensuring a more efficient and effective government,” Kapenga said in a statement.

M.D. Kittle is bureau chief for Wisconsin Watchdog and First Amendment reporter for Watchdog.org. Contact him at mkittle@watchdog.org.

PLA reform bill passes Assembly, headed for Gov. Scott Walker’s desk

Thu, 03/09/2017 - 18:04

MADISON, Wis. – A bill that proponents say will bring competition and taxpayer savings to government construction projects now awaits Gov. Scott Walker’s signature.

The state Assembly on Thursday passed AB24/SB3, legislation requiring government neutrality in so-called Project Labor Agreements.

PLA REFORM PASSAGE: The Republican-led Assembly on Thursday passed a bill reforming Wisconsin’s Project Labor Agreement law. Democrats lament the bill as another assault on workers, conservatives celebrate what they say is another win for taxpayers and the free market.

One of the bill’s sponsors, Rep. Rob Hutton, R-Brookfield, said Thursday was a “win for all taxpayers.”

“This common sense legislation will open up the process to allow more quality contractors to bid on government construction projects,” the lawmaker said in a press release. “When competition increases, quality goes up, costs go down, and taxpayers win.”

Unions and their allies in the Democratic Party insist the bill is a loser for workers and communities.

Assembly Minority Leader Peter Barca called the legislation an “attack on Wisconsin workers, Wisconsin businesses and local control.”

“Today, (Republicans) passed this bill to make it easier for less qualified, out-of-state workers to undercut workers in our own state on projects funded by taxpayer dollars,” the Kenosha Democrat said in a statement following passage.

The bill’s proponents say Democrats and unions, again, are engaging in scare tactics to save the government-controlled good thing they’ve had, at taxpayers’ expense, for decades.

Hutton said the legislation merely demands that the government is a neutral player in the process.

PLAs are agreements between owners of construction firms and construction unions. Under current state law, firms bidding to work on a public construction project can be required by municipalities and school districts to enter into collective bargaining with the unions, hire workers through union hiring halls, and pay union wages and benefits. This applies to contractors whether they normally use a unionized workforce or not.

The reform bill would change that.

RELATED: On a roll: Wisconsin Senate passes another labor reform bill

Among other things, PLAs may also prescribe wages, set uniform work rules covering overtime and working hours, and supersede all other collective bargaining agreements.

“We’re basically eliminating the ability for a municipality to require that a contractor enter into a project labor agreement for collective bargaining around labor and labor wages,” Hutton said in a previous interview.

“This is really a government neutrality bill. It says the government should not be in the position of dictating what class of workers are able to get public-funded construction projects,” Hutton told Wisconsin Watchdog Thursday following passage of the bill.

Mandating that only contractors with union employees bid on government construction jobs often locks out nonunion firms that don’t want to take on the additional cost – often substantially higher cost – of employing unionized workers for a job while their crews may have to stand idle.

While conservatives celebrated another win for taxpayers, business, and the free market, liberals lamented the latest in a long line of Republican-led laws drastically diminishing Wisconsin’s powerful organized labor machine.

“From Right-to-Work to repealing prevailing wage, the PLA bill is just another in a long line of GOP policies that adversely affect Wisconsin workers and Wisconsin businesses from the GOP,” Barca said.

The Republican-controlled Senate passed the bill last month on a similar party-line vote.

“From the passage of Right to Work to the repeal of the prevailing wage for local governments, we have taken great strides in encouraging open markets and removing government policies that artificially drive up costs,” Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald, R-Juneau, said last month.

Walker, who shocked the union world six years ago, with his Act 10 public sector collective bargaining reforms, is expected to sign the PLA reform bill.

Wisconsin Watchdog’s James Wigderson contributed.

M.D. Kittle is bureau chief for Wisconsin Watchdog and First Amendment reporter for Watchdog.org. Contact him at mkittle@watchdog.org.

 

Grothman seeks answers on bad IRS customer service, tax credit fraud

Thu, 03/09/2017 - 16:43

MADISON, Wis. – With tax season upon us, taxpayers can expect the kind of hit-and-miss Internal Revenue Service customer service they’ve grown accustomed to.

AT YOUR SERVICE? U.S. Rep. Glenn Grothman, R-Glenbeulah, this week took IRS officials to task on customer service complaints and tax credit fraud.

There have been some reported improvements from abysmal answering rates of well below 50 percent, including 37 percent in 2015.

Last year, the answering rate rose to 73 percent, according to the agency, but customers continue to complain about the kind of help they are receiving.

It would seem the IRS has gotten a wake-up call.

While crying poverty, it turns out the agency took money from its customer service budget and used it to prioritize Obamacare and other Obama administration initiatives, according to the IRS’ inspector general.

IRS employees ignored more than 30 million phone calls from desperate taxpayers seeking help in the run-up to the 2015 filing deadline — and those who did get through often waited a half-hour before getting help,” the Washington Times reported in January.

Agency administrators blamed Congress for not providing enough funding, but Inspector General J. Russell George reported the “IRS cut its own funding by eliminating nearly $150 million from customer service and slashing more than 2,000 staff positions.”

U.S. Rep. Glenn Grothman took IRS officials to task Wednesday during a House committee hearing into a host of tax collector-related issues.

“…If you talked to your guys on the phone, they weren’t always the sharpest,” the Glenbeulah Republican told IRS administrators during Wednesday’s House Oversight and Government Reform committee joint hearing with the Subcommittee on Healthcare, Benefits and Administrative Rules and the Subcommittee on Government Operations. “They didn’t know their own laws. You call them three times you get three different answers…”

“Do you monitor the quality of your folks?” Grothman asked IRS Deputy Commissioner for Services and Enforcement John Dalrymple.

“Actually we do monitor, every call can be monitored,” Dalrymple said.  “We have a quality review system that statistically selects calls at random for quality assurance and in that process we determine whether, one of the main things we’re looking for is did the taxpayer get the correct answer?

“Actually we do quite well there. So, if you get through to us, you’re going to get pretty high quality.”

If you do get through.

The Republican-controlled Congress cut some IRS funding in certain areas in the past session. The budget reductions came on the heels of revelations the IRS had targeted conservative groups requesting nonprofit status.

A report from the Treasury Inspector General for Tax Administration, the IRS’ auditor, found the agency substantially cut funding from user fees that go to customer service operations and shifted them to other priorities.

IRS officials said the money was needed to help carry out the agency’s other duties, including enforcing the tax penalties in the Affordable Care Act, extending a health coverage tax credit and seeing through new laws on foreign income tax compliance,” the Washington Times reported.

“The IRS also said it thought answering written correspondence was more important than answering phones, so it shifted employees’ focus.”

Grothman also wanted to know about the high levels of income tax credit fraud.

The agency estimates that between 21 percent and 26 percent of Earned Income Tax Credit claims are paid in error.

“Do you have any comments on EITC or are there any other parts of tax forms that invites cheating, or would require you to spend a lot more on compliance than you want to?” Grothman asked Dalrymple.

“Anything that is a refundable credit has always been a challenge for the IRS, whether it’s the EITC or the Child (Tax) Credit, anything that is refundable back to the taxpayer,” the IRS agent said. “And, by the way, there are corporate refundable tax credits, too, not just individuals; they cause us difficulty from a compliance standpoint.”

The problem, fraud trackers say, is the complexity of the tax credit laws.

“The GAO has reported that EITC has a very high improper payment rate and part of the reason for that is the complexity of the credit itself. It’s also self-reported,” U.S. Government Accountability Office’s Jessica Lucas-Judy, acting director for strategic issues, testified at the hearing.

Ultimately, the problem makers are the people’s representatives in Congress passing confusingly tangled tax laws, or for giving a massive bureaucracy that collects some $3.3 trillion each year greater authority to promulgate rules.

What happens when someone is found falsely reporting a tax credit?

Dalrymple said the IRS likes to get them before issuing a check. Last year, the agency did over 300,000 pre-refund audits, the agent said.

If the IRS’ doesn’t catch it on the front end, that taxpayer money is as good as gone.

“It’s very, very unlikely to get an EITC refund back if it’s given to a taxpayer,” Dalrymple said.

This year, the IRS was prohibited from cutting refund checks on any return claiming the EITC or the Additional Child Tax credit before mid-February. The delay, lambasted by advocates of the poor, was mandated by Congress to give the IRS more time to catch fraudulent returns before sending out checks.

Dalrymple said low-income filers are often just confused by complicated tax law.

“This is very complex law for a very unsophisticated group of taxpayers, so a lot of the mistakes made are not necessarily fraudulent. They are honest mistakes,” he said. “And then the other thing you’ve got here are not normal, nuclear families, so determining who has the ability to claim a dependent, etc., all those things are incredibly difficult in this environment.”

“You’re a nice man Mr. Dalrymple, but I think you’re naïve,” Grothman said. “I think they do this on purpose.”

M.D. Kittle is bureau chief for Wisconsin Watchdog and First Amendment reporter for Watchdog.org. Contact him at mkittle@watchdog.org.

Sun Prairie city-owned broadband service comes with $2.9 million debt

Thu, 03/09/2017 - 08:54

MADISON, Wis. – News stories of the looming sale of Sun Prairie’s debt-heavy broadband service included every salient detail but two: The public cost to build and maintain the system.

INSIDE BROADBAND: The City of Sun Prairie is looking to get out of the municipal broadband business. Is it because the system is carrying nearly $2.9 million in debt and has struggled to make money over its 17-year run?

TDS Telecommunications Corp. and Sun Prairie Utilities  have signed a “non-binding letter of intent,” with hopes to “hammer out terms of the agreement and finalize it” by the end of this month, according to a story published Feb. 6 in the Wisconsin State Journal.

Missing from the story was the nearly $2.9 million in estimated debt the municipal broadband communications service carried at the end of 2016.

The city-owned internet service provider has lost money, often significant amounts, in at least 10 of the 16 years in operation, according to financial records obtained by Wisconsin Watchdog through an open records request.

Sun Prairie’s municipal utility in the late 1990s constructed a fiber ring connecting Sun Prairie Utilities’ main office, wells, towers and electric substations with city buildings and the Sun Prairie Area School District. That was the start of a city broadband service that today includes 324 multi-dwelling unit internet customers, 201 residential single-family customers, 35 business customers and a handful of Wide Area Network-based subscribers.

According to records, Sun Prairie’s electric utility floated its Telecom division a nearly $600,000 loan in 2000 to build the fiber ring.

The broadband service finished with a loss in each of its first six years in operation, nearly $454,000 in the red in 2001 and more than $452,000 in 2002.

Losses continued until 2006, when the city service took in $92,612 more than it spent, thanks to a growing customer base.

The broadband provider had three straight up years between 2006-08, finishing with a loss again in 2009 in a year that saw a $212,000 investment in Wide Area Network.

Following three more consecutive years of gains, the municipal broadband network posted three straight years of losses, including a $166,000 loss in 2015 following a significant expansion to Sun Prairie’s burgeoning Smith’s Crossing neighborhood.

Rick Wicklund, utility manager, said he doesn’t believe Sun Prairie is looking to get out of the municipal broadband business because of the network’s debt load.

“Debt doesn’t have [anything] to do with it,” he said. “The city is looking at it from the standpoint of, if someone is willing to build essentially an identical network and build it in a third of the time we were willing to build it, that’s a win-win.”

The sale may be a win for Sun Prairie’s taxpayers, consumers and the free market in the long run, too.

Wicklund insists taxpayers are not on the hook for the costs to build and maintain the municipal broadband service, that ratepayers are paying back the various loans on the system. But he acknowledges the city — and its taxpayers — are ultimately responsible for the loans, should the internet utility default.

The loans, according to utility documents, include $624,000 from the Bank of Sun Prairie, a loan issued in 2015, and a $700,000 State Trust Fund loan issued last year.

Ted Chase, chairman of the Sun Prairie Utilities Commission, knows the “operation and expansion of such a business comes with significant risk.”

GETTING OUT: Sun Prairie took on a lot of debt for its city-owned broadband service. What will the return on investment be?

The goal is providing an important service to Sun Prairie’s citizens, while considering the bottom line.

“By transitioning our network to TDS, more households and businesses will have access to fiber internet at no risk to the utility,” Chase said in a written statement to the Wisconsin State Journal.

Madison-based TDS Telecom told the newspaper it plans to invest in the Sun Prairie network over the next two years, including the addition of high-speed fiber optic connections to most of the city.

“We plan to expand the network to launch 1-gigabit broadband speeds, as well as phone service, and our industry-leading IPTV (internet protocol television) solution, TDS TV, to residents,” Drew Petersen, TDS vice president of external affairs and communications, said in a statement.

The city broadband system currently serves an estimated 4 percent to 5 percent of Sun Prairie’s single-family homes, according to Wicklund.

Sun Prairie Utility recently made the list of “broadband boondoggles,” according to a national report by the Taxpayers Protection Alliance Foundation, a nonprofit free-market advocacy organization.

The “Municipal Broadband Failure Map” indicates “publicly funded internet projects are a universal failure,” TPAF asserts in the report.

Government broadband networks cost U.S. taxpayers “billions of dollars” each year while “failing to stimulate economic growth, falling short of projected customer and revenue numbers, struggling to keep up with advancements in technology, and using tax dollars to compete against existing private companies” the report states.

“The truth is out, taxpayer-funded broadband is a failure and a waste of valuable resources,” said TPAF president David Williams. “This map shows exactly where government internet schemes are located and how much taxpayers are on the hook for these projects.”

Sun Prairie officials take issue with the report and the city-owned broadband network’s place on it. Unlike the private sector, Sun Prairie government representatives insist, municipal-owned utilities offer “local control.”

“Local control means decisions and policies will be made for the benefit of Sun Prairie Utilities rate payers,” SPU’s website states. “Local ownership means we are operating for the benefit of Sun Prairie Utilities rate payers and not for stockholders.”

“We’ve proven we can do it successfully, that we can make money at it with a large customer base,” Wicklund, the utility director, said. “I don’t get the sense that the mayor and the Common Council are looking at the debt like, ‘Oh, my gosh, this is horrible.’ They’re looking at it like this is a really good start. We’ve got infrastructure that’s going to prosper on a go-forward basis.”

“We’re sitting less than $3 million in debt. Any private company would say, ‘You did good,’” Wicklund added.

Free-market advocate Brett Healy isn’t so sure.

Healy, president of the Madison-based MacIver Institute, wonders why Sun Prairie, after years of talking about the importance of city government getting into private business, is looking to get out.

“While the SPU vehemently disputes their place on the list, there is no dispute that taxpayers deserve to know what exactly is going on behind closed doors as the city decides if it should get out of the private broadband service,” Healy wrote in a column for Sun Prairie’s newspaper, The Star.

BROADBAND BOONDOGGLES: The Taxpayers Protection Alliance Foundation recently released its Municipal Broadband Failures Map. Sun Prairie’s network made the list.

“Sun Prairie met in closed session, out of the public’s view, in early January to begin discussions about selling the taxpayer-financed network. Even though there is now a LOI, taxpayers are still waiting for basic information about the potential sale of the network and, more importantly, what sort of rate of return will taxpayers see if the sale goes through.”

Healy wrote that he doubts the city will “make back” the money it put into its “misguided attempt to build a private business.”

“If you were the private company looking to buy it, why would you pay full price? Now that the city is looking to exit, the private company will be looking for a good deal to buy the network. The private company is not in this for charity,” he wrote.

He called on the city to be more transparent in its deliberations with TDS, so that taxpayers will clearly know the return on investment for the municipal-owned broadband network.

M.D. Kittle is bureau chief for Wisconsin Watchdog and First Amendment reporter for Watchdog.org. Contact him at mkittle@watchdog.org

MPS’ Driver makes questionable case for district being sole charter school authorizer

Thu, 03/09/2017 - 08:41

MILWAUKEE, WIS. – Milwaukee Public Schools Superintendent Darienne Driver is doubling down on her support for making her school district the sole authorizer of charter schools in the city, an idea first suggested back in November.

QUESTIONABLE ASSESSMENT: Darienne Driver (right) explains to interviewer Mike Gousha at Marquette University Law School why MPS should be the sole charter school authorizer.

“What happens is, people are so busy trying to figure out who they’re going to charter with, we’re not talking at all about how we’re going to improve student achievement,” Driver said during an an interview Wednesday at Marquette University Law School’s Eckstein Hall. “And so, at the public school system, we really should be the place where people can go to charter schools.”

Driver discussed a  wide range of education issues with Mike Gousha as part of On the Issues, a series of interviews and lectures about policy issues open to the public.

Milwaukee Public Schools is one of three charter school authorizers in Milwaukee, along with the University of Wisconsin – Milwaukee and the city of Milwaukee.

Driver said the advantage of MPS as the sole charter school authorizer is that it can offer, “special education teachers and support, social work support. We provide professional development for our charter schools if they choose.”

“Everybody talks about MPS’ results,” Driver said. “But if you look at all the other schools they’re not very different from where we are. And so, I feel a much more productive conversation would be, let’s talk about teaching and learning at all schools instead of worrying about who’s chartering with who has what building.”

The comments about buildings may have been a reference to the attempts by MPS, in the face of pressure from the state legislature, not to sell unused and vacant school properties to independent charter schools like the successful St. Marcus Lutheran School.

As for the difference in educational outcomes, two studies by the Wisconsin Institute for Law & Liberty have shown that independent charter schools do better at educating impoverished school children than MPS instrumentality charter schools, charter schools with staff hired by the chartering school district instead of the charter school itself.

SEE RELATED: Study finds charter and voucher schools do better than public schools

CJ Szafir, vice president for Policy at WILL, described Driver’s remarks as, “strange, if not very concerning.”

“At the heart of the charter school model is competition,” Szafir said in a statement to Wisconsin Watchdog.  “The best performing public schools in Milwaukee for low-income, minority students are charter schools authorized by UWM. Superintendent Driver seems to be advocating for eliminating that model.”

Czafir said MPS should focus more on improving instead of trying to eliminate competition from the city’s private school voucher program, the Milwaukee Parental Choice Program, and independent charter schools. He also disagreed with Driver’s statement that other schools are not that different from MPS schools.

“Many of MPS’ best schools have selective admissions policies that charter and MPCP private schools are prohibited from having,” Szafir said. “Despite that, last year, charters and MPCP private schools significantly outperformed traditional MPS schools on the Forward exam and ACT,  when students’ socio-economic status is factored in.”

Driver was also asked about Gov. Scott Walker’s budget, which does not include major changes for MPS despite threats from legislators following the failure of the Opportunity Schools Partnership Program last summer. The program would have allowed the creation of a turnaround school district, which would have taken over up to four failing schools from MPS. The program was blocked for the 2016-17 school year when the Opportunity Schools commissioner Demond Means resigned, citing lack of cooperation from MPS.

In MPS, 42 schools serving 24,447 students are ranked as “fails to meet expectations,” the lowest level on the state school report cards. However, because the report cards now take into account the socioeconomic background of the student population and growth in student achievement, the district was rated in October as “Meets Few Expectations,” blocking the OSPP for the 2017-18 school year as well.

SEE RELATED: 24,447: That’s how many students are in failing MPS schools, latest ‘report cards’ show

Despite the changes to the state school report cards, Driver said the Legislature’s reluctance to make more changes was because “results change conversations.”

“What was really important was when October came and the state report card, and we were no longer in that category,” Driver said. “So we are a district that ‘meets few expectations,’ but yet we can’t stop until we’re exceeding or significantly exceeding expectations.”

“And so, I think part of it is, again, demonstrating that this is something we didn’t want but it was because we were able to make these changes in house,” Driver said.

James Wigderson reports for Wisconsin Watchdog. Contact him at jwigderson@watchdog.org and follow him on Twitter @jwigderson.

Fired SSA employee featured in Watchdog investigation is ‘Whistleblower of the Year’

Wed, 03/08/2017 - 16:00
Part 58 of 58 in the series Deadly Delays

MADISON, Wis. – Ron Klym blew the whistle on lengthy delays and alleged widespread misconduct and whistleblower retaliation in the Social Security Administration.

Not long after, the longtime federal employee was out of a job.

STANDING UP: Ron Klym, a longtime Social Security Administration employee who was fired after bringing agency due process concerns to light, has been named ‘Whistleblower of the Year” by a Wisconsin open-government organization.

Now, Klym is being recognized as Whistleblower of the Year by the Wisconsin Freedom of Information Council.

The council on Wednesday announced its 2016-17 Openness Awards, in advance of national Sunshine Week, March 12-18.

The “Opees,” as they are known, recognize extraordinary achievement in the cause of open government.

See full coverage of Sunshine Week next week at Watchdog.org. 

Award recipients include two citizens, two journalists, one fired government worker and “one small but gutsy Wisconsin newspaper.”

“Now, more than ever, protecting Wisconsin’s traditions of open government depends on the courage and initiative of individuals,” Bill Lueders, council president, said in a statement. “We saw a good deal of that in 2016.”

Klym is one of the key whistleblowers and sources featured in Wisconsin Watchdog’s investigative series, “Deadly Delays.” Klym first reported allegations of misconduct inside the Milwaukee Office of Disability Adjudication and Review. He brought to light long delays of Social Security disability claim decisions in Wisconsin and Michigan ODAR facilities.

Of Klym, the Freedom of Information Council stated:

“This federal employee, a longtime senior legal assistant for the administrative law judges who grant or deny Social Security benefits, blew the whistle on what Watchdog.org, which reported his story, called “incompetence, misconduct and long case delays” at a Milwaukee disability office. Klym was allegedly subjected to additional work assignments, unreasonable deadlines and unjustified suspensions; in August, he was fired. “Absolutely. I am being punished because I am a whistleblower,” he said at the time. Now he’s being honored for it.

Klym is humble about the recognition.

“I was just doing my job,” the 16-year Social Security Administration employee said when contacted Wednesday.

It is the job, the duty, of federal government employees to report waste, fraud, and abuse when they see it. It is also the law that whistleblowers be protected. Several SSA employees who have gone public with allegations of misconduct have not been protected.

RELATED: A whistleblower’s story: Paying the price for shining a light

Opee Award winners include:

— John Krueger, an Appleton parent who joined with the Wisconsin Institute for Law & Liberty in suing the Appleton Area School District for not letting him attend meetings of a committee formed in response to his curricula-related concerns. That case is now being decided by the state Supreme Court.

— Lance Fena, a Milton School District resident, asserted his right to make a video recording at a school board meeting, as the law expressly allows. The board not only backed down after initially adjourning to avoid being filmed, it subsequently began live-streaming its proceedings.

— The New Richmond News won the Media Openness award.

“It took more than three years, but this small newspaper in St. Croix County won its case challenging wholesale records redactions by law enforcement agencies all around the state. A state appeals court in May affirmed that local officials were overreacting to a 2012 federal court ruling in the amount of driver-license related information they have been withholding. Issues remain, but the New Richmond News brought a measure of clarity to what had been chaos,” the council notes.

This is the 11th year that awards have been given.

The winners will be invited to receive their awards at the seventh annual Wisconsin Watchdog Awards Dinner in Madison on March 30. The event is presented jointly by the Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism, Wisconsin Freedom of Information Council and the Madison Pro Chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists.

M.D. Kittle is bureau chief for Wisconsin Watchdog and First Amendment reporter for Watchdog.org. Contact him at mkittle@watchdog.org.

Amendment to eliminate state treasurer moves to Assembly

Wed, 03/08/2017 - 12:25

WAUKESHA, Wis. — The Wisconsin Senate voted 18-15 Tuesday to amend the state constitution to get rid of the state treasurer position.

For an amendment to be successful, it has to pass each chamber of the state Legislature in consecutive sessions and then be approved by the voters in a referendum. If the amendment passes in the state Assembly as it did last session, voters will decide in a referendum in the spring 2018 election the fate of the state treasurer position.

The Assembly is expected to act on the amendment Thursday.

FIRE ME: State Treasurer Matt Adamczyk is optimistic the state Assembly will vote on Thursday to eliminate his office.

“There won’t be another election for state treasurer if this is successful,” State Treasurer Matt Adamczyk said in an interview Tuesday after the vote.

Adamczyk was elected in November 2014 on a promise to eliminate the position whose duties have gradually been stripped away and given to other agencies.

“I’m very optimistic,” Adamczyk said about Thursday’s vote. “We should have plenty of votes.”

Two Republicans, Sens. Chris Kapenga, R-Delafield, and Sheila Harsdorf, R-River Falls, voted with the Democrats to keep the position.

”I have concerns with eliminating a constitutional office that has the potential to be an effective, impartial watchdog on budgetary matters,” Kapenga said in a statement after the vote. “My preference would be to strengthen the position, versus eliminate it.”

That echoed what Democrats were saying during the floor debate on the constitutional amendment.

“The state treasurer used to do something,” said state Sen. Jon Erpenbach, D-Middleton. “The legislature in the past has taken away the duties. That doesn’t make the office obsolete by any means.”

State Sen. Kathleen Vinehout, D-Alma, said the Legislature should “fix” the state treasurer position rather than abolish it.

“Let’s make some decisions on what this role should be,” Vinehout said. “Let’s make it real and let’s protect the people’s money.”

However, Sen. Dan Feyen, R-Fond du Lac, said the position of state treasurer no longer serves a purpose, saying that the duties are now performed by the Department of Administration and the Department of Revenue.

“The one remaining duty of this office is sitting on the Board of Commissioners of Public Lands,” Feyen said. “This resolution transfers that seat to the lieutenant governor who is also publicly elected, a constitutional officer, therefore upholding the will of our founding fathers that citizens elect those that manage public lands.”

During the debate, Erpenbach said Adamczyk would be rewarded after the state treasurer position is eliminated.

“I have no doubt that our current state treasurer is going to get a great state job somewhere out of this after this office is eliminated,” Erpenbach said. “And if I’m wrong, I’ll be the first to admit that I’m wrong, but my guess is he’s got a pretty soft landing place to go to that the taxpayers are going to pay for.”

Erpenbach’s office did not respond to a request for additional comment about a job. However, Adamczyk denied that he’s been promised any job after the state treasurer position is eliminated.

“I have no cushy job lined up from anyone, so I have no idea what he’s referring to,” Adamczyk said.

As for restoring the duties to the office, Adamczyk said the movement has been in the opposite direction since the 1990s, “even before Governor Walker, including Governor Doyle, including Governor Thompson.”

“Nothing has been brought over and given to this office. Things have been taken away,” Adamczyk said. “ … It wasn’t meant to be punitive. The duties mesh well with other agencies.”

Adamczyk gave the example of the responsibility of handling unclaimed property, which is now handled by the Department of Revenue. Adamczyk said it’s an administrative job, not a political one. If it’s not being handled correctly, the person running it can be fired rather than waiting for the next election.

Former state Treasurer Jack Voight, reached Tuesday afternoon, was very upset with the news the state Senate voted to eliminate the office. Voight served from 1995 until 2007. He narrowly lost re-election in 2006 to Dawn Marie Sass, a Boston Store clerk and AFSCME union activist. 

“Oh, God,” Voight said when contacted with the news. “I plan to fight this to the bitter end saying they have abandoned the checks and balances put in place by our state constitutional committee back in 1848.”

Voight said opponents of the amendment will make the case to the public to undo “the injustice” done by the Senate vote. “This isn’t over yet,” Voight said.

RELATED: Candidate for WI state treasurer vows to eliminate office if elected

Voight also said this was about controlling the money at the Common School Fund, which is controlled by the Board of Commissioners of Public Lands. The current members are the state attorney general, the Wisconsin secretary of state and the state treasurer. The amendment would replace the state treasurer on the board with the lieutenant governor.

“Then they’ll attack [Secretary of State] Doug LaFollette and move another Walker appointee or department head of some sort,” Voight said. “So then they’ll control the money.”

Voight said the money will then be sent to private, even parochial, schools instead of to public schools.

Adamczyk disagreed with Voight that the money could ever be spent that way.

“It has to go to K-12 public schools. It’s in the state constitution,” Adamczyk said. “Anyone that serves on the board, whether it’s the lieutenant governor or the attorney general, they’re going to want to do their fiduciary job to make sure the fund is managed well to make money to give back to the schools.”

James Wigderson reports for Wisconsin Watchdog. Contact him at jwigderson@watchdog.org and follow him on Twitter @jwigderson.

A whistleblower’s story: Paying the price for shining a light

Wed, 03/08/2017 - 10:28
Part 57 of 58 in the series Deadly Delays

MADISON, Wis. — There can be a high price for being a federal agency whistleblower.

A WHISTLEBLOWER’S STORY: Social Security Administration employee and federal whistleblower Machelle Keller says her health has rapidly declined since she first brought allegations of waste, fraud, and abuse to light.

Machelle Keller says she can testify to that. Perhaps one day she will in a court of law.

Keller, lead case technician at the scandal-plagued Madison Office of Disability Adjudication and Review, has seen her health deteriorate rapidly over the past year. And her physical downhill slide, she says, began after she did what she is duty bound to do as a federal employee: Report waste, fraud, and abuse in her agency.

“I’m so tired of it. I don’t know how much more I can take,” the Social Security Administration employee told Wisconsin Watchdog Tuesday.

Keller finds herself in an awful predicament these days. If she leaves, as she believes her managers at the Madison office and SSA administrators would love her to do, Keller may regain her health but lose her livelihood. If she stays, she fears the constant bullying and harassment she says she has been subjected to just might kill her.

Her health care provider seems to agree.

“[Keller’s] migraines used to be relatively infrequent and manageable. However, within the last year, migraines have increased dramatically in frequency,” wrote Laura Ozkan, a physician assistant certified at Dean & St. Mary’s Outpatient Center-Neurological Institute, Madison.

In the Feb. 28 letter on behalf of her patient, Ozkan noted that Keller has identified workplace harassment as the source of her stress. The PA recommends Keller stop working until a federal investigation into alleged ODAR misconduct and whistleblower retaliation is complete and all harassment issues are resolved.

SSA administrators have yet to budge on the request, although they have given Keller special accommodation to work from home. No matter, the whistleblower said. She claims she continues to be harassed and bulled via phone, email and instant messenger. Her managers have continued to strip her of duties, she said, despite exemplary performance — including Keller’s 11 good conduct awards in six years.

In an email late last month, Keller said medical professionals told her she has been having “mini strokes” precipitated by the debilitating migraines she suffers. Her physician warned her that, should the larger vessels in her brain close off during a migraine, Keller could sustain a “major stroke.”

“I was told to stop all work stress, my question to you is, how can that be done?” she wrote. “I could die if one of the larger vessels in my brain decide it is going to close, or be a vegetable where I may have to be spoon fed by someone.

“I am now in the very petrified/scared stage. I cannot afford to be off of work, yet I cannot afford to lose my life but I have to provide for my family.  If I do not work I lose my home, car etc.. so I have no choice.”

A spokesman for SSA’s Chicago-based Region 5 headquarters, which oversees Wisconsin ODAR operations, did not return a request for comment. He has previously said that the federal agency cannot discuss personnel issues. He also has assured the Social Security Administration takes seriously allegations of misconduct and retaliation against whistleblowers.

Keller and her fellow ODAR whistleblowers tend to disagree.

The Madison office has for months been the center of a widespread federal investigation into allegations of “corruption and cover-up.”

As Wisconsin Watchdog first reported in its series, “Deadly Delays,” an investigation by the SSA’s Office of the Inspector General found the Madison hearing office director gambled at a local casino on the taxpayer’s dime, and another manager attended a Green Bay Packers game while on the clock.

The investigation report also states that hiring decisions were largely unchecked, leaving the management official, Hearing Office Director Laura Hodorowicz, free to populate the office with friends and family members of current employees, increasing perceptions of favoritism and diminishing both employee morale and focus on the agency’s public service mission.

The report specifies various abuses:

  • Hiring practices, which often included the manipulation of vacancy announcements to achieve a desired end, likely violated merit system principles resulting in prohibited personnel practices.
  • No appointments violated Title 5 veterans preferences, though one stated end was to avoid hiring veterans.
  • Management officials’ time and attendance practices violated both law and regulation, and set a tone for the office that misconduct by certain employees would be tolerated and in some instances encouraged.
  • The presence of racist and sexist written comments in hearing notes was known to many employees and managers in the office for years and went unaddressed; however, we did not find evidence of any systemic biases in written decisions involving protected groups.

    LONELY LIFE: Peter Fox, attorney for Machelle Keller, says the life of the whistleblower “is a lonely one and often a very treacherous road.”

Federal investigators also confirmed what whistleblowers had reported, that Administrative Law Judge John Pleuss wrote sexually and racially inappropriate comments about claimants in his case notes. The investigation found “no evidence of any systemic biases in written decisions involving protected groups,” as has been alleged, but whistleblowers contend otherwise. Some attorneys representing disability claimants have sought appeals of Pleuss’ cases.

Whistleblowers in the Madison ODAR hearing office experienced adverse treatment after making whistleblower disclosures, according to the report, but the Social Security Administration has denied any retaliation.

The OIG concluded that, “while we did not substantiate any clear instances of reprisal against [the whistleblowers], who disclosed the malfeasance in the Madison (Hearing Office) at great personal risk, we note that both of them were held to strict interpretations of all agency policies, while other favored employees … were not.”

RELATED: Read Wisconsin Watchdog’s “Deadly Delays” investigative report

Peter Fox, a Madison attorney representing Keller and fellow whistleblower Deborah Holland in their legal battles with the federal agency, said his clients’ experiences underscore “the life of the whistleblower is a lonely one and often a very treacherous road.”

“Machelle’s condition has been exacerbated by bringing these situations to light,” Fox said. “This continues to be a significant obstacle for her.”

A recent report commissioned by the Association of Chartered Certified Accountants delves into the price many whistleblowers are forced to pay.

Effective Speak Up Arrangements for Whistleblowers” notes how those who speak up are demonized and characterized as mentally ill or liars.

“The study of 25 workers who revealed wrongdoing in organizations such as banks and healthcare found that whistleblowers lost their job either by being pressured out of the organization or being dismissed,” wrote Karen Higginbottom, a human resources freelance writer, in a recent column for Forbes.

“If they did stay they suffered retaliation through bullying, demotion, isolation or harassment while some were forced by their company to take mental health counselling. Many did crack under pressure, suffering mental illness through depression, panic attacks or developed drinking problems,” Higginbottom added.

Holland, who had up until August served as a group supervisor at the Madison ODAR, was removed from her office by guards and stripped of her management position. She remains with SSA, doing special project work for Region 5. Holland, too, has a record of exemplary service to the federal agency. Whistleblower Ron Klym, a senior case technician at the Milwaukee Office of Disability Adjudication and Review, was fired a couple of months after he went public with allegations of office misconduct, including claimant due process issues.

Several other SSA whistleblowers from Michigan, Illinois, California and elsewhere have reported being retaliated against for exposing waste, fraud, and abuse in their offices.

Wisconsin U.S. Sens. Ron Johnson, R-Oshkosh, and Tammy Baldwin, D-Madison, have warned the Social Security Administration not to retaliate against whistleblowers, people who are supposed to be protected under federal law. The Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, chaired by Johnson, in June opened an inquiry into the misconduct and retaliation allegations.

Fox said he is pursuing “every recourse” he can to bring justice to his whistleblower clients.

Keller is doubtful justice will ever come.

“I’m a high-faith person. I pray every day. I live by the idea that good is supposed to prevail over evil, but it’s not in this case,” she said. “Am I 100 percent right? No, I do things wrong. But I don’t deserve this. My family doesn’t deserve this.”

M.D. Kittle is bureau chief for Wisconsin Watchdog and First Amendment reporter for Watchdog.org. Contact him at mkittle@watchdog.org

Commentary: Jarchow: ‘I screwed up’ on state auditors and ‘I’m sorry’

Tue, 03/07/2017 - 10:35

By State Rep. Adam Jarchow

I screwed up and I’m sorry. When’s the last time you heard that from a politician? Let me say it again. I screwed up and I’m sorry.

‘I’M SORRY’: State Rep. Adam Jarchow, R-Balsam Lake, offers a mea culpa on voting for an army of state auditors.

Last session, in his budget, Gov. Scott Walker proposed adding 102 new auditors to the state Department of Revenue. I didn’t like the proposal, nor did many of my colleagues in the Legislature. A number of us tried to remove it from the budget. When that failed, to our discredit, we went along with it. We shouldn’t have.  

 It didn’t take me long to recognize the mistake I had made, and when I did, I authored a bill to begin to reverse it. Unfortunately, the bill went nowhere.

As a result of this mistake, a number of Wisconsin’s small businesses have been subjected to audits. For these small businesses, audits are terrifying, time consuming and expensive. They are also the functional equivalent of a government shakedown. You see, most small businesses operate above-board. They do their best, but no one is perfect. This is particularly true when you have an awful tax code like ours. It’s riddled with exemptions, credits, inconsistencies and ambiguities. Even CPAs make mistakes. 

Nearly every time a business is audited, it’s no surprise the auditor finds something. And when they do, it’s usually after wasting weeks of a small business’ time and resources. After being put through this, the business owners just want it over. So even if they believe the auditor is wrong, they are unlikely to spend the time and significant resources on attorneys and CPAs necessary to fight the government. Instead, they just pay. 

Amazingly, this surrender is what the government is counting on. The state budget actually depends on each new auditor bringing in significant revenue each year. I suspect that’s part of the reason why the governor’s current budget proposes adding another 46 new auditors (combined with last session, this would amount to 148 total new auditors). It’s estimated that each of the 46 new auditors would bring in around $695,000 each year of this biennium ($64 million total). In my opinion, that’s the wrong way to balance the budget.

However, we can fix this. Instead of 46 new auditors at DOR to shake down hard-working small business owners, we should authorize 46 new auditors or inspectors general to audit every part of every state agency. As the DOT audit showed, incompetent agencies are wasting billions of dollars. So instead of harassing hard-working small business owners to generate revenue, we can find significantly more money by closely scrutinizing agency budgets. 

I will not repeat my past mistake. I will not vote for any budget that authorizes even a single new auditor, and [I] would be hard pressed to vote for one that doesn’t begin to fix the mistake we made in the last budget.  In the next few days, I will offer a budget motion to delete the 102 auditors authorized in the last budget and amend the current proposal so that the 46 auditors are hired to examine state agencies instead of small businesses.

State Rep. Adam Jarchow, R-Balsam Lake, represents Wisconsin’s 28th Assembly District.

Bill brings inspector general to troubled transportation department

Tue, 03/07/2017 - 09:41

MADISON, Wis. — In the wake of revelations of agency waste and incompetence, a state lawmaker wants to install an inspector general inside the troubled state Department of Transportation.

State Sen. David Craig, R-Town of Vernon, on Tuesday circulated a bill creating the inspector general post to provide more oversight to an agency under fire for significantly underestimating the price tag for current and completed highway projects.

MORE OVERSIGHT: State. Sen. David Craig, R-Town of Vernon, is circulating a bill that would bring an inspector general to the troubled state Department of Transportation.

The Legislative Audit Bureau found the department failed to fully account for inflation and underestimated cost projections for 16 major highway projects by about $3.1 billion.

A total of 363 DOT contracts between 2006 and 2015 — about 16 percent of the total — received only one bid each, according to the audit. That accounts for $1.1 billion in projects and untold millions of dollars in added costs.

“And we know that when there’s no competition, it drives up the price dramatically,” Eric Bott, Wisconsin state director of Americans for Prosperity and Americans for Prosperity Foundation said last month.

RELATED: New DOT secretary dealing with trust deficit more than budget ‘shortfall’

Under the bill, the DOT inspector general would be appointed to six-year term by the state auditor, and serve at the direction of the audit bureau and the Legislature.

“Placing an investigator inside the DOT will ensure that legislators play a more active role in rooting out waste, fraud, abuse, and inefficiency in government. The latest audit of the DOT made clear we need a proactive oversight arm within this agency,” the senator said in a press release.

The inspector general would be funded from existing DOT appropriations, Craig said. The IG would provide annual reports to the audit bureau and legislative standing committees.

Unlike the federal IG system in which inspector generals ultimately report to the secretaries of the agencies they oversee, Craig’s bill calls for the state inspector to be independent from the agency she audits.

“This legislation is an important reform to increase legislative oversight in state government and root out bad practices within the DOT,” Craig said. “The information gathered and reported by the Inspector General will help our efforts to realize substantial savings to taxpayers.”

At a hearing last month, newly appointed DOT Secretary David Ross noted that the most monumental task he faces is restoring the public’s trust in an agency that has abused it.

In his testimony to the state Legislature’s Joint Audit Committee, Ross said he was particularly taken by surprise by one of the findings in a critical state audit of the agency he joined on Jan. 7.

“The (Interstate) I-39/90 and U.S. Highway 12/18 junction in Madison, the audit noted that the Beltline interchange costs were not included in the I-39/90 cost estimate listed in the TPC (total project cost) report,” Ross said. “Costs for this interchange are dependent on the ongoing environmental process, but the recent estimate put the full costs in the range of $550 million not included in the TPC.”

“How is it if we’re going to build confidence with you as an agency and miss $550 million in a report,” Ross asked lawmakers. “You’re going to have no trust in the numbers we give you, the data we give you, with which you have to make those very, very important decisions in allocating resources in the transportation system.”

Last week, it was announced the DOT has curtailed its study of a potential expansion of interstate highways between Madison and tourism hot spot Wisconsin Dells.

“The cancellation of these studies makes sense for us at this time,” Transportation spokeswoman Patty Mayers told the Wisconsin State Journal. “The primary focus now is to improve, maintain and preserve what we have.”

‘ACTIVE ROLE’: Sen. David Craig says an investigator inside the DOT ‘will ensure that legislators play a more active role in rooting out waste, fraud, abuse, and inefficiency in government.’

Turmoil in Wisconsin’s transportation department has made for interesting political bedfellows, as Democrats and Assembly Republican leadership find themselves on the same page, pushing “revenue enhancers” such as gas tax proposals to help fill an approximately $1 billion “shortfall.”

Gov. Scott Walker has made it clear that he’s interested in raising fees and taxes without corresponding budget cuts elsewhere, and Senate Republican leadership doesn’t sound crazy about tax hikes, either, in a state with one of the highest gas taxes in the country.

Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, R-Rochester, and his legislative lieutenants have been hammering home their opposition to Walker’s transportation budget proposal, which allocates $6.1 billion for the DOT.

Expect delays ahead, tweeted state Rep. Jim Steineke, the Assembly’s majority leader.

“Current plan for DOT: major proj delays, no new projects for decades & we still have to borrow $500 million to get there,” the Kaukauna Republican declared in a tweet Monday.

There’s a lot of transportation tension going around, with a lot more Wisconsin road builder campaign money at stake.

Walker’s budget plan, while not nearly enough to appease the road builder lobby and their lawmakers, does include the highest level of transportation general aids ever. Fiscal hawks agree there’s too much borrowing in Walker’s transportation budget, but they note that bonding for highway construction is down 41 percent, the lowest level since the 2001-03 budget.

Article V balanced budget resolution working way through Legislature

Mon, 03/06/2017 - 15:37

MADISON, Wis. — Wisconsin could become the 30th state to pass a resolution calling for a constitutional convention, on path to a federal balanced budget amendment.

CALLING ALL STATES: State Sen. Chris Kapenga, R-Delafield, says his bill calling for Wisconsin to join a convention of states to discuss a balanced budget amendment to the U.S. Constitution is moving forward.

Last week, state Sen. Chris Kapenga circulated for co-sponsorship a resolution requesting Congress call a convention under Article V of the U.S. Constitution.

Kapenga’s bill calls for Wisconsin’s involvement in a states convention to discuss an amendment requiring the federal government, like 49 of the states including Wisconsin, to operate under a balanced budget.

“We’re excited about it. We’ve got a good list of cosponsors, so it looks pretty good for this resolution to go through,” the Delafield Republican told Wisconsin Watchdog last week in an interview on the Vicki McKenna Show, on NewsTalk 1130 in Milwaukee.

Kapenga also is introducing a Delegate Act and a Rules Resolution. The Delegate Act places certain restrictions on Wisconsin’s Delegates at the convention, while the Rules Resolution asserts that the Wisconsin Legislature prefers to convene a convention for proposing amendment language under a predesignated draft set of rules, according to a statement issued last week.

Wyoming late last month became the 29th state to pass an Article V resolution on a balanced budget amendment, according to the Balanced Budget Amendment Task Force. The number, however, includes Texas, which approved the measure decades ago, according to The Associated Press.

The Texas Senate last month approved a call for a convention to amend the U.S. Constitution to limit federal power through a suite of changes, including a balanced budget rule and term limits, the AP reported.

“Under Article V of the Constitution, adding an amendment requires a two-thirds congressional vote and then ratification by three-fourths of states, or 38. That brought the country all 27 constitutional amendments,” AP reported.

“Because it’s hard to imagine Congress making itself less powerful, a second option is two-thirds of the states, or 34, requesting a national convention to draft amendments. Any amendments would subsequently have to be ratified by at least 38 states.”

Texas’ current campaign for a convention under Republican leadership goes beyond a balanced budget amendment pushed by some Article 5 proponents.

Supporters of a pure balanced budget amendment argue that the federal debt, quickly approaching $20 trillion, is now the greatest single risk to the United States.

“When I bring this forward, we’re not saying that everything else is a bad idea, but I have to deal with the political realities,” Kapenga said. “This is what people can rally around and I can get the votes on.”

“Now there are other things, like reducing federal powers in other areas. I fully agree with that and I think most people do,” the senator said. “But because we haven’t done this in the history of our nation before, people are a little more comfortable saying let’s go through a single subject first to make sure we understand how it works and get some comfort around it.”

Some conservatives are calling for a wider convention, laying out a suite of amendment items including congressional term limits, among other ideas. U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Florida, said such amendments would correct “Washington’s refusal to place restrictions on itself.” Texas Gov. Greg Abbott has pushed at least nine constitutional amendments aimed at empowering a Tenth Amendment, which states’ rights advocates say has been grossly diminished by federal overreach.

RELATED: Senator: Wisconsin will move quickly on on Article V resolution

TIME TO ACT: Sen. Chris Kapenga, R-Delafield, said it’s time for the states to act to fix the federal government’s spending addiction.

While a balanced budget amendment sounds good to fiscal conservatives tired of out-of-control federal spending, others are concerned about a runaway convention.

Opponents of Citizens United would like to see a constitutional amendment “correcting” the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2010 campaign finance decision that opened up spending thresholds for corporations in the name of freedom of speech.

“On the left, a group founded by liberal TV host Cenk Uygur is pushing a convention aimed at overturning the Supreme Court’s hated Citizens United decision and declaring that from now on corporations should stop having rights, or at least not a right to spend money spreading political opinions,” Walter Olson, senior fellow at the Cato Institute wrote last year in an opinion piece for the Daily Beast.

Some worry of a “runaway” Article V convention in which delegates start moving into myriad areas and end up messing with the rarely amended Constitution. The late conservative Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia thought such a convention is a dangerously bad idea, saying, “I certainly would not want a constitutional convention. Whoa! Who knows what would come out of it?”

Proponents like Kapenga are hoping that a federal balanced budget amendment is the result of this important safeguard of our founders’ sacred road map to republican government.

“It’s amazing when you look at the wisdom they had in what is the best form of government,” the senator said. “This is the balance of federalism that we have to make sure we remember, as government, it’s the powers that were not specifically enumerated in the Constitution are supposed to be under the states.”

“All of us know that the federal power has significantly overreached what it should have and that’s why we are in trouble right now,” Kapenga added. “What we are saying as states is, “Listen, this is what the founders wanted us to do. They wanted us to ensure this release valve or this checks-and-balance system is working.”

M.D. Kittle is bureau chief for Wisconsin Watchdog and First Amendment reporter for Watchdog.org. Contact him at mkittle@watchdog.org

Media picks up fake news pumped out by left-wing group

Fri, 03/03/2017 - 15:57

MADISON, Wis. — In the era of fake news, perhaps it’s no wonder that Milwaukee mainstream media feverishly jumped on board a phony story about U.S. Sen. Ron Johnson locking out constituents.

LIBERAL LEDE: The Milwaukee liberal group Citizen Action pumped out a phony story about constituents receiving cease-and-desist letters from Sen. Ron Johnson, R-Oshkosh. The group this week hosted a “Healthcare for All” Rally in Greenfield.

CBS 58 was among several news organizations that showcased the story of Earl Good, a Milwaukee man who received a cease-and-desist letter from Johnson’s office last month.

The story highlighted the apparent struggle of a “Vietnam veteran” and a “concerned citizen” who was told to beat it by the Oshkosh Republican’s staff.

CBS 58 noted Good’s “persistence” in making hundreds of phone calls attempting to get through to Johnson regarding his concerns about Republicans’ drive to repeal and replace Obamacare and the cabinet selections of President Donald Trump. At the bottom of the story, a Johnson spokesperson states that “very infrequently a pattern of inappropriate behavior emerges that crosses the bounds of decency and requires action to ensure the well being of visitors to the office and staff.”

Good’s conduct, according to a Milwaukee Journal Politifact report, seemed to cross the line of constituent concern into obsession and harassment.

Good’s story followed a faulty declaration by the liberal group Citizen Action Wisconsin that people who come to our actions get a “cease and desist letter.” The Milwaukee-based nonprofit, which is part of the #Resist Trump movement driven by left-wing groups nationwide, used Good’s letter to suggest that Johnson is barring a long line of constituents from contacting the senator and his staff.

Not true.

Politifact reported as much on Friday.

“What we found is that the posting by Citizen Action of Wisconsin — which claimed that ‘people who come to’ the group’s actions ‘get a “cease and desist” letter’ from Johnson’s office — is overly broad and misleading,” the report states.

“Despite the broadness of the claim, the group produced a cease-and-desist letter written to only one person who it says has been involved in Citizen Action initiatives such as preserving the Affordable Care Act.”

But why let the facts get in the way of a dark and phony narrative about Republican senators refusing to talk to their liberal constituents.

As Politifact notes, Johnson’s office issued the cease-and-desist letter after a barrage of daily phone calls from Good and after seeking the advice of Capitol police.

RELATED: COMMENTARY: Town hall ‘grassroots’ tactics just part of the liberal ‘Indivisible’ plan

In an interview Friday with Wisconsin Watchdog, Good acknowledged that he repeatedly has tried to contact Johnson’s office since the November elections. He kept calling, he said, because he kept getting a recording or the phone continued to ring.

He claims that he did not seek out the liberal group. Instead, he told a “group of citizens and constituents” that meet weekly outside Johnson’s Milwaukee constituent services office about the cease-and-desist letter. They “may have” passed it along to Citizen Action.

Kevin Kane, organizing director for Citizen Action, told Politifact Good “has been involved in recent months in the group’s initiatives, including visits to Johnson’s office in an effort to preserve the Affordable Care Act. Kane said he has observed Good as being persistent but respectful.”

Johnson’s staff described Good’s behavior in recent months as harassing and threatening to the senator’s aides. They said they did all they could to address the constituent’s concerns.

Citizen Action leaped at the opportunity to highlight the letter and push the faulty narrative that Good was among many constituents barred from their democratic right to question their representatives.

While liberal groups and media accounts eagerly noted Good’s military service and portrayed him as a “concerned citizen,”  they left out his criminal conviction of sexual assault in 2001. Perhaps that did not fit the narrative.

Johnson’s staff told Politifact that the senator’s office has sent as many as five cease-and-desist letters since Johnson took office in January 2011. The letter to Good was the first since the November election.

Good still is free to send letters to Johnson’s office and, apparently, to attend telephonic town halls.

“I participate in Sen. Johnson’s town hall meeting,” he told Wisconsin Watchdog. “There was one yesterday. I listened to the town hall.” He did not ask a question.

So much for the constituent totally locked out of communication with his representative.

M.D. Kittle is bureau chief for Wisconsin Watchdog and First Amendment reporter for Watchdog.org. Contact him at mkittle@watchdog.org

The ‘next Friedrichs’ of right-to-work has its day in appeals court

Fri, 03/03/2017 - 12:32

A case that could ultimately change the rules on forced unionization in America had its day in court this week, and is perhaps bound for the U.S. Supreme Court for a defining decision on free speech and unions.

FRIEDRICHS REDUX?: A case involving compelled union dues in Illinois went before the 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals this week. Case watchers call it the next Friedrichs v. California Teachers Association.

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the 7th Circuit on Wednesday heard oral arguments in the case of two Illinois state government employees challenging the constitutionality of forced union dues.

A district court earlier dismissed the case, Janus v. AFSCME, which specifically deals with the First Amendment rights of public employees who wish to opt out of their unions, and the fairness of a union’s “monopoly” right to speak for individuals.

“One of the most powerful political forces in Wisconsin and certainly in Illinois are government unions … They generally have the loudest voice,” said Mark Mix, president of the National Right to Work Foundation. “Not only do they have the loudest voice but they’ve been granted tremendous privilege to be the sole spokesman, the monopoly bargaining agent for all government employees. And that means they can compel you to accept them as your ‘voice.’”

The Illinois employee plaintiffs are being represented, free of cost, by the Right to Work Foundation and the Illinois Policy Institute’s Liberty Justice Center, free-market organizations that oppose compulsory union dues and membership.

Under a 1977 Supreme Court decision, unions are not allowed to use membership fees to pay for “explicitly political” activities, but they can demand “fair share” fees connected to collective bargaining.

The lawsuit notes some 6,600 of the state’s 46,000-plus employees are forced to make so-called “fair share” payments to unions rather than pay union dues. Fair Share deductions are to go only to essential union representation activities, not political purposes.

The plaintiffs argue that everything a union does, not just overt political activity, involves government redress.

“They [unions] are in a unique position in between taxpayers and elected officials to help to determine how tax money is spent, how government sets priorities, how school districts are run, lots of things that involve ‘necessary government services,’” Mix told Wisconsin Watchdog Wednesday in an interview on the Vicki McKenna Show.

“So the notion that somehow their speech is elevated, no matter what it is … that speech is political by nature because it’s redressing the government,” he said.

Lee Saunders, president of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees said the court hearing represents a “renewed effort by corporate and special interest groups to upend the longstanding rights of people who work in public service … to come together.”

“It would be shameful to see the Circuit Court of Appeals decide the case in favor of wealthy special interests and put the working families and communities at risk,” Saunders said in a statement earlier this week.

What’s a shame, right-to-work advocates say, is to force people to be in unions against their will, at the peril of their jobs.

RELATED: Missouri becomes 28th right-to-work state

Some observers say Janus v. AFSCME is the “new Friedrichs case.”

Friedrichs v. California Teachers Association took on the broader issues of mandatory union dues, political speech and association. Following oral arguments in January 2016, it appeared clear that the U.S. Supreme Court would narrowly side with right-to-work advocates in updating the 1977 Abood v. Detroit Board of Education.

A few weeks later, conservative Justice Antonin Scalia died. Scalia had been a deciding vote against unions in previous similar cases. His passing resulted in a 4-4 tie, with the automatic affirmation of the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals upholding unions’ right to take fees. The famously liberal court made headlines recently for blocking President Donald Trump’s immigration ban executive order.

Mix believes the 7th Circuit also will stand with Abood, the defining case on union dues thus far, and that will trigger a petition for review before the high court, perhaps as early as October and with a new conservative judge replacing Scalia.

Mix said Wisconsin, which became the 25th right-to-work state in 2015, has led the charge on both sides of the public-sector union battle. The Badger State in 1959 became the first state in the nation to recognize public employee collective bargaining rights. In 2011, with the passage of Republican Gov. Scott Walker’s Act 10, Wisconsin reined in the power public sector unions.

“That started the debate all over again about what the implications and ramifications of [forced unionization in the public sector] had been,” Mix said.

M.D. Kittle is bureau chief for Wisconsin Watchdog and First Amendment reporter for Watchdog.org. Contact him at mkittle@watchdog.org

State treasurer: Occupational licenses taking too much money

Thu, 03/02/2017 - 21:05

WAUKESHA, WIS. – Wisconsin’s State Treasurer Matt Adamczyk wants to give taxpayers an $8 million break in the cost of doing their jobs. That’s the amount the state collects beyond what it needs to administer occupational licenses in Wisconsin.

Over the last five fiscal years, the Wisconsin Department of Safety and Professional Services has given to the state’s general fund an average of nearly $8.5 million annually, according to figures from the Legislative Fiscal Bureau. The money is collected for the purpose of administering occupational licenses, but the state uses the excess revenue in the budget.

GIVE IT BACK: State Treasurer Matt Adamczyk says the state is collecting too much money for occupational licenses. He calls the license fees a tax.

“This is an agency that is supposed to be run on fees to pay for what they’re doing, which is regulating these professions,” Adamczyk told Wisconsin Watchdog. “But they shouldn’t be taking in more money and then putting it in the general fund, because then it’s a tax at that point.”

A study last year by the Wisconsin Institute for Law & Liberty, or WILL, showed a 34 percent increase in the last 20 years of people in Wisconsin holding occupational licenses, to 370,000 in 2016. The number of license types grew from 90 in 1996 to 166 in 2016.

The economic impact of state licenses is $1.9 billion in higher consumer costs in Wisconsin, according to the study. There are 31,634 fewer jobs in Wisconsin as a result.

“I think the Legislature can either figure out a better job of which ones can be reduced individually because they’re not as necessary,” Adamczyk said. “You could also do an across-the-board cut of, let’s say, 25 percent.”

Adamczyk gave the example of cosmetologists in Wisconsin and how much revenue their licenses generate for the state.

“There are 16,000 of them in the state. So 16,000 of these men and women are writing checks to the the DSPS every two years for $82, and it’s like, why?” Adamczyk said. “You cut it 25 percent, it would save each person $20. I’m sure these people wouldn’t mind having $20 in their pockets.”

Collin Roth of WILL said the money going into the general fund is proof that occupational license reform is necessary.

“The information that state Treasurer Adamczyk highlights reveals an uncomfortable truth about licensing fees,” Roth said. “They don’t simply serve as revenue source to run a regulatory agency but as a piggy bank for state government.”

“Whether a focus is applied to licenses, fees, or burdensome training requirements, tackling occupational licensure reform ought to be a priority for a legislature concerned with expanding opportunity,” Roth said.

Gov. Scott Walker has made occupational license reform part of his proposed welfare reform package. A “sunrise review” would analyze whether the license is the least restrictive means to address a public health or safety concern. A “sunset council” would look at existing occupational licenses to see if they’re necessary for public safety. Both would also examine the extent the license would create a barrier to new workers in that field.

SEE RELATED: Growth of occupational licensing is hurting Wisconsin’s economy

Walker has also proposed giving teachers lifetime teaching licenses in the state as an inducement to keep teachers in the profession. Despite a possible teacher shortage in the future, State Superintendent Tony Evers was described by the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel as being “wary” of the proposal.

“As we attempt to address the educator shortage in Wisconsin, we cannot lose sight of how important it is for all kids to be taught by a highly qualified educator,” Evers said. “Like many licensed professionals, a big part of keeping current includes some form of continuing education.”  

Adamczyk said he also supports lifetime teaching licenses, and could see lifetime licenses for other professions as well.

“Just give them the license,” Adamczyk said. “I’m for that for a lot of these things.”

“This is something that hits all corners of the state,” Adamczyk said. “These are regular, everyday people that pay bills, that run businesses, that are self-insured and work in a small business. It’s ultimately a lot of money that they don’t need to be paying.”

James Wigderson reports for Wisconsin Watchdog. Contact him at jwigderson@watchdog.org and follow him on Twitter @jwigderson.

VA whistleblower has questions for Congressman Ron Kind

Thu, 03/02/2017 - 15:21
Part 46 of 45 in the series Tomah VA Scandal

MADISON, Wis. — A whistleblower who helped shine light on abuses at the Veterans Affairs Medical Center in Tomah has some pointed questions for U.S. Representative Ron Kind.

SEEKING ANSWERS: VA whistleblower Ryan Honl wants to know about a phone call placed to U.S. Rep. Ron Kind’s office by a Marine veteran who died of a prescription drug overdose at the Tomah VA Medical Center. The call is noted in a Senate committee report on the troubled health care facility.

Ryan Honl, a former employee at the scandal-plagued hospital and clinics, on Wednesday hand-delivered a letter to a Kind aide holding a listening session in Tomah.

Honl wants to know what the La Crosse Democrat or his staff said to Jason Simcakoski during a phone call to Kind’s D.C. office in November 2013, about nine months before the Marine veteran died of a “toxic cocktail” of painkillers and other drugs at the medical center.

In May, the Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs released a stinging report titled, “The Systematic Failures and Preventable Tragedies at the Tomah VA Medical Center.” The report described a “culture of fear” at the government-run hospital known as “Candyland” because of reported staff practices of overprescribing opioids. Dr. David Houlihan, the former head of the medical center who was commonly referred to as the “Candy Man” by patients and whistleblowers, was fired in November 2015. Last month a state agency stripped him of his medical license in Wisconsin.

Source notes from a 359-page Senate committee report show a 7-minute, 39-second call from Simcakoski’s phone to Kind’s office on Nov. 8, 2013.

At a May 31 hearing on the committee’s findings, Kind refused to answer Wisconsin Watchdog’s questions about the call.

“Contact my office,” Kind curtly said.

“But congressman, you are right here,” a Wisconsin Watchdog reporter responded.

Kind hastily left the conference room of the Cranberry Country Lodge in Tomah following the committee hearing.

RELATED: Ron Kind breaks silence on call from veteran victim 

A day later, the congressman told another news organization that his office would “conduct a thorough review” of its files.

“I can’t imagine that if someone, anyone called my office, gave their name and asked for help, then a case file would have been started immediately,” Kind told the La Crosse Tribune.

He released a follow-up statement asserting that his office doesn’t have a record of Simcakoski’s call. The congressman’s statement said the office has “strict protocol to handle every call in an appropriate way” and that its process “ensures that when constituents provide their name and contact information, and have concerns, those concerns are addressed.”

“If Jason had called our office to ask for help, we would have immediately opened a casework file and asked him to sign a Privacy Release Form in order to work on his case, as we have with almost 2,000 veterans’ cases since 2011,” the statement said. “If he had provided information, we would have flagged it and sent to the authorities, like we did when we sent the VA Inspector General an anonymous letter we received in 2011. Lastly, if he in any way sounded distressed we would have asked for his contact information and taken immediate action to reach out to the proper authorities.”

LEAVING TOMAH: When asked last year about the call to his office, U.S. Rep. Ron Kind told Wisconsin Watchdog to contact his Washington, D.C. staff and quickly left a hearing room in Tomah.

But the call records in the report’s source notes clearly indicate Simcakoski called Kind’s office and the call lasted 7 minutes, 39 seconds. Just as the records show the veteran, on the same morning, called the VA police in Tomah, and made an 8-minute call to the FBI field office in La Crosse. The FBI has declined to comment.

“Jason himself, according to the family and the congressional report, was basically a whistleblower,” Honl said in an interview Wednesday with Wisconsin Watchdog on the Vicki McKenna Show.  “He was calling the FBI, he was calling the VA police, he was calling lots of other places to try to get some attention to the drug diversion at the facility. And in the mix of that was an 8-minute call to Ron Kind’s Washington D.C. office.”

Kind’s office did forward an anonymous complaint about the hospital to the VA Inspector General in 2011, but the congressman did not follow up.

Kind and former U.S. Sen. Russ Feingold, D-Middleton, have been accused of not acting on allegations of misconduct. An official for the union that represents many of the employees at Tomah originally said she had sent “hand-delivered” memos to Kind and Feingold in 2009, but later walked back those statements.

Kind and Feingold said their offices had no record of the memo.

The memo battle became a heated campaign issue last year in a Senate election campaign that saw U.S. Sen. Ron Johnson, R-Oshkosh, who chairs the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs committee, beat Feingold.

Honl said his personal campaign to call out Kind was rekindled recently after reading that the 10-term congressman hasn’t ruled out a run for governor in 2018. The whistleblower said that would be “an absolute travesty.”

“The governor is responsible for the National Guard in the state and I just can’t imagine that someone who turned the other way while veterans are being abused and died would be responsible to veterans and active duty,” Honl said.

Kind’s office did not return a request for comment Wednesday.

M.D. Kittle is bureau chief for Wisconsin Watchdog and First Amendment reporter for Watchdog.org. Contact him at mkittle@watchdog.org

Study finds charter and voucher schools do better than public schools

Wed, 03/01/2017 - 21:11

WAUKESHA, Wis. – A new study by a Milwaukee-based research organization promises the most comprehensive look at statewide student test scores for voucher, charter and public schools.

The study, Apples to Apples, released on Wednesday, shows charter schools and private school voucher programs doing better at educating students than public schools in Wisconsin.

Will Flanders, education research director for the Wisconsin Institute for Law & Liberty  said students in Milwaukee’s private school voucher program performed significantly better than their public school peers when controlling for socioeconomic status.

APPLES TO APPLES; A new study shows students in voucher, charter schools do better than public school peers, according to Will Flanders of the Wisconsin Institute for Law & Liberty.

“We looked at both math and English, two of the most important subjects in school, in predicting success later in life,” Flanders said. “We see significantly higher rates of proficiency in both subjects.”

To make the comparison, WILL used data from the statewide Forward Exam and ACT results and adjusted for students’ socioeconomic status to give the “apples to apples” comparison. The Forward Exam is an annual statewide assessment of student proficiency in English language arts, social studies and math.

“We were able to take advantage of new data on all schools regardless of sector, their socioeconomic status makeup, and we were able to take advantage of the new mandates that everyone has to take the ACT,” said CJ Szafir, WILL’s vice president for policy.

In addition to the better performance on the exams by students in Milwaukee’s voucher schools, the Milwaukee Parental Choice Program, or MPCP, the study found charter schools that were independent of Milwaukee Public Schools outperforming traditional public schools, too, by as much as 10 percent in both subjects.

The study also looked at the religious affiliation of schools in the voucher program.

“We looked at Lutheran and Catholic schools and those schools really are the driver of the positive effect of the MPCP,” Flanders said. “Both of those sectors outperformed traditional public schools by a significant amount.”

“The other choice schools not affiliated with these two churches are statistically indistinguishable,” Flanders said. “Their performance is about the same as traditional public schools.”

Flanders said the study also looked at the two authorizers, the University of Wisconsin -Milwaukee and the city of Milwaukee, for independent charter schools in Milwaukee.

“We see that UWM charters significantly outperform traditional public schools,” Flanders said. “Whereas the charter that have been authorized by the city are indistinguishable from traditional public schools.”

Szafir said that the result speaks well of UW-Milwaukee and the charter authorizer there. However, he said the difference may also be the result of attitudes in Milwaukee toward charter schools.

“The city of Milwaukee Common Council has been very hostile towards charter schools,” Szafir said.

SEE RELATED: Milwaukee council says private, charter schools can buy unused school property

MPS Superintendent Darienne Driver has said she would like MPS to be the sole authorizer of charter schools in Milwaukee. Flanders said the study showed that may not produce the best outcomes for students.

“Charters authorized by MPS generally look no different than MPS schools,” Flanders said. The independent charter schools that have more freedom are the ones doing well, according to Flanders.

Flanders said the study did not limit the comparisons to choice or charter schools to public schools. The study also looked at citywide specialty public schools, which are touted as successes by MPS.

“Once we account for race and economic status, the performance of those schools is no different than the average neighborhood school,” Flanders said. “The reason we think that’s the case is because the only sector in Milwaukee where we do see evidence of ‘creaming,’ schools with a different racial and demographic makeup than the average school, is in these citywide specialty schools.”

“Those schools are significantly more white than the average school in Milwaukee and there are significantly less numbers of students from low-income backgrounds,” Flanders said. He said the screening of students for these schools may lead to the higher scores these schools have before race and socioeconomic status are taken into account.

Flanders said when race and socioeconomic status are taken into account, voucher and charter schools outperform the citywide specialty schools.

“Because the driver in those citywide specialty schools is more economic background and race,” Flanders said. “Whereas the driver in the choice program and the charter schools is something they are potentially doing in those schools.”

SEE RELATED: Students in choice schools outperforming district peers

The study also did a statewide comparison of voucher students with those in traditional public schools, combining the voucher students in the Racine Parental Choice Program and the Wisconsin Parental Choice Program to give a large enough statistical sample. The study found that again the students in the two private school voucher programs did significantly better than their public school peers on the ACT test.

“On the Forward Exam we did not find a significant difference,” Flanders said. “As the program continues to grow and there are more kids in the program with more years in the program with more buy-in from private schools around the state, we might see those numbers change.”

James Wigderson reports for Wisconsin Watchdog. Contact him at jwigderson@watchdog.org and follow him on Twitter @jwigderson.

Town hall ‘grassroots’ tactics just part of the liberal ‘Indivisible’ plan

Wed, 03/01/2017 - 12:58

MADISON, Wis. — It seems like an organic grassroots movement fueled by righteous indignation.

It isn’t.

FAKE NEWS EVENTS?: Opponents of conservative policies turn out their anger at a recent town hall event held by U.S. Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner, R- Menomonee Falls. Former Democrat congressional aides are behind a guide pushing town hall tactics to “resist” President Donald Trump’s agenda.

The swarms of angry liberals popping up at Republican congressional events, the “empty chair” town halls, the petitions demanding representatives meet with their constituents.

Yeah, a lot of that is one big phony political show, written by former aides to congressional Democrats and produced by some of the wealthiest liberal activists in the land.

And the mainstream media is eating it up.

In Wisconsin, this “grassroots” movement last month got all up in U.S. Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner’s face at a town hall in Pewaukee. The Menomonee Falls Republican, a nearly 40-year member of Congress, was forced to repeatedly pound his gavel, imploring his hostile political opponents to “be respectful.”

“We had eight years where our side did not win the election. I don’t think we saw the type of bitterness and divisiveness that we’re seeing now,” Sensenbrenner told the crowd.

In Madison, liberals packed an “empty chair” town hall event for U.S. Sen. Ron Johnson.

“Participants posed questions to an unoccupied chair with a sign saying ‘Reserved for Senator Ron Johnson,’” at Madison’s First Congregational United Church of Christ, according to the Wisconsin State Journal.

Adam Wood, one of the event’s organizers, told the newspaper the meeting wasn’t meant to be a “Democratic take down of a Republican senator,” but an opportunity for voters to voice their concerns to the Oshkosh Republican.

But the campaign is indeed meant to be a “Democratic take down” of Republicans and President Donald Trump.

Just read the manual.

Indivisible

Smarting from the historic beating they took in an election that served as a repudiation of the big government policies of President Barack Obama, the Democratic Party and its wealthy liberal sugar daddies have laid out a very clear plan to take down Trump and the Republican majority in Congress.

It’s called “Indivisible, A Practical Guide For Resisting The Trump Agenda.”  Parenthetically it should be titled, “How to Regain Liberal Power in an America That Has Grown Tired of Liberals.”

Indivisible was conjured up by former Democrat congressional staffers. In it, they “reveal best practices for making Congress listen.”

What the guide is really about is disruption, protest, #Resistance and, above all, making sure a liberally pliant and friendly mainstream media covers every last second of the political show.

The Indivisible “team” isn’t hiding its plans to manufacture a political movement, even if it has been less than frank about its ultra-liberal funding sources.

“Since this guide went live as a Google Doc, we’ve received an overwhelming flood of messages from people all over the country working to resist the Trump agenda,” the activists write. “We’re thrilled and humbled by the energy and passion of this growing movement.”

TOWN HALL TACTICS: Liberal activists are using tactics like this – placing the pictures of Republican members of Congress on milk cartons – to capture media attention for the canned political campaigns. They say they’ve taken a page from conservatives in the Tea Party movement.

The constituent outrage moments that have played out in Wisconsin and nationally before the cameras can be found in the guide.

In their “Missing Members or Congress Action Plan,” former congressional staff “explain how to make your Members of Congress more accessible.”

“Where on earth has your Member of Congress gone? Something strange has been happening in the last month or so: Members of Congress (MoCs) from all over the country are going missing,” the guide states.

“They’re still turning up for votes on Capitol Hill, and they’re still meeting with lobbyists and friendly audiences back home – but their public event schedules are mysteriously blank. Odd.”

It’s all happening for a very simple reason, the Indivisible team asserts. Congressional reps “do not want to look weak or unpopular — and they know that Trump’s agenda is very, very unpopular.”

That, of course, is a very simple explanation from a liberal point of view. In many conservative congressional districts, Trump’s agenda is wildly popular. It is, after all, why the conservative constituents in these districts voted for the Republican. It’s why blue state Wisconsin turned presidential red for the first time since 1984. Those who are resisting Trump are in the minority in these places, although you might not know that from the press coverage.

And perhaps Republican congressional members don’t care for the organized nastiness that has greeted them at scheduled constituent events, just as Democrats didn’t care for such behavior during the Tea Party movement in the opening years of Obama’s tenure.

The Indivisible folks know that their narrative lives only if it is picked up by local and national news organizations. That’s why the guide places a premium on media outreach.

Partners in promotion

“It’s pretty easy for MoCs to ignore one or even a few dozen people. It is impossible to ignore a small group that’s also getting local media coverage viewed by thousands,” the guide notes. “This is also why videos, pictures, and stories of your actions are so important — local media loves this stuff.”

It encourages activists to “research on Google News what local reporters have written about your” members of Congress … and “build relationships” with those reporters.

But what if congressional members don’t respond to the goading of liberal activists?

Well, Indivisible has that covered under Step 3: If your MOC Isn’t Responding, It’s Time to Go Public.

“MoCs don’t want a bad YouTube moment, but they also don’t want to look like they’re ignoring their constituents. So, your next step is to draw attention to the fact that your MoC has gone into hiding,” the guide states.

To do so, the guide advises activists to use Facebook to show demand for a town hall, or launch a petition on the left-wing Moveon.org, subsidized by billionaire liberal cause pimp George Soros.

Krista Eastman launched such a petition on Moveon.org, admonishing Johnson that “Wisconsin Wants Town Halls!”

“We demand that Senator Ron Johnson (R-WI) make himself available to his constituents through publicized town halls and listening sessions during Congress’s upcoming state work periods: Feb 20 – Feb 24; Mar 16 – Mar 17; and Apr 10 – Apr 21,” Eastman’s petition states.

On the petition site, she notes that organizers delivered the petition in person to the senator’s office on Feb. 15.

Eastman is a communications specialist for the Wisconsin Energy Institute, the “collaborative home of energy research and education on the University of Wisconsin-Madison campus.” It is a taxpayer-funded fortress of the Climate Change agenda.

Eastman did not return Wisconsin Watchdog’s requests for comment. It appears that one of the emails she sent to petition supporters was written during her working hours at the institute, although it is not clear whether she did so on taxpayer time.

Town hall tactics

The Indivisible town hall guide also lays out tactics for activists to get the most promotional bang for the buck.

“Post ‘missing’ signs around congressional offices, high traffic areas, (local squares, parks stadiums, etc.) local news stations and newspaper offices,” the guide advises.

In other words, do the mainstream media’s work for them.

CNN, known for its amenable relationship with Democratic candidates, was more than happy to provide coverage, without very little resistance.

The cable news organization had all kinds of fun with the left-wing campaign, and at Republican reps’ expense, in a story last month headlined “Constituents search for ‘missing’ representatives.”

And wouldn’t you know it, the Indivisible guide’s Step 4 calls for “constituents” to hold a town hall of their own, just like the one in Madison, the liberal bastion of the Midwest.

INDIVISIBLY VISIBLE: The guidebook for a left-wing campaign to disrupt the conservative agenda.

“Book a venue or plan to gather outside a district office. Explore holding your event at a local school, library, or conference or convention center where a space can be obtained for low cost. Find out if basics like chairs and audio equipment are already available at the venue,” the guide states.

The helpful Democrats behind this “grassroots” movement even provide a sample press release to send out to a hungry media. Here’s what it looks like:

EXAMPLE MEDIA ADVISORY

## of [MoC’s Name]’s Constituents to Hold Citizens’ Town Hall to Make Their Voices Heard

After several weeks of hundreds of calls to hold a public town hall event with no response, more than ## of [MoC’s Name]’s constituents will hold a citizens’ town hall to voice their concerns and discuss recent developments in Congress. [MoC Name] has been invited to attend [include more information on what kind of response you’ve gotten].

What: [MoC Name] Constituent Town Hall Who: Name of Your Group

Any notable attendees

Any other public speakers

Support system

The folks behind Indivisible (at least the Democrat activists out front) insist that every single person who worked on the guide and website is a “volunteer.”

“We’re doing this in our free time without coordination or support from our employers. Our only goal is to help the real leaders on the ground who are resisting Trump’s agenda on their home turf,” they say.

Many of the group members have ties to the liberal mega donor George Soros, according to the Washington Times.

Matthew Vadum, senior vice president at the Capital Research Center, told the Times that at least three of the group’s five principals have direct ties to organizations funded by Soros.

The Daily Signal, citing Vadum’s research, reported:

Ezra Levin, a former staffer for Rep. Lloyd Doggett, D-Texas, and his wife, Leah Greenberg, are the president and vice president of the Indivisible Guide’s board, respectively.

Levin is also associate director of the Corporation for Enterprise Development, an anti-poverty nonprofit. Melissa Bradley, who sits on that group’s board, previously worked for Green for All, a group founded by liberal commentator and former Obama administration official Van Jones. She was appointed as a Soros Justice Fellow through the Open Society Foundations, which Soros founded.

Greenberg previously worked for Humanity United, which is funded by Soros’ Open Society Institute.

The secretary of Indivisible Guide, Angel Padilla, works for the National Immigration Law Center, which is funded by Soros through his Open Society Foundations. And treasurer Matt Traidi is the research team director for the Service Employees International Union, a major donor to and endorser of Democrat politicians, Capital Research Center notes.

Counter punch

Conservatives, however, are pushing back.

Veterans who support Trump and conservative causes turned out in respectable numbers Monday morning at a town hall event in New Richmond hosted by U.S. Rep. Sean Duffy, R-Wausau.

The Invisible crew promoted their efforts online, advising that a carpool would be leaving for the Duffy event at 7:30 a.m. from the Natural Alternative Food Co-op. Participants were told to wear white T-shirts with their zip codes and a message such as, “Constituent NOT paid protester” printed on them. It’s an important distinction. So many of these events, according to multiple reports, have been populated in part by paid liberal protesters.

The “action calendar” also prepared participants for Duffy’s town hall “tactics,” warning that the lawmaker likes to pack his small venues with Republicans and that he only takes questions from note cards.

Despite the narrative of “missing” representatives and closed-out constituents, many Republican lawmakers continue to hold town hall events, as the myriad lines of communications to their offices remain open to constituents.

Sensenbrenner on Wednesday sent out a press release advising of three town hall meetings this weekend in Delafield, Lake Mills and Juneau.

Duffy said he will keep his promise to hold an in-person town hall meeting in every county of his district every year.

“There were several good discussions on all sorts of issues — and we had lots of opportunities to find common ground,” Duffy said in a press release following the New Richmond event.

“But even when we disagree, we do so without being disagreeable. After attending the town hall today, Cheryl, from Hudson, called our office and said that even though she doesn’t agree with everything I said in the town hall, she was appreciative that we are able to talk these issues out.”

M.D. Kittle is bureau chief for Wisconsin Watchdog and First Amendment reporter for Watchdog.org. Contact him at mkittle@watchdog.org

Walker: State fraud-fighting initiatives saved taxpayers $250 million

Tue, 02/28/2017 - 15:36

MADISON, Wis. – State anti-fraud initiatives have saved taxpayers more than a quarter-billion dollars over the past six years, according to Gov. Scott Walker.

FRAUD FIGHT: The Wisconsin Department of Revenue has saved taxpayers more than $250 million over the past six years in fraud and identity theft prevention, according to Gov. Scott Walker

The Wisconsin Department of Revenue last tax season prevented more than $63 million in fraudulent refunds and tax credits, Walker said in a press release. That’s up more than $5 million from tax year 2015.

The savings statement comes out as the Republican governor proposes a boost in state funding for an expanded tax auditing program that would add 46 revenue agents — an unpopular initiative among members of Wisconsin’s business community.

Since 2011, the Department of Revenue’s identity theft prevention measures have stopped more than $255 million in potential fraud, according to the press release.

“Protecting Wisconsin’s taxpayers is a top priority,” Walker said. “This includes protecting them from waste, fraud, and abuse. I applaud the Department of Revenue for their efforts to safeguard our citizens from fraudulent activity. We will continue to work with them and remain vigilant so we can prevent identity theft and other forms of fraud.”

Identity theft and tax refund fraud are two of the top cyber crimes, according to Rick Chandler, secretary of the Department of Revenue.

Among its fraud-fighting initiatives, the agency uses Identity Verification to keep fraudsters from stealing taxpayers’ identities. It requires some taxpayers to take an identity verification quiz, consisting of four multiple choice questions. In some cases, taxpayers are asked to send documentation for verification purposes.

“We are focused on preventing identity theft and protecting taxpayers,” Chandler says in an agency video on the Identity Verification program.

About 7 percent of individuals 16 or older were victims of identity theft in 2014, according to the the latest data available from the Bureau of Justice Statistics. 

Taxpayer savings from the Department of Revenue programs have risen sharply in Walker’s tenure, according to the agency. Savings rose from more than $71 million between 2006 and 2010 (during Democrat Gov. Jim Doyle’s administration) to $255 million between 2011 and 2016.

Walker’s 2017-19 budget proposal calls for an enhanced Audit 2020 initiative, which would pay for the 46 temporary positions in the Department of Revenue’s auditing team. The Walker administration expects the effort, which focuses on sales and corporate income tax collections, to bring in $64 million over the course of the two-year budget.

Business groups are leery of the initiative, to say the least. Wisconsin Manufacturers & Commerce opposes it outright, concerned that hiring more tax collectors sends the wrong message about Wisconsin’s business climate.

Walker has made the war on government waste, fraud and abuse a top mission during his six years at the helm.

While high-profile instances of waste and fraud in Transportation and Economic Development, among others, have diminished the campaign, the Republican governor’s administration has rolled out scores of initiatives to combat excess and fraudulent taking of taxpayer money.

In October 2011, Walker established the state Department of Health Services Office of the Inspector General. 

The OIG is responsible for detecting fraud in programs like Medicaid, FoodShare (Wisconsin’s food stamp program) and BadgerCare Plus (the state’s health insurance program for low-income recipients).

In March 2016, the OIG reported that it had saved the state tens of millions of dollars.

McAdams says Kirkpatrick Award nice, but he’d rather be teaching

Mon, 02/27/2017 - 08:50

WAUKESHA, Wis. – Marquette University Professor John McAdams received the Jeane Jordan Kirkpatrick Award for Academic Freedom at the Conservative Political Action Conference Ronald Reagan dinner Friday evening. The award was presented by Rick Graber, President of the Lynde and Harry Bradley Foundation, which supports the award.

McAdams was indefinitely suspended by Marquette after a November 2014 commentary on his blog, The Marquette Warrior, criticized philosophy instructor and graduate student Cheryl Abbate for telling a student she would not allow discussion of viewpoints critical of same-sex marriage in her class.

Professor John McAdams (right) is this year’s recipient of the Jeane Kirkpatrick award at the Conservative Political Action Conference in National Harbor, MD.

McAdams, a nationally recognized expert on the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, appealed to a faculty committee, saying the academic freedom mentioned in his contract protected his First Amendment right to free speech. The committee issued a report in January 2016 recommending unpaid suspension for McAdams through the fall 2016 semester.

However, Marquette President Michael Lovell added three additional requirements to be met before McAdams can be reinstated. The requirements, listed in a Jan. 12 letter, said McAdams would have to accept the judgment of his peers, commit to the standards of higher education at Marquette, and acknowledge that his blog post was reckless and incompatible with Marquette’s mission. He also is expected to express regret for the alleged harm suffered by Abbate.  

Lovell’s actions have landed Marquette University on a list of the Ten Worst Universities for Free Speech, as ranked by the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education.

In a letter last April, McAdams refused to accept the faculty committee’s recommendation and to comply with the additional demands made by Lovell. He is suing the university for breach of contract, claiming the contract with the university guarantees of academic freedom. The case is waiting on a ruling from Milwaukee County Judge David Hansher on competing summary judgment motions from McAdams and the university.

In the meantime, McAdams continues to be suspended and is unable to access the funds in his retirement account.

In a telephone interview Friday morning, McAdams spoke about receiving the award.

Q: Why is this award so important? Why is it so important to your particular cause?

McAdams: Let’s put it this way — it’s nice to know that there’s people who push back against campus political correctness. The fact that I’m willing to be kind of stubborn is good, but the fact that there are other people behind me who will support me is good.

The truth is, what you have with university administrations is a combination. Some of those people are politically correct, but some of them tend to go with the flow.  And if the forces that they face are mostly on campus political correctness, they’ll cave to that. If they’re countervailing things like, not only John McAdams who has a blog, but a big foundation like the Bradley Foundation or organizations like Foundation for Individual Rights in Education that will push back, it’s important to have that pressure. Because if there’s no one to push back, administrators are guaranteed to give the political correct on campus whatever they want.

Q: You’re getting an award on a national stage at a prominent gathering of conservatives from all over the country. What does it say that your situation is getting such national attention?

McAdams: A lot of professors have come under fire for doing and saying things that are not politically correct. Not that many have been fired, particularly not that many tenured professors have been fired. In fact, I may be the only one that I know about. I’ve heard of professors saying politically incorrect things taken out of an administrative position, or professors who didn’t have tenure — there was one based at the University of Kansas — not being renewed. So that’s a violation of academic freedom. So my case is fairly unique. It’s kind of an extreme case of trying to fire a professor because of a blog post. It’s a pretty extreme case.

And of course, the fact that it is supposedly a Catholic university, a lot of people actually think that, gosh, at a Catholic university there ought to be an understanding that if you want to speak up in opposition to gay marriage, you’re allowed to do it. And it sort of shocked some people to find that they’re trying to fire me for outing an instructor who said, no, you can’t speak out against gay marriage in my class.

So you put all that together and you’ve got … a kind of important national story.

Q: Do you think this award will have an effect on Marquette?

McAdams: I don’t know. Marquette seems to be absolutely stubborn in wanting to get rid of me. Okay, I’m an academic, so academics always have two equal and opposite theories, right? One theory is that all this attention will mean that, particularly if the summary judgment goes against them, they have an incentive not to appeal it but to settle in a way that’s favorable to me.

The other theory is, the more this becomes a big deal, the madder they get at me, and the more they’re inclined to double down. I guess the bottom line is, I don’t actually know.

Q: Given the national attention, how do you think this is making Marquette University look?

McAdams: It is making them look very bad, particularly because I was standing up for the right of a student, when gay marriage came up in class, to speak in opposition to gay marriage, (to) speak up on behalf of the Catholic Church’s own position.

It would be one thing if the student wanted to speak up in favor of going to the metric system or something. But here is a student (who) wanted to speak in favor of the Catholic Church’s position on gay marriage. He was told he couldn’t, and Marquette really de facto appears to be siding with Cheryl Abbate, appears to be deciding with the instructor who said, no, you can’t say that.

Marquette has done other things that seem to say you can’t approach gay marriage on campus, including an online training session on harassment that says two employees, if they talk to each other in express opposition to gay marriage, and somebody who doesn’t like that overhears them, then those employees could be considered guilty of harassment.

So, it’s somewhat shocking to find that a supposed Catholic university is outlawing people speaking up in favor of the Catholic position. The thing is, it’s not the university simply saying that they’re not going to enforce a particular view they’d be taking themselves. It’s a university enforcing a view opposite to Catholic teaching.

I think that has a lot of resonance, particularly from people who are used to thinking, whoa, they’re Catholic universities and they really are Catholic. In fact, most of the older ones, the bigger ones, are pretty much secular.

Q: To you personally, how do you feel about getting this kind of national attention, this kind of award?

McAdams: It’s nice. It’s nice to know that there are people who are supporting me. And there are some nice perks, like, the Bradley Foundation put me up in the river view suite here. But it turns out it really has a view of the river and really it is a suite. I’m an ordinary professor, so when someone says suite, I think of what a two-star hotel right off the interstate calls a suite. But no, I have a suite at a four-star hotel, so that’s a nice perk. I’m kind of enjoying it.

But quite frankly, I’d much rather just be back at Marquette teaching, blogging, feeling free to say what I want to say in my blog. That would be much better than all the attention I’m getting.

Q: You’re getting an award named after Jeane Kirkpatrick.

McAdams: Yes, she was vilified in academia because she was an anti-communist. Particularly, she said that regimes that are repressive, that are anti-communist and aligned with the US on foreign policy, are better than Communist regimes that are not only more repressive but are anti-American in their foreign policy. That put her at odds with a lot of academics who, to be frank about it, wouldn’t have minded if this or that dictatorship in Latin America was overpowered by communists. So she came in for a lot of flak about that. She was one gutsy lady.

RELATED: Judge to decide if summary judgment is to be made in McAdams case

Graber also spoke to Wisconsin Watchdog in a telephone interview about McAdams receiving the award. Before Graber became president of the Milwaukee-based Bradley Foundation last June, he served on the board for three years. He is a former ambassador to the Czech Republic.

Q: Why is the McAdams case so important?

Graber: As you know, he’s being honored at CPAC as the 2017 winner of the Jeane Kirkpatrick Award. It’s about academic freedom. It’s about freedom of speech. It’s about creating environments on campuses across the country where people are free to express their views, contrary views.

Obviously, it should be done in a civil way, but that freedom is being eroded, and this is a great case of that.

Q: Why is the award so important to the McAdams case? It’s a national award, it’s on a national stage. Do you think this award will help put more pressure on Marquette?

Graber: It’s an annual award, and a committee of people come together every year and review possible candidates. There’s a nomination process and John McAdams was the winner this year.  The point of the award this year and every year is to express the importance of First Amendment rights, freedom of speech and academic freedom. Professor McAdams is an example of someone who happens to be in our home town who happens to be in the fight of his academic life right now over an incident.

Marquette will do what Marquette wants to do. It’s an issue that’s important at Marquette, it’s an issue that’s important around the country.

RELATED: ‘Martyr to political correctness’ John McAdams to receive Academic Freedom award

Q: What does it say about the McAdams situation that it is getting such national attention? It’s not just a local issue, but it’s been written about in the Wall Street Journal and The Atlantic. Why do you think this case resonates so much that it gets such national attention?

Graber: It’s an easily understood facts situation. It’s a case where John McAdams, on his blog, posted about an incident within a class that was not being paid attention to by the administration at Marquette. (It’s) a blatant example of the lack of academic freedom that has plagued our college campuses.

College campuses should be a place where there are open exchanges of ideas, and sometimes controversial ideas. But that should be okay. It seems we’ve evolved in the direction of political correctness, (with) the agendas of the professors taking precedence over the free exchange of ideas

I think both the left and the right are concerned about this. It would be a terrible precedent if Marquette does not reverse course on this.

Q: How do you think how this whole McAdams case is making Marquette University look?

Graber: I’m not sure it’s my place to draw conclusions or opinions on how it makes Marquette look. I don’t think it’s good publicity for Marquette. I think Marquette should cherish and welcome academic freedom (and) free speech on campus, in its classrooms. Part of the reason so many people are commenting on this is to try to slowly make change on our college campuses from what’s happened over, really, decades.

I’m sure it’s an uncomfortable spot for Marquette to be, but Marquette put itself in this spot.

Q: What are you hearing from other people at CPAC about how important these fights over academic freedom are?

Graber: I think it’s a very important issue at CPAC. There’s a lot of energy in the hall, a lot of talk about the opportunity that exists right now to bring some meaningful change. There’s a lot of talk about regulatory reform. There’s a lot of talk about education reform and the opportunities that exist there — a lot of the themes that Bradley focuses on, the things that allow individuals and the nation to flourish. Again: regulatory reform, free enterprise, capitalism, the importance of community and family. All big issues.

In conjunction with all that is one of the hallmarks of our country: and that’s free speech. Academic freedom. It’s all there, and there’s a lot of excitement about it.

James Wigderson reports for Wisconsin Watchdog. Contact him at jwigderson@watchdog.org and follow him on Twitter @jwigderson.

Seized documents could raise legal questions for John Doe special prosecutor, GAB

Fri, 02/24/2017 - 16:17
Part 385 of 383 in the series Wisconsin's Secret War

MADISON, Wis. – The state Department of Justice’s seizure of documents from the state Ethics Commission could present some legal problems for the special prosecutor of the political “John Doe II” investigation or agents of the now-defunct state Government Accountability Board, an attorney close to the situation tells Wisconsin Watchdog.

WHAT DO THEY HAVE? The state Department of Justice seized materials earlier this month from the Ethics Commission, which until last year was the Government Accountability Board. Questions arise about whether John Doe documents remain in possession of staff members. That could be a violation of a Supreme Court order.

On Friday, the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reported that the DOJ seized materials from the Ethics Commission earlier this month as part of its probe into a leak of court-sealed documents to liberal publication The Guardian U.S.

The disclosure comes one week after the Journal Sentinel reported state Justice Department investigators reviewed documents in the clerk’s office of the state Supreme Court.

The newspaper did not make clear precisely what was seized at the Ethics Commission office, but if those “materials” were documents from the unconstitutional probe into Gov. Scott Walker’s campaign and dozens of conservative groups, former John Doe prosecutor Francis Schmitz could have some questions to answer.

In November, Schmitz signed an affidavit Concerning John Doe II Evidence, noting that he had complied with a Supreme Court order demanding that he return documents and other items seized from John Doe targets and turn over evidentiary materials to the Supreme Court.

“To the best of my knowledge, I have received statements from all who have direct access to evidentiary materials as part of the prosecution team,” Schmitz wrote in the Nov. 2 affidavit. “In those statements, those individuals all state that they either turned over documents and electronic data and no longer possess same (or copies thereof), or never possessed documents and/or data (or copies thereof) obtained in the course of the investigation.”

The court in 2015 declared the campaign finance investigation unconstitutional and ordered it shut down. Schmitz’s position was deemed invalid from his entry as special prosecutor in 2013. He was given the last duties of making sure that illegally seized property was returned to its rightful owners, and that “evidence” or copies collected were surrendered from investigators and transferred to the custody of the court.

The now-defunct state Government Accountability Board (predecessor of the Ethics Commission), which assisted Milwaukee County prosecutors and Schmitz in the politically driven probe, should not have John Doe documents in its possession.

Edward Greim, attorney for some of the conservatives targeted in the probe, said that either Schmitz never obtained statements from everyone at the GAB who had access to the Doe documents, or “one or more staff failed to disclose that they had the documents.” Schmitz, as a special prosecutor with an office at the GAB, should have known everyone with access to John Doe materials and where those materials were, Greim said.

“Until we are able to see those statements we cannot know whether the materials that are being taken from the GAB (Ethics Commission) are all the materials the GAB had,” Greim said.

“At the very least, it raises real questions about the care and safe-keeping of documents and compliance with these orders of the Supreme Court,” the attorney added.

Schmitz did not return a request for comment.

Also in the November affidavit, the special prosecutor noted that he had not received statements from some individuals with “secondary” access, or authorized access to John Doe materials.

“Those individuals include several judges who served on the Government Accountability Board,” Schmitz said. “I will supplement this information when those additional statements are obtained with an additional filing with the court.”

Milwaukee County District Attorney John Chisholm, a highly partisan Democrat, launched John Doe II in August 2012. The probe was effectively an extension of the original John Doe investigation into the Milwaukee County Executive’s Office in 2010, when Walker was county executive and as the Republican was in the thick of his run for governor.

The first John Doe resulted in six convictions, four of which had nothing to do with the original scope of the probe – theft from a county veterans fund. Walker’s staff first brought that  account discrepancy to the attention of the DA.

Chisholm, his assistants and the GAB developed a theory that merged express and issue advocacy in alleging that Walker’s campaign and the conservative groups engaged in illegal coordination. The theory was rejected by multiple courts, including the John Doe judge and, in July 2015, the state Supreme Court.

In the 4-2 opinion, the court said that Schmitz had engaged in a “perfect storm of wrongs” against citizens who did nothing wrong.

In the course of the probe, conservatives has their personal possessions seized in coordinated, predawn armed raids of their homes and offices. Prosecutors conducted a multi-year spying operation, grabbing up millions of documents through subpoenas of ISPs and other data providers. And they did it all under a gag order that forced targets and witnesses into secrecy on threat of hefty fines and jail times.

Late last year, Wisconsin Attorney General Brad Schimel agreed to investigate leaks to The Guardian. The 1,300-plus pages of cherry-picked information again fed on the prosecutors’ theme of some kind of criminal scheme perpetrated by Walker’s campaign and conservative allies. Schimel said he may open a grand jury to pursue the leaks.

Last week, the investigation led to the Supreme Court clerk’s office.

The Journal Sentinel reported that DOJ agents on Feb. 1 collected documents from the Ethics Commission.

“We plan to be over approximately 11 a.m. tomorrow morning to retrieve the materials as discussed,” then-Deputy Solicitor General Daniel Lennington wrote to top Ethics Commission officials on Jan. 31, according to emails released to the newspaper in an open records request.

A spokesman for the attorney general told Wisconsin Watchdog the office does not comment on ongoing investigations.

Greim said the fact that GAB could still have John Doe documents raises serious questions about the security of the documents seized in an unconstitutional investigation.

“Every person and every group that had personal, confidential information seized should receive back a copy of the record of what was seized,” said the attorney, whose Kansas City, Mo., firm represents conservative Eric O’Keefe and the Wisconsin Club for Growth. “People should be able to know what of their personal information is at risk.”

Read Wisconsin Watchdog’s series, Wisconsin’s Secret War here

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