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Social Security whistleblower waiting for answers in privacy breach case

Fri, 02/24/2017 - 15:08
Part 56 of 56 in the series Deadly Delays

MADISON, Wis. – The investigation into an alleged breach of a Social Security Administration employee’s private records appears to be going nowhere fast, even as another probe found wide-ranging misconduct in a Madison SSA office.

The employee, a whistleblower at the SSA’s Office of Disability Adjudication and Review, told Wisconsin Watchdog that a federal investigation of the alleged records violations is “still in process.”

PRIVACY PROBE: A Social Security Administration whistleblower claims an employee compromised her personal information in retaliation for her going to the press with allegations of misconduct.

She said she also was told by an attorney for SSA’s Office of the Inspector General that the individual who had accessed her records without her consent “might have resigned.”

The whistleblower, who asked to remain anonymous for fear of retaliation, said she doesn’t know what to believe. But she said she is growing increasingly concerned that, again, the scandal-plagued federal agency is not taking complaints of misconduct seriously.

“I’m very upset and troubled by all of this. There is my medical records, everything is there, exposed. It’s supposed to be private,” the ODAR employee said.  “They keep telling me they are taking it seriously, but I don’t think they are.”

In November, the source filed a complaint alleging her Veterans Affairs records had been compromised and made public to fellow ODAR employees.

The source, who had previously brought to light other allegations of misconduct inside the Wisconsin ODAR office, said another employee in the office obtained her VA records – including military service, medical and other personal information.

She said the co-worker got the records from a friend who works in the VA system.

“He was bragging about it and discussing it with a group of (staff members),” said the employee, who learned of the alleged records breach from sources close to the situation.

The co-worker allegedly was upset that the whistleblower was quoted in Watchdog.org’s investigative series about widespread allegations of misconduct and retaliation at ODAR facilities. She said the co-worker relayed information that he could have known only by reading the personal file.

The whistleblower contacted the VA’s privacy officer and was told the agency would follow up with an IT investigation to determine who accessed the whistleblower’s records without her consent.

RELATED: Social Security whistleblower says ‘everything has been compromised’

On Jan 3, following an investigation that was supposed to take 10 days, a VA official informed the whistleblower in a letter that the “results of the fact finding were inconclusive and we were unable to substantiate the allegation that a VA employee disclosed your military service time to an unauthorized party.”

The extent of the “fact finding” involved interviewing staff members at the VA office in question, effectively asking them whether they sent the private information without consent, according to the whistleblower.

She asked whether the “fact finders” had tracked the email and interviewed witnesses to the security breach. She was told the VA did not have the jurisdiction and referred her to the SSA’s Office of the Inspector General.

The whistleblower said she was recently told by a Social Security Administration attorney that the OIG’s investigation is ongoing and that while she could not verify it, “the person who had accessed my records without my consent might have resigned.”

A call to the inspector general’s office was not returned Friday.

An SSA spokesman repeatedly has declined to comment on personnel matters.

“I have only had contact with an attorney in the SSA/OIG office. I have not been interviewed by an investigator, and I have no knowledge of an investigator even being assigned to investigate my complaint,” the whistleblower wrote to U.S. Sen. Tammy Baldwin’s office.

Until recently, Baldwin staff members had been serving as an intermediary in the matter. The whistleblower said Baldwin aides have in recent days stopped returning her calls. As Wisconsin Watchdog reported earlier this week, Baldwin has left the Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs, which last June opened an inquiry into allegations of corruption and retaliation at Social Security Administration offices in Madison and Milwaukee.

The ODAR whistleblower said the slow pace of the investigation is particularly frustrating because she provided investigators with the email address of the Social Security Administration employee alleged to have received the unauthorized records, and has given OIG the names of multiple witnesses.

The inspector general’s office this week posted a summary of its findings in a lengthy investigation into the troubled Madison Office of Disability Adjudication and Review.

Not much information has been released about the OIG’s reported probe into the Milwaukee ODAR regarding serious allegations of due process violations and whistleblower retaliation.

Ronald Klym, a 16-year employee with the Milwaukee Office of Disability Adjudication and Review, in May went public with records showing a massive backlog of disability claims cases in Milwaukee.

Records showed cases from Green Bay, the Upper Peninsula of Michigan and other smaller communities in the Milwaukee ODAR coverage area had waiting times longer than 650 days.

Dozens of cases on appeal took more than 700 days to complete. One Green Bay case clocked in at 862 days to dispose of. A Marquette request for benefits hit 1,064 days, and another was completed in 1,126 days.

In the first story in Wisconsin Watchdog’s multi-part series Deadly Delays, Klym said things got rough for him at the office after he alerted senior officials and, later, lawmakers about a litany of conduct and due process issues at ODAR

“Absolutely. I am being punished because I am a whistleblower,” said Klym, who alleged harassment, additional work assignments and unreasonable deadlines.

Things got rougher two and a half months later when the agency fired Klym. He continues to wait for his appeal hearing, which repeatedly has been delayed.

Inspector General releases major findings of probe into troubled Social Security office

Thu, 02/23/2017 - 22:47
Part 55 of 55 in the series Deadly Delays

MADISON, Wis. – Federal investigators have posted online the summary of their probe into a scandal-plagued Madison Social Security hearing office.

INVESTIGATIVE FINDINGS: The SSA’s Office of the Inspector General has officially released a summary of its investigation into allegations of misconduct and retaliation at the Madison Office of Disability Adjudication and Review.

There’s not much in the brief report that Wisconsin Watchdog hasn’t previously reported.

What remains unanswered is why federal prosecutors declined to bring charges for what appears to be criminal conduct.

While the Social Security Administration’s Office of the Inspector General  found violations of the law, the U.S. attorney’s office for the Western District of Wisconsin has inexplicably declined prosecution. The U.S. attorney’s office has not returned requests for comment.

The summary, posted at the OIG website, breaks down the major findings of the investigation.

Investigators determined:

  • 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.
  • 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.

Federal investigators examined sexual harassment and other misconduct allegations against Administrative Law Judge John Pleuss.

Pleuss in his notes to legal assistants described claimants as “attractive,” “innocent-looking,” “buxom.” In one case, he noted a “young, white (woman)”appearing before him “looks like a man.”

“Obese, young, white (female) skimpy black top,” he wrote of another claimant.

“Very black, African looking (female),” the judge wrote, and parenthetically he added,“(actually a gorilla-like appearance).”

Pleuss retired at the end of the year, still eligible for a pension and a suite of federal benefits.

The Inspector General has yet to comment on the investigation. Full reports are not publicly available because they “contain sensitive confidential information,” OIG notes in its summary.

That the investigation found “no evidence of any systemic biases in written decisions involving protected groups” raises some questions.

Decisions on Social Security disability claims are written by ODAR attorneys in the office, not the judge. Could the judge’s comments bias the decision writers?

Some attorneys representing disability claimants have sought appeals of Pleuss’ cases.

As Wisconsin Watchdog reported last week, an OIG “fact sheet” on the investigation noted Hodorowicz used official leave and sick leave to gamble at an area casino, while a group supervisor got paid a full day’s wage to watch Green Bay Packer’s football game.

An OIG report sent to U.S. Sen. Ron Johnson, R-Oshkosh, noted that whistleblowers in the Madison ODAR hearing office experienced adverse treatment after making whistleblower disclosures. 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,” according to a letter Johnson sent to SSA Acting Commissioner Nancy Berryhill. 

The senator, chairman of the Senate committee that has opened an inquiry into allegations of corruption and retaliation at the Madison ODAR, is giving the agency until 5 p.m. Monday to provide documents requested by the committee.

Social Security Administration officials repeatedly have declined to comment on personnel matters.

The Office of the Special Counsel has an open investigation into whistleblower allegations. OIG sent its report to OSC for “legal determinations related to reprisal and prohibited personnel practices.”

“Prosecution was declined,” the Inspector General stated. “We sent our report to SSA officials for their determination of administrative actions.”

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

Thu, 02/23/2017 - 14:47

Waukesha, Wis.  – Secretary of Transportation David Ross has a big task in front of him to restore the credibility of the Wisconsin  Department of Transportation, and he knows it.

In his testimony to the state Legislature’s Joint Audit Committee on Tuesday, 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.

Transportation Secretary Dave Ross (Left) and Governor Scott Walker. Ross testified Tuesday on the need to restore credibility to the state DOT.

“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 I39/90 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.”

The audit, released in January, found the DOT did not fully account for the cost of inflation for projects between 2006 and 2015. Between inflation and other additional costs, 16 ongoing major highway projects increased from an estimated $2.7 billion to approximately $5.8 billion, more than double the original estimate.

The Legislative Audit Bureau recommended to the Legislature that DOT provide regular updates on the costs of major projects, including the original estimated cost so legislators can see the size of the cost overruns. The estimates need to include all the costs associated with the major road project.

Because the DOT did not share project cost information sufficiently with the Legislature before the audit, the DOT took on more road projects than it could reasonably complete with the available funding.

As a step toward rebuilding legislators’ confidence, Ross says he is committed to implementing all of the Legislative Audit Bureau’s recommendations for changes at the state Department of Transportation,

“This is critical,” Ross told the committee. “We must work to restore the public’s faith and trust in our ability to manage resources, deliver a safe and effective and efficient program.”

The testimony on the audit comes during a tense early budget fight over transportation funding. Gov. Scott Walker is opposed to any increases in gas taxes or vehicle registration fees to fill a projected shortfall of nearly $1 billion. Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, R-Rochester, has threatened to delay the state budget until October if there’s not a long-term increase in funding for transportation, reversing his previous opposition to increases in the gas tax.

Republican legislators who are divided over the future funding needs of the state DOT were also divided in their reactions to Ross’ testimony and the audit report.

Committee member, state Rep. John Nygren, R-Marinette, told Ross that even with reform proposals and audit cost-savings recommendations, the state is still facing a transportation fund shortfall.

“How are you, how are your changes in management going to get us from, moving (away) from, a high percentage of roads that are poor or worse?” Nygren asked Ross. “How are we going to change that trajectory?”

While Nygren supported prioritizing road projects, he said prioritizing means delays.

“But if these projects are going to be done, the question is will they cost more based on management changes that you’re going to implement?” Nygren asked. “That’s information that we need, not only this committee but Joint Finance, as we put a transportation budget together.”

DOT Deputy Secretary Bob Seitz disputed that prioritization necessarily will force delays.

“For instance, we’ve seen projects where the department has proposed tearing up perfectly good concrete or asphalt to do projects,” Seitz said. “And so, the timing on those things, or with a given treatment or an overlay or something, you could find a cost-effective solution that extends the life of that roadway and keeps it in good shape.”

SEE RELATED: Lawmakers: Fix DOT failures with more taxpayer money

Ross also cautioned legislators that numbers about the projected transportation shortfall may not be accurate.

“When you get a number that’s been badgered about what the shortfall would be you have to take into account that projects put into this, projects that were put in, how to say this nicely, is that should they have been in there in the first place?” Ross said. “Which is added to that, ‘shortfall’ going forward.”

Ross cited the example of the Madison beltline interchange reconstruction, saying the pavement has a 50-year life span, is only 20 years old, but is slated to be torn up and the interchange redesigned.

“So now we have that $550 million project sitting in that queue to replace the BIC interchange, which we may have higher priorities somewhere else in the state,” Ross said.

State Sen. Chris Kapenga, R-Delafield, said that with the new DOT administration that the Legislature would be wise to hold off giving the DOT more money. He said that the governor’s transportation budget proposal is livable through this budget cycle.

“But what it does, if we take it as it is or very close, it allows us to give your department a couple of years to get your arms around all of the issues that we’re talking about here,” Kapenga said. “Because the reality is it literally will be impossible for you to take the elephant of DOT and change its direction in two to three months.”

SEE RELATED: Transportation wish list could hike gas taxes 28 cents per gallon, memo finds

At the end of the hearing, the Joint Audit Committee voted unanimously to introduce a bill written by the committee  co-chairs state Rep. Samantha Kerkman, R-Salem, and state Sen. Robert Cowles, R-Green Bay, to implement the audit’s legislative recommendations. Committee members from both sides of the aisle hoped the bill, after some changes, would be considered by the Legislature before the state budget is passed.

Brett Healy, president of the John K. MacIver Institute for Public Policy,  a Madison-based free-market think tank, said that while it’s good the committee is moving quickly to put into law the audit’s recommendations, taxpayers still need more answers on how their money is being spent.

“Before the push for a gas tax or registration fee increase heats up during the upcoming budget deliberations, taxpayers deserve to know that their hard-earned money is being properly managed and used efficiently,” Healy said. “Right now, this audit shows that their money is being wasted and that the unelected bureaucrats are in charge, not the taxpayers.”

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

Thu, 02/23/2017 - 11:38

MADISON, Wis. — Still fighting for his speech and contractual rights two years after Marquette University drove him out of the classroom, Professor John McAdams will receive a top national academic freedom prize Friday at the Conservative Political Action Conference in National Harbor, Maryland.

McAdams will be awarded the Jeane Jordan Kirkpatrick Award for Academic Freedom for his outspoken criticism of political correctness on college campuses.

FIGHTING ON: Suspended Marquette University Political Science Professor John McAdams has been out of the classroom since November 2014. He is suing the university, claiming Marquette violated his contractual rights to academic freedom.

“Professor McAdams is a fearless defender of free speech and open inquiry, and a martyr to political correctness,” said Richard Graber, president and CEO of the Lynde and Harry Bradley Foundation, which supports the Kirkpatrick Award. “His dismissal from Marquette University flies in the face of the traditions of academic freedom.”

The award carries a $10,000 stipend and honors the memory of Jeane Jordan Kirkpatrick, a former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations “who was known for her outspokenness in hostile environments, her clarity and determination in the midst of oppression, and her fierce dedication to American ideals and academic freedom,” according to a statement.

Marquette administrators suspended McAdams for a November 2014 commentary the nationally recognized political science professor wrote on his blog, Marquette Warrior. The post 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 at the Catholic university, saying such beliefs would be perceived as homophobic.

The student, unnamed in the lawsuit, recorded the conversation and gave it to McAdams, who posted a transcript of the conversation and linked to Abbate’s personal webpage.

The university moved to fire McAdams after the blog post went viral and Abbate received disturbing email. Abbate left Marquette shortly afterward to begin a doctoral program at the University of Colorado at Boulder.

McAdams appealed to a faculty committee, saying the academic freedom embedded 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. In its decision, the panel acknowledged McAdams’ academic freedom rights and his constitutional right to free speech.

But Marquette President Michael Lovell added three additional requirements to be met before McAdams can be reinstated. The requirements, listed in a January 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.

McAdams effectively told Lovell and his political correctness police to go pound sand. He sued.

The litigation is playing out in a Milwaukee County court, as McAdams remains exiled from the classroom.

Earlier this month, Judge David Hansher considered competing motions for summary judgment. If he does not grant either side’s motion, the case will be tried before a jury starting June 19. Whatever the ruling, Harsher said he expects his written decision to be appealed.

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

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 continues to be suspended, but not fired, and is unable to access the funds in his retirement account.

McAdams has said that no financial offer could induce him to drop his lawsuit seeking reinstatement.

“It really is a matter of principle. I’m not going to let the bastards get rid of me,” McAdams said in an interview last month.

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.

Founded in 1985, The Lynde and Harry Bradley Foundation is devoted to strengthening American democratic capitalism and the institutions, principles and values that sustain and nurture it. Its programs support limited, competent government; a dynamic marketplace for economic, intellectual and cultural activity; and a vigorous defense, at home and abroad, of American ideas and institutions, according to the foundation’s website.

Tammy Baldwin quietly leaves VA investigative oversight committee

Wed, 02/22/2017 - 12:37

MADISON, Wis. – After all the photo-ops and press releases during her very public tenure on the committee charged with investigating alleged abuses at the Department of Veterans Affairs, U.S. Sen. Tammy Baldwin has quietly stepped aside.

WHERE’S TAMMY? U.S. Sen. Tammy Baldwin at a Senate hearing. The Wisconsin Democrat has, without comment, left the committee charged with investigating alleged abuses in the VA.

The Madison Democrat who made every effort to appear out front of an opioid prescription scandal at the Tomah VA Medical Center – after she was accused of sitting on whistleblower information – has, without comment, left the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee.

In December, Baldwin’s office sent out a press release announcing that she would continue to serve on the Appropriations and Health, Education, Labor and Pensions committees. Baldwin also noted that she would join the Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation, considered a plum assignment.

“I am proud to continue serving on Senate Appropriations and HELP Committees and I look forward to joining the Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee,” the senator said. “Working on behalf of the people of Wisconsin on these committees will provide me with a great opportunity to continue focusing on issues important to our state.”

Nowhere in the statement does Baldwin mention her departure from Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs, nor does she note her work on behalf of veterans’ issues.

She has been silent about the matter since.

Republicans have taken notice of Baldwin’s quiet departure.

“Senator Baldwin’s decision to run from her failures rather than stand up for Wisconsin’s veterans is shameful,” Alec Zimmerman, spokesman for the Republican Party of Wisconsin, said in an email. “Instead of fighting for reforms to the system by participating in the ongoing oversight of the Tomah VA by the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, she has embraced the Washington status quo and fled her responsibilities to solve the problem.”

Republicans see Baldwin, a first-term senator viewed as one of the more liberal lawmakers in Washington, as vulnerable in her 2018 re-election bid.

Baldwin’s office did not return Wisconsin Watchdog’s request for comment Tuesday or Wednesday.

Sources say Baldwin could have continued to serve on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs, chaired by Wisconsin senior Sen. Ron Johnson, R-Oshkosh. Instead, she chose to move to the more prestigious — and powerful — Commerce panel.

Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs was extremely active in the last session. In May, it published a comprehensive report on the “Systemic Failures and Preventable Tragedies of the Tomah VA Medical Center” that described a “culture of fear” at the government-run veterans’ health care complex. Tomah was referred to as “Candyland” by whistleblowers and veterans for its opioid prescription practices. Alleged painkiller prescription abuses occurred under the direction of Dr. David Houlihan, the medical center’s director, who became known pejoratively as the “candy man.”

RELATED: Insiders say Tomah VA troubles continue with nurse shortage, neglectful care

Multiple federal investigations raised myriad concerns about the medical center’s health care delivery and its climate of retaliation and intimidation alleged by whistleblowers.

Marine veteran Jason Simcakoski, 35, died from a toxic mix of more than a dozen drugs at the VA facility in August 2014. Two years later, his family filed a wrongful death and medical malpractice lawsuit against the U.S. government.

Baldwin would go on to author the Jason Simcakoski Memorial Opioid Safety Act , which was enacted as part of a broader measure in July 2016.

The Simcakoski family praised the senator for her work on the bill, and Baldwin widely promoted her efforts.

“I’m proud to have worked with the Simcakoski family to introduce these bipartisan VA reforms,” Baldwin said in a statement last year after House passage. “My goal is to enact these meaningful reforms to prevent Jason’s tragedy from happening to other veterans and their families.”

But the legislation arrived after Baldwin was accused of sitting on reports that showed dangerous problems inside the Tomah medical center.

She was the only member of Congress from Wisconsin to have received an inspector general’s report detailing the abuses at Tomah. She took no action until the scandal became public four months later.

Other lawmakers and staff, including aides to Johnson, were alerted to some of the abuses long before the IG report but failed to take direct action, according to investigative reports. Baldwin, however, had access to the report and multiple whistleblowers had reached out to the senator’s office for help.

When the story heated up in early 2015, Baldwin blamed a staffer and then fired her. The senator was accused of a cover-up. The staffer, Marquette Baylor, was offered a severance package – with a gag order. The report raised questions about the possible misuse of taxpayer funds.

Baldwin survived a Senate ethics investigation when the Select Committee on Ethics in October 2015 dismissed multiple complaints, ruling that they lacked merit.

“Nothing can change the fact that Senator Baldwin failed to act when she had reason to believe Wisconsin’s veterans were in danger,” the GOP’s Zimmerman said

Oconomowoc schools marketer caught consulting on taxpayer dime resigns

Wed, 02/22/2017 - 08:08

OCONOMOWOC, Wis. – Following a two-month investigation, Kate Winckler, the Oconomowoc marketing director found to have done consulting work for another school district on the taxpayer dime, has handed in her resignation. 

CLOSED TO THE PUBLIC: Notice posted outside of Tuesday night’s special meeting of the Oconomowoc school board. The board met in closed session to discuss accepting the resignation of Communications Director Kate Winckler.

“The Oconomowoc Area School District announces that Kate Winckler has resigned from her position as director of Communication and Marketing,” Oconomowoc Superintendent Roger Rindo said in a written statement Tuesday evening after a closed-door special meeting.

Wisconsin’s open meetings law allows government bodies to meet without the public present when considering, “dismissal, demotion, licensing or discipline of any public employee.”

At the time of her resignation, Winckler was on paid administrative leave while being investigated for her consulting work for the Cambridge School District. The investigation began after an open records request by Wisconsin Watchdog uncovered that Winckler had sent more than 40 emails and doing work for Cambridge during the Oconomowoc district’s normal business hours.

For example, at 8:25 a.m. Oct. 7, Winckler responded to a request from Mary Kay Raether, a Cambridge schools employee, to check the design of “business cards” to be handed out at Homecoming events. After Winckler said she liked the design, Raether emailed again about an hour later to ask if the cards were “too busy.” At 1:07 p.m., Winckler agreed and offered to make changes. At 3:28 p.m., Winckler sent the revised cards back to Raether for approval.

When her consulting activities were first reported, Winckler said the Cambridge school district was her only outside client.

“I did my best to keep the work confined to evenings, weekends, and the occasional lunch break during the day when I could answer an email or take a phone call,” Winckler said in a statement December.

Winckler, under the company name School Creatives, signed an agreement with the Cambridge district to provide public relations expertise in advance of its Nov. 8 spending referendum, including the creation and editing of promotional materials. The Cambridge district paid her $1,572.50 for the work. Winckler earned $75,378 annually in her position with the Oconomowoc district.

SEE RELATED: Oconomowoc schools comms director placed on paid administrative leave

In Wisconsin, school districts can ask voters to exceed state-imposed revenue caps designed to keep property taxes down. The Cambridge referendum asked for an additional $1.6 million annually. It was approved with 65 percent of the vote.

While Winckler was consulting for the Cambridge school district, the Oconomowoc school district also was also going to referendum to ask voters to approve $54.9 million in borrowing for new construction and school renovations. That referendum was approved 55 percent to 45 percent.

Winckler’s resignation was effective as of Feb. 15, according to Rindo’s statement. Communications and Marketing employee Jenni Holland will take over as the district communications director. Winckler was not at the school board meeting and did not respond to an email request for comment.

Insiders: Tomah VA troubles continue with nurse shortage, neglectful care

Tue, 02/21/2017 - 17:11
Part 45 of 44 in the series Tomah VA Scandal

MADISON, Wis. – In a mostly positive profile in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel last week, Victoria Brahm laid out the achievements to date and the challenges facing the Veterans Affairs Medical Center in Tomah.

Brahm, who last month was officially named medical center director of the government-run hospital and clinics, offered a can-do attitude about mending the scandal-plagued medical center.

AT THE HELM: Victoria Brahm recently took over as director of the VA Medical Center in Tomah. While she insists the troubled facility is turning a corner, insiders say serious problems continue to plague the hospital.

“I’m an open book and I think I can turn this place around,” Brahm said. “And it needs work. This is our opportunity. This is it. We have to change this culture, all the way.”

But insiders say the government-run medical complex described as “Candyland” for opioid prescription practices that left veterans drugged out of their minds is a long way from changed.

RELATED: Opinions differ on whether it’s ‘meet the new boss, same as the old boss’ at Tomah VA

An employee at the VA facility tells Wisconsin Watchdog that while he has seen some areas of improvement, the “culture of fear” described in a Senate committee report last year in many ways remains unchanged.

“(Brahm) keeps saying she is not going to tolerate bullying and retaliation, but I received a phone call today from a person getting bullied by a manager,” the staffer said.

Leadership puts on a good front for the cameras, the source said, but when the reporters and the lawmakers go away, management continues to be evasive and punitive.

Management continues to lower evaluations for staff members who voice concerns about safety matters, the insider said. Brahm, the source claims, is “actively giving bonuses” to some of the same managers who continue to use retaliatory measures to silence staff members who bring issues to light.

More troubling, according to sources, is continued staffing shortages in key areas.

One source says management has made a “conscious choice to understaff” a medical unit.

“There have been times where a shift scheduled went totally through that did not have a registered nurse assigned,” the VA employee said.

While licensed practical nurses and certified nursing assistants staff the unit, they are not allowed by law to assess health conditions and coordinate patient care plans.

“We still have huge nurse turnover because leadership still is bad here,” the source said.

Some patients and their families claim patient neglect is a problem at Tomah.

The family member of a longer-term patient described a unit where one veteran was rolled out to drool on a towel for much of the day.

“It takes a while for that kind of phlegm to build up,” said the source, who asked not to be identified because of concerns for her and her father’s safety. “(The veteran) had to have been there from the time he woke up until 2 that afternoon.”

A VA official did not return a request for comment by publication of this article.

NURSING SHORTAGE? Sources say the Tomah VA Medical Center continues to have problems hiring nursing staff because of its reputation as a retaliatory workplace.

Tomah VAMC employees have told Wisconsin Watchdog that prescription drug abuse remains a problem.

“While this has changed some ways drugs are processed, the problem with over-prescribing and veterans’ abuse of medication still lingers,” a source who works at the hospital told Wisconsin Watchdog in December. The source asked not to be identified for fear of retaliation.

“We have many veterans who lash out at the pharmacy and pharmacist and technicians who see the dispensing practices as insane,” the source added.

But internal data obtained by Wisconsin Watchdog suggests the medical center has made considerable improvement since early 2015, when investigative reports first surfaced about the facility’s opioid abuses and what a Senate committee report would describe as a “culture of fear.”

The report snapshot released by the Tomah VA hospital found:

  • A 48 percent reduction in the amount of veterans receiving both opioids and benzodiazepines, the class of highly addictive sedative and muscle relaxant drugs.
  • A 49 percent decline in the number of veterans receiving greater than 100 morphine equivalent milligram daily dosages.
  • A 73 percent drop in the number of vets receiving greater than 400 morphine equivalent milligram dosages.

The Tomah VA Medical Center’s alarming opioid over-prescription practices led to the August 2014 death of 35-year-old veteran Marine Jason Simcakoski, according to multiple federal investigations into the hospital.

Dr. David Houlihan, the facility’s chief of staff, was fired in late 2015 following investigative reports and whistleblower accounts of painkiller addiction abuse and retaliation against employees who dared bring the problems to light. Last month, a state board stripped Houlihan of his medical license and declared the physician, referred to as the “candy man,” ineligible to practice medicine in Wisconsin.

Brahm told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel she was frustrated that her concerns about Houlihan didn’t lead to his dismissal earlier.

“There wasn’t enough solid evidence to say, ‘He really is going to kill someone.’ That wasn’t strong enough for me to say, ‘I’m calling the press,'” she told the publication.

But that seems to be a different account then testimony by Brahm’s boss.

In a sworn deposition released last year, VA regional office Network Director Renee Oshinski, said that before the Tomah scandal broke, Brahm had received significant evidence of opiate abuse. Brahm, who was the regional office’s nurse executive at the time, determined that there was no truth to the reports, according to the deposition.

“I was astounded that they were all unsubstantiated,” Oshinski told investigators from the Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs, as reported in the Daily Caller. “With the number of things here, I would have thought there would have been some partially substantiated or whatever. I mean, just based on the number, that it’s not a normal response that we would have.”

Myriad federal investigations and media accounts have since proved valid the whistleblower reports of abuse inside the medical center.

“An ongoing look at Dr. Houlihan’s prescribing practices” was “something that Vicki Brahm and Donna Leslie (VISN 12 Pharmacy Executive), were involved in” as part of their duties in the regional office, Oshinski said in the deposition.

Oshinski said Houlihan and Brahm worked closely on hospital matters.

“Dr. Houlihan would choose to call (Then-VISN 12 Network Director) Dr. Murawsky [the regional office’s director] or Vicki Brahm,” she said under oath.

In January, Oshinski was “pleased to announce” that Brahm was officially selected as director of the Tomah VA hospital, removing the “acting” medical center director title Brahm had held since Novmber 2015.


VA drug problems

Drug problems persist in the VA health care chain, according to a report this week by The Associated Press.

DRUG TROUBLES: Federal investigators are looking more closely at just where prescription drugs are going in the VA health care system.

Federal authorities have increased their probes into the Department of Veterans Affairs medical centers following a sharp rise in opioid thefts, missing prescriptions or unauthorized drug use by VA employees since 2009, according to government data obtained by The AP.

“Doctors, nurses or pharmacy staff at federal hospitals — the vast majority within the VA system — siphoned away controlled substances for their own use or street sales, or drugs intended for patients simply disappeared,” the investigation notes.

“Aggravating the problem is that some VA hospitals have been lax in tracking drug supplies. Congressional auditors said spot checks found four VA hospitals skipped monthly inspections of drug stocks or missed other requirements. Investigators said that signals problems for VA’s entire network of more than 160 medical centers and 1,000 clinics, coming after auditor warnings about lax oversight dating back to at least 2009,” according to AP.

Walker, Schimel jump feet first into SCOTUS battle

Tue, 02/21/2017 - 16:17

MADISON, Wis. – Gov. Scott Walker will join a network of press conferences Wednesday calling on Senate Democrats to give Supreme Court nominee Neil Gorsuch an up-or-down vote and “restore the Supreme Court to full membership.”

COURTING POLITICS: President Donald Trump’s Supreme Court nominee Neil Gorsuch is expected to get some help Wednesday from Republican big guns Gov. Scott Walker and Wisconsin Attorney General Brad Schimel. The conservatives are calling on Senate Democrats to give Gorsuch an up-or-down vote.

The joint press events in 11 states, sponsored by the conservative Judicial Crisis Network, forces a question steeped in conflict for those on the left and the right.

Walker will join fellow Republican and Wisconsin Attorney General Brad Schimel, as well as Kurt Bauer, president of Wisconsin Manufacturers and Commerce, and Rick Esenberg, president of the Wisconsin Institute for Law & Liberty, for the 2:45 p.m. press conference at the State Capitol.

These are interesting times, and even more interesting positions.

After the left went apoplectic on conservatives’ “Let the People Decide” movement that had Republicans refusing President Barack Obama’s Supreme Court nominee, Merrick Garland, the same left-wing players are paying back President Donald Trump’s nominee.

Sen. Tammy Baldwin has been caught in the hypocrisy cross-hairs, almost immediately declaring she would vote against Gorsuch, then advising that she would offer the nominee “fair consideration,” only to reiterate that she would not vote for him but support a filibuster against his nomination.

The Madison Democrat made a federal case out of her Republican colleagues insisting that no Obama nominee in an election year should come up for a Senate hearing. Garland, Obama’s pick to replace conservative Justice Antonin Scalia, who died suddenly more than a year ago, did not get a vote.

Walker has called out Baldwin in recent tweets.

“Hypocrisy: telling others to meet with #SCOTUS nominee in 2016, but announcing your vote on nominee in 2017 before meeting,” the governor tweeted earlier this month.

Baldwin fired back: “Is @ScottWalker trying to impress @POTUS with his tweets or does he want to run against me? I’m ready.”

The liberal did have what she described as a “respectful and thoughtful conversation” with Gorsuch, but emerged reiterating she would “not support a Supreme Court nominee who has too often favored big business over workers and retirees.”

The what-a-difference-a-nominee-makes position of conservatives is not lost on the left. Republicans sound aghast that Democrats would move to stall a vote on Gorsuch after doing exactly the same thing throughout 2016 – even as liberals chanted and harangued and hashtagged Republican senators to “#DoYourJob” in giving Garland a vote.

Carrie Severino, chief counsel and policy director of the Judicial Crisis Network, said the Democrats’ threat to filibuster is like comparing apples to oranges. She said last year’s delay by Republicans was entirely a result of it being an election year. Ans she noted the election year stall wasn’t something Senate Republican leadership invented, but a point originally raised by then-Sen. Joe Biden, D-Del., during President George H.W. Bush’s term.

“It’s a different thing to say, ‘Let’s wait until after the election,’ as opposed to saying, ‘We don’t like this president so let’s block 100 percent of what they are doing.’ That is a very different proposition,” Severino said. She asserts that had Hillary Clinton been elected, her nominee would have gone through the Senate confirmation process without much delay.

Perhaps. We’ll never know.

What we do know is this: Conservatives saw in Garland a potentially dangerous high court justice whose judicial track record is just a fraction to the right of uber-liberal Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, as liberals see Gorsuch as left only of ultra-conservative Justice Clarence Thomas.

So the brinkmanship rolls on, as do the irony and hypocrisy.

The only difference is the left’s stall tactics probably will mean little in the end. If Senate Republicans want Gorsuch, Gorsuch they shall have. They’ve got the numbers and they have the “nuclear option” – thanks to the precedent established by Democrats for federal appellate court nominees – that would do away with the needed 60 votes for cloture on Supreme Court nominees.

Democrats didn’t count on Trump winning in November. Now that he has, it’s his move. More so, it’s the Republican-led Senate’s move.

Severino expects Gorsuch to be the next Supreme Court justice; it’s only a matter of how it happens.

“And that’s up to the Senate Democrats,” she said, adding that it will come down to whether Democrats place politics over principle — precisely the same argument Democrats made about Republicans in 2016.

Still, much remains to be done – on both sides – in the politics surrounding the Supreme Court battle.

The Judicial Crisis Network in January rolled out a national campaign to confirm Trump’s Supreme Court nominee. Pleased with its “Let the People Decide” campaign in the Garland nomination showdown, the nonprofit is engaging in a “comprehensive campaign of paid advertising, earned media, research, grassroots activity, and a coalition enterprise, all adding up to the most robust operation in the history of confirmation battles.”

In short, JCN and its allies are targeting states where Senate Democrats are vulnerable in 2018, like Wisconsin and Tammy Baldwin. The group says it will spend at least $10 million to “confirm the next justice.”

The goal, said Severino, is to create “the most robust campaign for a Supreme Court nominee in history and we will force vulnerable senators up for re-election in 2018 like Joe Donnelly and Claire McCaskill to decide between keeping their Senate seats or following Chuck Schumer’s liberal, obstructionist agenda.”

Taxpayers required to pick up tab for educating illegal immigrant students

Fri, 02/17/2017 - 16:41

MADISON, Wis. – The Middleton-Cross Plains Area School District recently sent an email to families assuring that its schools are “safe places that embrace all students and families, regardless of citizenship and national origin.”

Several school districts across the state have communicated the same, that “all students, regardless of immigration status,” are entitled to a free public education.

UNDOCUMENTED EDUCATION: Students of illegal immigrants are entitled to a free public education in accordance with a 1982 Supreme Court ruling.

Some taxpayers are voicing their concerns about the “free” education to students whose families have broken the nation’s immigration laws.

“What (the school district) is doing is urging illegals to attend school,” a Middleton-Cross Plains school district resident, who identified himself as Dick, told Wisconsin Watchdog on Wednesday on the Dan Conry Show, on NewsTalk 1310 WIBA. “It’s my taxpayer money.”

“If the school administration wants to have illegal aliens attending school at taxpayers’ expense, hey, take it out of your salary, Mr. Superintendent, and the teachers who want this sort of thing. … The law says they should not be here.”

The district’s superintendent did not return calls seeking comment on the communication.

But one court decision has been the guiding force on educating illegal immigrants in the United States for 35 years, and as it remains, taxpayers having to pick up the tab for illegal immigrant students is the law.

The 1982 U.S Supreme Court case Plyler v. Doe held that children of illegal immigrants have a constitutional right to attend public elementary and secondary school for free.

“[The National Education Association] opposes any immigration policy that denies human and/or civil rights or educational opportunities to immigrants and their children regardless of their immigration status,” asserts the teachers union in a 36-page booklet co-published by the National School Boards Association.

“Legal Issues for School Districts Related to the Education of Undocumented Children,” as the guide is called, points to Plyler in addressing common questions about school districts and the rights of undocumented students.

The Supreme Court ruled that Texas violated the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment by denying undocumented school-age children a free public education.

“Reasoning that such children are in this country through no fault of their own, the Court concluded that they are entitled to the same K-12 education that the state provides to children who are citizens or legal residents,” the NEA/NASB handbook notes.

RELATED: Sensenbrenner bill aims to build Mexico border wall with drug cartel money

But what about the hardship placed on school districts and their property taxpayers? What about the rising costs and strain on school resources?

These are not hardships, according to the court ruling.

“The Court in Plyler concluded that for the state to deny undocumented children access to a free public education, the state must demonstrate that doing so serves a ‘substantial goal,” according to the NEA publication.

It rejected the argument that restricting undocumented student enrollment would protect the state from an influx of illegal immigrants, and would relieve the state of the added, unique costs of educating undocumented children, thus retaining resources for children who are citizens or legal residents.

SUPREME DECISION: Plyler v. Doe declared that denying the children of illegal immigrants access to a public education could doom them to live within a “permanent caste of undocumented resident aliens.”

A public school education, according the court decision, inculcates “fundamental values necessary to the maintenance of a democratic political system” and “provides the basic tools by which individuals might lead economically productive lives.” The ruling stressed that denying the children of illegal immigrants access to a public education could doom them to live within a “permanent caste of undocumented resident aliens.”

In essence, the court declared that the cost of not educating undocumented children is higher than the cost to taxpayers to do so.

But the added education costs amid rising illegal immigrant numbers in the United States cannot be dismissed.

A Pew Research Center report found that, between 1995 and 2012, the percentage of K-12 students with at least one undocumented immigrant parent rose from 3.2 percent to 6.9 percent. The number was 13.2 percent in California, and 17.7 percent in Nevada.

While a definitive tracking of the costs is difficult, the Federation for American Immigration Reform estimated that the states would spend a combined $761.4 million in 2014-15 to educate the unaccompanied illegal immigrant minors from the year’s border crisis. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services reported than more than 37,000 of the undocumented children were released to relatives and other sponsors between January and July 31 2014. FAIR’s numbers are based on the HHS count.

Wisconsin taxpayers paid nearly $1.18 million in additional costs to educate the undocumented students who came in with families from the border crisis, according to FAIR estimates. New York taxpayers had the biggest bill, $147.7 million, according to the estimates.

In 1996, a bill in Congress would have allowed states to deny education benefits to certain illegal immigrants or charge them tuition. After a veto threat by President Bill Clinton, the legislation died.

In 2014, then-U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder and Education Secretary Arne Duncan issued new guidance to public schools, demanding that they freely accept documents from illegal parents and end practices of requiring proof of a child’s immigration status.

“Public school districts have an obligation to enroll students regardless of immigration status and without discrimination on the basis of race, color, or national origin,’ Holder said in a statement in May 2014. Holder said the DOJ would do “everything it can” to force schools meet their obligations under the law.

With the pitched battles over President Donald Trump’s immigration policies and fears over federal immigration raids and arrests of illegal immigrants accused or convicted of various crimes, advocates for illegal immigrants have warned that children could be ripped away from their families or dragged out of schools.

Ira Mehlman, spokesman for FAIR, said these are days of extreme hyperbole. He said the Middleton-Cross Plains school district is doing what so many others across the country are doing: ratcheting up fear without evidence to support their claims.

“What these districts are engaged in is grandstanding,” Mehlman said. “Nobody is anticipating immigration officials are going to bust down schoolhouse doors and arrest kids in fourth grade. There is no reason to believe that’s going to happen.”

Mehlman said what is going on now is the kind of law enforcement that should have been going on for a long time.

While opponents may not like immigration laws and policy, the law needs to be upheld, Mehlman said.

But the immigration expert said the law also applies to the 1982 Supreme Court decision, and he doesn’t foresee the basic tenets of that case being challenged anytime soon.

“What we should be doing is preventing and discouraging people (illegal immigrants) from coming here in the first place,” Mehlman said. “If we were doing that, we wouldn’t be dealing with the consequences on schools or emergency rooms. The schoolhouse door is not where to deal with illegal immigration.”

Immigration enforcement advocates say law enforcement needs to first and foremost target businesses that routinely skirt the law in hiring illegals to cheaply fill their workforce. And he likes Trump’s order going after local “sanctuary” governments that refuse to cooperate with federal immigration law enforcement.

The Dane County Chiefs of Police Association recently sent out a notice to “reassure people who live, work, attend school, drive through or visit our communities that Law Enforcement Officers do not routinely ask people they are in contact with what their immigration status is.”

“Law Enforcement Officers in Dane County do not detain or arrest people solely for suspected violations of immigration laws,” the letter states.

“Being practitioners of Community Policing, we realize the chilling effect that the threat of deportation has on people of the immigrant community. We want all people to feel comfortable working with the police, reporting crimes, being witnesses and otherwise participating in everyday activities in our communities.

“We are aware that recent events have spread fear and uncertainty to our refugee and immigrant community and it is our intent by releasing this statement to reassure everyone that the right to receive services from Dane County Law Enforcement is not dependent on their immigration status,” the letter concludes.

Not everyone is happy with that stance.

“You have taken an oath to uphold the law. You should follow it or else you should not be a police officer,” Dick, the Middleton Cross-Plains school district resident said.

Sensenbrenner bill aims to build Mexico border wall with drug cartel money

Thu, 02/16/2017 - 16:31

MADISON, Wis. — A Wisconsin congressman has introduced a bill that could finance the construction of a wall on the U.S.-Mexico border with money seized from Mexican drug cartels.

WALL MONEY: U.S. Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner, R-Menomonee Falls, has introduced a bill that would pay for border security using Mexico drug cartel money.

U.S. Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner’s the Build Up Illegal Line Defenses With Assets Lawfully Lifted (BUILD WALL) Act of 2017 would require the U.S. attorney general to issue a detailed report on the amount of annual profits Mexican cartels bring into the U.S. The report would focus on how the DOJ can “increase assets seized by such cartels.”

The BUILD WALL Act would use money forfeited from drug traffickers to fund increased security on the border. Sensenbrenner, a Menomonee Falls Republican, said the proceeds could be used to build the wall that President Donald Trump promised on the campaign trail, or another physical barrier or technology-supported solution.

Mexican drug cartels rake in an estimated $19 billion to $29 billion annually in illegal drug sales in the United States. 

Sensenbrenner said the funding would ease the financial burden on taxpayers. He also asserts the legislation would help build stronger relations between the United States and Mexico while fighting back against drug trafficking.

“Border security is imperative for a safe, prosperous nation and lawmakers must take a serious approach to solving the issues of illegal immigration and drug trafficking,” the congressman said in a press release. “If we do nothing, we put the people of this nation at risk, as well as allow illegal immigrants to take away jobs, opportunities, and social funding from U.S. citizens — all at the expense of the American taxpayer.

In January, before Trump’s inauguration, Republicans in Congress began discussions on financing a barrier on the U.S. southern border.

The lawmakers plan to use authority outlined in a 2006 law endorsed by Republicans and Democrats. The law required 700 miles of “reinforced fencing” and surveillance systems billed as a “virtual fence.”

“Several high-profile Democrats, including then-Sen. Barack Obama and current Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer, voted for the Secure Fence Act,” the Washington Post reported in early January.

Amid heated conversations about immigration policy, Sensenbrenner said Republican lawmakers on Capitol Hill are looking for solutions to protect the U.S. southern border while being “conscientious of taxpayers’ money.”

“The BUILD WALL Act is a creative solution to a complex problem and I encourage my colleagues to support it,” Sensenbrenner said.

Report: Social Security managers gambled, watched Packers at Lambeau on taxpayer dime

Wed, 02/15/2017 - 16:20
Part 55 of 54 in the series Deadly Delays

MADISON, Wis. – The director of a scandal-plagued Social Security Administration hearing office used official leave and sick leave to gamble at an area casino, while a group supervisor got paid a full day’s wage to watch a Green Bay Packers football game.

TIME FRAUD: A federal investigation into a Madison Social Security Administration office found the hearing office director used sick leave to gamble at an area casino and another supervisor watched a Green Bay Packers game on the clock, according to a letter from Sen. Ron Johnson.

These are just some of the many details about troubling conduct emerging from a report on a federal investigation into the Madison Office of Disability Adjudication and Review.

And Sen. Ron Johnson wants answers quickly from the SSA.

The Oshkosh Republican, who serves as chairman of the Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs, sent a letter this week to SSA Acting Commissioner Nancy Berryhill seeking a response to the findings of misconduct and allegations of whistleblower retaliation at the troubled office.

Johnson is giving the agency until 5 p.m. on Feb. 27 to provide the documents the Senate committee is requesting.

“An Office of Inspector General investigation found serious problems, including time and attendance fraud, and showed that two whistleblowers in the office experienced disparate treatment from other workers,” Johnson wrote. “I request information about how SSA will address these problems.”

As the senator noted, while OIG investigators found violations of the law, the U.S. attorney’s office for the Western District of Wisconsin has inexplicably declined prosecution. The U.S. attorney’s office did not return a call Wednesday seeking comment.

As Wisconsin Watchdog first reported earlier this month in its series Deadly Delays, SSA’s Office of the Inspector General “fact sheet” states the law was broken at the Madison ODAR facility and that managers held whistleblowers to significantly stricter standards than other staff.

Johnson expounds further on the OIG report, which was sent to the Social Security Administration on Jan. 30, and then presented to the U.S. attorney, according to the senator. The report has not yet been made public.

“The OIG report substantiated time and attendance fraud by employees in the Madison ODAR hearing office,” the senator wrote. “One employee documented that he worked a regular eight-hour day … when he actually attended a Green Bay Packers football game at Lambeau Field in Green Bay, Wisconsin.”

OIG investigators found that the employee, identified as former Madison ODAR group supervisor Wayne Gentz according to multiple sources close to the situation, “violated federal law, federal regulations, and the Standards of Ethical Conduct for Employees of the Executive Branch.”

Former Hearing Office Director Laura Hodorowicz “used official and sick leave to gamble at an area casino,” Johnson wrote. “The OIG found this conduct violated federal law and federal regulations.”

Hodorowicz, accused of leading a “culture of corruption and cover-up” at the Madison office, was removed from the office and relieved of her management duties in August amid the OIG investigation. Sources say Hodorowicz remains employed with the Social Security Administration.

Gentz, too, was removed from the office and his position. He also remains on the agency payroll, sources say.

RELATED: Read Wisconsin Watchdog’s series, “Deadly Delays,” examining misconduct allegations at the Social Security Administration’s ODAR

“Time and attendance abuses by the HOD (Hearing Office Director) and the GS (Group Supervisor) violated both law and regulations and set a tone for the office that misconduct by certain employees will be tolerated and, in some instances, encouraged,” states an investigation “fact sheet,” obtained by Wisconsin Watchdog.

In June, an ODAR insider who spoke on condition of anonymity said Hodorowicz has long been fond of making “dirty backroom deals,” offering  “cooperative” employees perks in the form of financial benefits and special privileges to maintain their loyalty and above all — silence — about misconduct in the office.

Eventually, the office director ran out of sweeteners, the source said.

“When that happens, the threats begin. … She will threaten people’s jobs, tell them she won’t promote them, lower their performance reviews, say that she will give them a bad reference,” the insider said. “She will give them the worst work assignments in the office.”

Multiple employees say the office director has been the subject of several investigations into her conduct in Madison, and when she held the same position in Milwaukee. Each time, they say, her cadre of loyalists testify on her behalf. And, sources say, they are rewarded for their loyalty.

The insider said Hodorowicz has taken nepotism to a new level. She hired the adult children of Bill Allen, an ODAR employee who refused to testify against her in a hostile work environment claim, according to the staff member with inside information. Office records also confirm the hirings. Following an Equal Employment Opportunity Commission complaint, the supervisor’ son, Jason Allen, provided testimony helpful to Hodorowicz’s cause; Hodorowicz then hired Jason Allen’s wife, the source said. And Hodorowicz hired the daughter of a close friend. Gentz’s wife  also was brought in to do administrative work.

“She hired those people in violation of hiring rules. Rather than hiring disabled veterans or other qualified applicants, (Hodorowicz) manipulated the hiring rules to hire employee family members as rewards,” the source said.

The inspector general report detailed evidence of hiring misconduct. It found that Hodorowicz “manipulated the hiring process on multiple occasions so that she could hire specific individuals, including the family members of current employees,” according to Johnson’s letter.

“The office director also attempted to dissuade applicants from applying to vacancies in favor of hiring family members,” Johnson stated. The OIG concluded the conduct “may have violated merit system principles” in federal law.

Federal investigators examined sexual harassment and other misconduct allegations against Administrative Law Judge John Pleuss. The OIG substantiated that Pleuss used “inappropriate, racist and sexist language in his hearing notes and writing instructions,” Johnson wrote.

‘ADVERSE TREATMENT’: The federal report finds whistleblowers at the Madison office were held to higher standards than other employees.

While the inappropriate language was widely known throughout the office for several years, it was not addressed until after Wisconsin Watchdog published some of Pleuss’ notes and writing instructions in June, according to the letter. Investigators apparently have found no “overt” racial or sexist bias in the administrative law judge’s decisions, an allegation leveled against Pleuss early on.

Pleuss in his notes to legal assistants described claimants as “attractive,” “innocent-looking,” “buxom.” In one case, he noted a “young, white (woman)”appearing before him “looks like a man.”

“Obese, young, white (female) skimpy black top,” he wrote of another claimant.

“Very black, African looking (female),” the judge wrote, and parenthetically he added,“(actually a gorilla-like appearance).”

Pleuss retired at the end of the year, still eligible for a pension and a suite of federal benefits.

The OIG report also noted that to whistleblowers in the Madison ODAR hearing office experienced adverse treatment after making whistleblower disclosures. 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,” according to Johnson’s letter.

“SSA must take appropriate steps to address the violations of federal law and regulations found by the OIG,” Johnson wrote.

The senator is asking the Social Security Administration to explain:

  1. What steps SSA will take to address time and attendance fraud in the Madison ODAR hearing office.
  2. What steps SSA will take to address inappropriate hiring practices in the Madison ODAR hearing office.
  3. What steps SSA will take to ensure that inappropriate racial or sexual language is no longer used in hearing notes and writing instructions.
  4. Why the two whistleblowers identified by the OIG were held to “strict interpretations of all agency policies” while other employees were not.
  5. What steps SSA will take to ensure that whistleblowers are protected from retaliation.
  6. Provide SSA’s written policies for preserving federal records, in particular written material used in the decision-making process for disability adjudications.

Social Security Administration officials repeatedly have declined to comment on personnel matters.

U.S. Sen. Tammy Baldwin earlier this month sent a letter to Berryhill, urging the new administrator to “take appropriate action to ensure the hearing office in Madison and each of the Social Security Administration offices in Wisconsin are safe places to work for employees and provide high-quality service to taxpayers.”

Senator wants an audit of federal funding, obligations in state programs

Wed, 02/15/2017 - 13:13

MADISON, Wis. – A conservative lawmaker wants an audit conducted of all state programs that use federal funds — and the ultimate costs federal obligations place on state and local freedom.

State Sen. David Craig  sent a letter Tuesday to the Joint Legislative Audit Committee requesting it direct the Legislative Audit Bureau to conduct a “comprehensive audit of all state programs which receive or utilize federal funds.”

HOW MUCH? State Sen. Dave Craig is asking for a state audit to track federal cash in state agencies and programs — and the ultimate cost to taxpayers and liberty.

The Town of Vernon Republican wants a review of the “federal requirements, regulations, and restrictions which bind the usage of those (federal) funds and tie the hands of our state government officials, local officials, and limits the freedom of our constituents.”

Craig asks the audit bureau to consider:

  • The cost of compliance and freedom lost by the state agency and local officials due to regulation.
  • The estimated savings that could be realized should a regulation be lifted or lessened.
  • The cost of compliance and loss of freedom born by the citizens of the state as a result of the regulation.

A Tax Foundation review found that in fiscal year 2013 a combined 30 percent of state revenues nationally were derived from federal grants-in-aid. That included everything from federal Medicaid payments and education funding assistance to cash for infrastructure projects and housing grants.

RELATED: Wisconsin could lead effort to restore states’ rights

The study found federal grants-in-aid to state and local governments reached $600 billion per year.

“How much states receive in federal aid, and how reliant they are on such assistance, can vary widely,” the Tax Foundation noted in its study.

Mississippi topped the dependency list in fiscal year 2013, deriving nearly 43 percent of its revenue from federal assistance. Louisiana was next at 41.9 percent, followed by Tennessee (39.5 percent).

Wisconsin ranked 36th in the nation, with 27.7 percent of revenue coming from federal sources, according to the Tax Foundation.

North Dakota was least dependent, at 19 percent, followed by Hawaii (21.5 percent), and Alaska (22.4 percent).

Such dependency creates obligations that can be costly for state and local governments, particularly in funding areas such as transportation and health care. In essence, the federal government demands that state and local governments follow costly rules and procedures or risk losing a portion or all of the federal dollars.

“As part of the on-going efforts to return powers and flexibilities back to the states though our (legislative) Federalism Committee, I am seeking additional information to identify the areas which would lift the burden of federal government regulations and mandates so the committee can craft reforms which will bring efficiency to our state government and liberty our citizens,” Craig wrote in the letter to state Sen. Robert Cowles, R-Green Bay, and Rep. Samantha Kerkman, R-Salem, co-chairs of the Joint Audit Committee.

For too long, Craig wrote, the federal government has “seized powers reserved for the states” under the Ninth and Tenth amendments to the Constitution.

“An endeavor of the Senate Committee on Financial Services, Constitution & Federalism is to assist our state in returning these powers to our state and our citizens,” the senator wrote.

DPI wants to create ESSA plan before involving Legislature in rule-making process

Tue, 02/14/2017 - 21:35

WAUKESHA, Wis. – Two limited government groups are warning the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction that it must involve the Legislature in writing the rules for the state plan for the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) before it is sent to the federal government.

In a letter to State Superintendent for Public Instruction Tony Evers, the Wisconsin Institute for Law & Liberty and Wisconsin Manufacturers and Commerce  warn that if DPI insists on creating the state ESSA plan first, the agency “could expose the State of Wisconsin to litigation and jeopardize hundreds of millions of dollars in federal funds for children attending Wisconsin’s schools.” 

The process for creating the state ESSA plan, according to WILL and WMC, requires the creation of “a statement of scope,” establishing the rules for the plan that would have to be approved by the legislature before ESSA can be sent to the feds.

CART AHEAD OF THE HORSE?: The state Legislature will be consulted, according to DPI, but legislative approval of the rules will wait until after the state ESSA plan is created.

“The process you are using is not the process that is required by state law,” the letter from WILL and WMC says. “Policymaking is done by the state legislature.”

The letter adds that DPI is evading the necessary oversight from the legislature.

“That is problematic not only because it is yet another example of administrative overreach but because of the legal difficulties it creates for the people of Wisconsin in the future under ESSA,” the letter states.

ESSA is the federal replacement for the No Child Left Behind Act. Unlike No Child Left Behind, ESSA requires states to create report cards for the schools and come up with plans for dealing with failing schools, but leaves the policymaking to the states. In exchange for federal funds, states must develop a “state plan” and submit the plan to the U.S. Department of Education by Sept. 18, 2017.

At a state Assembly Committee on Education public hearing, State Rep. Ron Tusler, R-Harrison, asked DPI officials about the requirement that a statement of scope would have to be created.

Jennifer Kammerud, DPI’s Policy Initiatives adviser, said the Legislature will have to know what the plan will look like before the rules can be created.

“At a certain point, if there’s a feeling among all of us that there needs to be rules around something, then we should have that conversation,” Kammerud said, “But, no, right now there is no scope statement around this.”

DPI Senior Policy Adviser Jeff Pertl said typically there isn’t a statement of scope around state plans from state agencies.

“We certainly got the letter from WILL,” Pertl said.”We are certainly aware of that question. That has not been the practice historically.”

“Generally what happens is if an issue, to your point, is a mandatory requirement that is not currently placed in federal law, or in the state law, then there would need to be a change in law or a scope statement,” Pertl said.

CJ Szafir, WILL’s vice president of policy, disagreed. He said the rule-making process must take place before the ESSA plan is sent to the federal government.

“As we have been saying for weeks, the legislature is well within their legal and constitutional rights to force Evers to work closer with the legislature in making decisions for ESSA,” Szafir said in a statement Monday. “I’m glad that the DPI, reluctantly, agreed with us on this point.”  

“But, as our letter with WMC indicated, DPI will have to go through the rule-making process in making decisions pertaining to ESSA,” Szafir said. “This will require legislative review of parts of the state plan. So, one way or another, the state legislature will have their say.”

“This issue is too important to play political games,” Szafir added.

When contacted for a comment on the rule-making controversy, Assembly Education Committee Chairman Jeremy Thiesfeldt‘s office said the lawmaker is consulting with the Wisconsin Legislative Council on the issue. “We are waiting on their thoughts before proceeding with any other opinions,” Thiesfeldt’s office said in an email.

ESSA AFTER NO CHILD LEFT BEHIND: The law is similar to NCLB, but it leaves policy-making to the states. Government watchers say the Legislature should have a very active role in the creation of the ESSA plan.

Earlier in the hearing, Kammerud told legislators that DPI is ready to start writing the state’s ESSA plan.

“And we are looking and hoping and asking the chairman if we can come back every time you meet,” Kammerud said, “so that we can work with you and update you and stay involved with you in this process.”

Kammerud said that built into the process is a review period for the public, the governor and the Legislature.

“We put the legislative piece on there as a placeholder,” Kammerud said. “But I want you to know that we see that as a continual piece, not just a point-in-time piece.”

Later in her testimony before the committee, Kammerud said she hoped that DPI would have a state plan for ESSA in May, as the Legislature works through the 2017-19 budget process.

“And then, being able to make changes, working with you through all of May, June, July to make changes based on our interactions and evolving process is critical,” she said.

In order to give the governor 30 days to review the plan, Kammerud said it would have to be submitted to him by August. Afterward, DPI would make additional changes before submitting the plan to the U.S. Department of Education.

SEE RELATED: Policy memo accuses Evers of acting unilaterally on ESSA

State Rep. Adam Neylon serves on the ESSA Stakeholders Council, a group of more than 30 members from different education interest groups and legislators advising DPI on the implementation of ESSA in Wisconsin. Neylon said he does not believe DPI has been working closely enough with the Legislature on ESSA.

“I am not satisfied at this point with how much the Legislature has been a part of the process,” Neylon told Wisconsin Watchdog Tuesday. “At the same time, I think that DPI has taken steps to expand engagement with the Legislature.”

Pointing to the three months the Legislature will have to review the plan before it is submitted to the governor, Neylon said he’s optimistic lawmakers would have time to work on changes.

“But I don’t think we should wait, sit back on our heels until the plan is developed and review it,” Neylon said. “I think we need to be actively engaged.”

Conservatives: Walker’s budget plan is anything but ‘liberal’

Tue, 02/14/2017 - 17:10

MADISON, Wis. – Liberals and the mainstream media have called Republican Gov. Scott Walker a lot of things over his two and a half terms in office.

Now the Wisconsin left’s Public Enemy No. 1 is being described with a pejorative that no conservative could easily abide: Walker is suddenly a “liberal.”

Or at least his budget proposal is.

CONSERVATIVELY CONFIDENT: Of the many names the left has called Gov. Scott Walker, ‘liberal’ isn’t one of them. At least until now. Conservative budget watchers say an AP headline declaring Walker’s budget “surprisingly liberal” is an odd descriptor for a budget replete with so many conservative initiatives.

How low can the left go?

An Associated Press story last week, headlined “Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker proposes surprisingly liberal budget,” noted the 2017-19 spending plan “includes a huge boost in funding for schools, sizable cuts for college students and increased tax breaks for the working poor.”

While budget hawks aren’t thrilled with some of the spending increases included in the $76.098 billion biennial budget, no one is about to confuse Walker with California left-winger Gov. Jerry Brown, or Walker’s liberal colleague to the more immediate west, Minnesota Gov. Mark Dayton.

Brett Healy, president of the MacIver Institute, a Madison-based free-market think tank, said there’s a lot for conservatives to like in Walker’s budget proposal. Not the least of which is nearly $600 million in tax and fee relief, including the elimination of the state portion of the property tax levy.

“Think about it. When is the last time a politician proposed eliminating a tax? It just never happens,” Healy told Wisconsin Watchdog on Monday on the Vicki McKenna Show, on NewsTalk 1130 WISN in Milwaukee.

“The biggest concern when you are a conservative in the Legislature is, if you start a new tax or fee, it’s never going to go away,” Healy added. “Here we have a situation where Gov. Walker has actually stepped up and he proposes eliminating the forestry tax on everyone’s property tax bill. That’s huge.”

To accomplish this tax exorcism, Walker’s plan provides more than $180 million in fiscal years 2017-18 and 2018-19 to ensure continued state funding for forestry programs covered by local property taxpayers. The administration says the state forestry account in the conservation fund will be unaffected through this “tax relief action.”

“This tax, which had gone up each time a property’s value increased, will no longer be imposed on Wisconsin property owners,” states a Department of Administration budget analysis.

RELATED: Walker budget plan boasts tax cuts, reserve concerns

Eric Bott, Wisconsin state director of Americans for Prosperity and Americans for Prosperity Foundation, said Walker’s latest budget plan again sets the pace in limiting the size and scope of government.

The proposal calls for phasing out the prevailing wage mandate for state-funded construction projects. Prevailing wage, a Great Depression-era relic that artificially fixes wages based on trade and geographical location of the state, can substantially increase costs for government construction projects. Bott calls it “protectionism at its worst.” Unions and their Democratic allies fought ferociously to keep prevailing wage reform at bay in the last session. They failed. Walker wants to go deeper this time.

The budget also includes some of the strongest welfare reform initiatives in the nation.

Bott is especially excited about the inclusion of a state version of the REINS Act in the Walker budget plan. The REINS (Regulations from the Executive in Need of Scrutiny) proposal would require state agencies to get legislative approval for any regulation with an economic impact at certain thresholds.

Rep. Adam Neylon, R-Pewaukee, and Sen. Devin Lemahieu, R-Oostburg, earlier this year reintroduced a similar bill that would hold the economic impact threshold at $10 million.

“If there is a compliance estimate above $10 million, then I’m very comfortable throwing a wrench into it, grinding it to a halt, and forcing the legislature to then approve it,” Neylon told Wisconsin Watchdog. “Because that is the best way to hold people accountable, to let their elected officials be the ones to decide on big spending items.”

Bott said Wisconsin would be among the first states to adopt a REINS Act. There is similar legislation pending in Congress.

Healy said that behind the scenes MacIver is hearing from budget hawks concerned about the spending increases, particularly the nearly $650 million marked for K-12 public education.

“I think going forward that will certainly be something the Legislature looks at, if they want to dial back spending in certain areas,” he said. “That certainly would make this strong budget even stronger.”

To Walker’s credit, Bott said, the governor “isn’t just throwing money at problems.” He’s specifically delineating dollars for priorities. That includes approximately $55 million for rural schools districts, $25 million in local transportation aid, and funding for STEM education that works hand-in-hand with Walker’s expectation that the University of Wisconsin System better-prepare students for the demands of the new economy.

“If you’re part of the government and you want to be part of the solution, great. He’s going to provide the resources,” Bott said on the Vicki McKenna Show. Those that don’t want to be part of the solution, such as the Madison Metropolitan School District and its open rebellion against implementing state collective bargaining reforms, will lose out on the increased spending.

Some of the biggest budget battles are coming from inside the GOP. Walker has made it clear that he is not interested in tax increases, or “revenue enhancers” as some like to call them. That means no to a gas tax increase and vehicle registration fee hikes. Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, R-Rochester, and his leadership lieutenants in the Assembly have pushed gas tax and fee increases as potential solutions to transportation budget shortfalls. It is, at least for now, a rhetorical line in the sand.

Healy said that line is subject to change, and he predicts Vos will end up on the other side of it.

“Right now you have to bet that Gov. Walker is going to win that battle,” he said. “(Senate Majority Leader Scott) Fitzerald is on his side. When you have two of the three players in the Capitol on one side of the argument, generally they win out.”

The rhetoric so far has been pitched, with supporters of “revenue enhancers” attacking Walker’s budget for transportation borrowing and for not offering sustainable funding to keep several Wisconsin highway projects moving forward.

Bott notes that Walker has proposed $6.1 billion for the Department of Transportation, with the highest level of transportation general aids ever. While he agrees that there is too much borrowing in the transportation budget, Bott noted that bonding for highway construction is down 41 percent, the lowest level since the 2001-03 budget.

And a recent audit found waste and incompetence in the Wisconsin Department of Transportation to be incredibly costly to taxpayers. More than 400 DOT projects received only one bid, according to the review.

“And we know that when there’s no competition, it drives up the price dramatically,” Bott said.

Despite its spending increases, Bott said the Walker budget plan could be a “model budget” for the nation.

“The governor has laid out a vision with conservative victories,” Healy said. “Hopefully the Legislature, instead of being bogged down in gas tax and registration fee increases, can make some improvements to the governor’s budget and we can have this thing done in June.”

Kaine gets it wrong on school choice and Virginia’s past

Mon, 02/13/2017 - 15:09

Christian Schneider, a member of USA Today‘s Board of Contributors and a columnist for the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, took Virginia Sen. Tim Kaine to task for trying to tie school choice programs to his state’s sorry history of massive resistance to school desegregation.

“When African-American leaders like Howard Fuller and Wisconsin state Rep. Annette “Polly” Williams pushed for Milwaukee school choice in the late 1980s,” writes Schneider, “they weren’t white supremacists; they were trying to figure out how to deliver the best possible education to Milwaukee’s black children.”

Kaine might be unhappy about his recent loss as the Democratic vice presidential candidate, but that’s no excuse for smearing school choice, which presents opponents with “a particularly vexing PR problem: there’s no identifiable bad guy with suspect intentions. There’s no cigar-chomping oil baron intent on inflicting Republican-led damage on America. It’s just parents and kids wanting the same educational opportunities students have in better school districts.”

Read the whole thing here.

Walker budget plan boasts tax cuts, reserve concerns

Mon, 02/13/2017 - 11:55

MADISON, Wis. — Gov. Scott Walker’s “Reform Dividend” budget proposal pays back taxpayers with a bevy of tax cuts.

Overall tax relief in the biennial budget approaches $600 million.

TAX CUT BUDGET: Gov. Scott Walker’s budget plan provides nearly $600 million in tax and fee cuts, but it raises spending and reserve fund questions among budget watchers.

But the 2017-19 spending plan raises some serious “rainy day” concerns with a Wisconsin taxpayers advocate.

The Republican governor promises to hold the line again on property taxes. His budget plan does away with the state portion of the property tax levy, eliminating one source of ongoing property tax increases.

“This tax, which had gone up each time a property’s value increased, will no longer be imposed on Wisconsin property owners,” states a Department of Administration budget analysis.

To accomplish this tax exorcism, Walker’s plan provides more than $180 million in fiscal years 2017-18 and 2018-19 to ensure continued state funding for forestry programs covered by local property taxpayers. The administration says the state forestry account in the conservation fund will be unaffected through this “tax relief action.”

“Ending the state-levied property tax will save the median value homeowner approximately $27 per year in the near term and more in the future as home values increase,” the DOA document states.

Walker has pledged to keep property taxes below the previous year’s level during his two terms in office. His budget plan asserts it will accomplish that by increasing the state’s commitment to the School Levy Tax Credit by $87 million in fiscal year 2018-19 to pay for credit distributions in the 2017-18 property tax year. This, combined with an increase in school equalization aids of $72.75 million and continued controls on property tax levies, “will ensure the Governor’s promise of continued property tax relief is achieved,” the budget summary states.

The tax bill for the median value home in December 2018 is projected to be $139 lower than the December 2010 tax bill, according to Walker’s office.

Despite the sustained efforts to trim Wisconsin’s tax burden, the Badger State boasts one of the higher property taxes in the nation. In 2015, Wisconsin recorded the highest property taxes in the Midwest, with Milwaukee County claiming the 32nd highest property tax rate among all counties in the country, according to census data compiled by the Tax Foundation.

Walker’s budget plan calls for modest reductions in income taxes. The proposal would trim more than $104 million in the first fiscal year, and more than $99 million in the second. It does so by reducing, for all taxpayers, the tax imposed on the first $37,450 of taxable income for married-joint filers and the first $28,090 for single filers. That’s a projected savings of $69 in 2017 for a median income family of four, according to the Department of Administration.

PAYBACK: Gov. Scott Walker said now is not the time to raise taxes, as the state projects better-than-expected revenue. He said it’s time again to pay back taxpayers.

“This income tax reduction is part of a continuing trend to reduce the tax burden on Wisconsin residents and is the third income tax rate reduction since the enactment of the 2013-15 biennial budget bill,” the budget summary states.

By tax year 2018, the median-income family of four is projected to save $1,542 in overall tax reductions.

Democrats assert the Walker-led tax cuts have mostly benefited the wealthy. According to the budget summary, the reduction in tax liabilities for those with incomes greater than $100,000 has been 4.9 percent. For those with incomes below $50,000, the average reduction has been over 12 percent.

By tax year 2017, Walker boasts, the combined impact of the three income tax-rate reductions will amount to a total taxpayer savings of $545 million — with 53 percent of the tax relief delivered to taxpayers with incomes below $100,000.

“The Governor’s proposed tax reductions in this budget are especially aimed at the middle class, with almost 69 percent of the benefits going to those with incomes below $100,000,” the budget document states.

Walker says the state can deliver the tax cuts thanks to what he calls the “Reform Dividend,” a nod to the Republican-led government reforms like Act 10 that reportedly have saved local and state governments billions of dollars over the past five-plus years. Walker insists the reforms and a much-improved economy have led to better-than-expected revenue projections.

“At a time when we have significant new revenues, we need to lower the overall tax burden on the hard-working people of Wisconsin. Reinvesting in you — the taxpayers — will ensure that our economy continues to grow,” Walker said in this month’s budget address.

“So let me be clear. Now is not the time to raise taxes,” he said.

But it is apparently the time to spend significantly more in areas such as K-12 public education, a total of $11.5 billion over the coming two fiscal years. That’s a nearly $650 million increase in state aid.

Walker has received kudos from the likes of state Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Evers, while raising grave concerns from his fiscal hawk friends.

State Sen. David Craig, R-Town of Vernon, said he is encouraged by the nearly $600 million in tax and fee reductions contained in Walker’s plan, as well as the “substantive welfare reforms, the repeal of prevailing wage requirements for state projects, and regulatory relief like the REINS Act.”

“However, I am deeply concerned by the dramatic spending increases within the Governor’s budget which further expand government and increase the fiscal commitment of taxpayers going forward,” Craig said in a statement.

More worrisome to fiscal watchers is what’s left in reserve under the Walker budget proposal.

While the governor boasts that Wisconsin’s so-called “rainy day” fun is the largest in state history — 165 times bigger than when he took office — budget watchers say the projected ending position of the Walker budget plan doesn’t leave much of an umbrella.

The proposal projects $81.7 million in reserve in 2019, enough for about a day and a half of state operations, according to David Callender, communications director for the Wisconsin Taxpayers Alliance.

Wisconsin continues to rank at or near the bottom of states in reserve funds, according to WISTAX.

“Just a few miscalculations by a couple percentage points and we could end in the kind of sudden reductions or sudden revenue increases [taxes] we’ve seen in previous budgets,” Callender said. “We don’t want to see a pattern of the sort of boom and bust budgetary policies.”

Surprise: No protesters disrupted Shapiro event at Marquette

Fri, 02/10/2017 - 12:55

MILWAUKEE, Wis. — It’s a sign of how intolerant campus culture has become when the news about a controversial speaker visiting a college is that it occurred without protesters violently disrupting the event.

Over 400 people, many in a overflow lecture hall, watched as conservative pundit Ben Shapiro spoke and fielded respectful questions from a mostly student audience at Marquette University Wednesday night. The event, sponsored by the Marquette Young Americans for Freedom, occurred without incident or even a sign of protesters.

NO VIOLENCE HERE: Conservative commentator Ben Shapiro spoke at the Marquette University campus Wednesday night to over 400 people without any protesters on hand to disrupt the event.

It was quite the contrast to Shapiro’s November appearance at the University of Wisconsin – Madison, during which 20 protesters interrupted Shapiro’s speech with chants of “Safety! Safety! Safety!” and “Shame! Shame! Shame!”

Shapiro, the editor-in-chief of DailyWire.com and the host of “The Ben Shapiro Show,” spoke for about twenty minutes and then answered questions from a line of liberals and conservatives that stretched the length of the lecture hall.

Despite the lack of protests, not everyone at the event was respectful of Shapiro’s right to free speech. Chrissy Nelson, a program assistant with Marquette University’s Center for Gender and Sexualities Studies, encouraged people in a Facebook post to register for the free tickets and then not show up, a tactic meant to deny students the chance to see Shapiro speak.

During his talk, Shapiro addressed the controversy, calling Nelson “a professional useless person.”

“She said she got that suggestion from one of the directors of diversity on campus as noted before,” Shapiro said. “A little ironic that the director of diversity wants to ensure that people can’t hear diverse points of view.”

The Facebook post has since been deleted, and Angelique Harris, the director of the center where Nelson is employed, said in an interview that Nelson is being reprimanded.

Marquette University is already facing national criticism for its suspension of Professor John McAdams, who wrote a blog post in 2014 criticizing Cheryl Abbate, then an instructor in the philosophy department, for telling a student he could not defend a position opposing same-sex marriage in her class. The suspension earned Marquette a ranking among the Ten Worst Universities for Free Speech, as determined by the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education.

McAdams has sued for reinstatement and is waiting for Milwaukee County Judge David Hansher to rule on a motion for summary judgment

Shapiro also addressed a letter by a campus feminist group that asked Marquette President Michael Lovell to cancel his speech. “Apparently some students are upset that I’ve been allowed to speak here during Black History Month,” Shapiro said. “I was unaware that only black people are allowed to speak during Black History Month. That seems, actually, a little racist to me.”

Reading from the letter, Shapiro would interject with biting comments, pointing to where they misstated his positions on issues. “Apparently the people who wrote this letter are not only stupid, they’re quasi-illiterate,” Shapiro said. “They didn’t bother to read anything I’ve ever written, which is always interesting.”

But Shapiro’s main message of the lecture was, “if you live in the United States, society is not victimizing you.”

“This is not to deny that there are individual racists and individual sexists and individual homophobes. Of course there are,” Shapiro said. “But if you live in the freest, most prosperous country on the face of the Earth in human history, you don’t get to complain about class victimization, because it isn’t true.”

RELATED: Marquette official who schemed to keep out Ben Shapiro event attendees being ‘reprimanded’

Using statistics and humor, Shapiro said racial minorities, homosexuals and women are not being victimized by society. Citing a study at Northwestern University, Shapiro said, “If you’re being told all the time that you’re a victim, that leads to lower grades, less academic motivation [and] less persistence when encountering an academic challenge.”

QUESTION AND ANSWER: Students respectfully lined up to ask questions of Ben Shapiro. A few posed for pictures or shook the speaker’s hand.

“When you tell people, falsely, that American society is out to get you, it turns out people give up,” Shapiro said. “If you want people not to give up, you have to say this: your life is in your own hands.”

After Shapiro finished, students were asked to line up to ask questions, with liberals encouraged to go to the front of the line. There were no angry outbursts or name-calling during the question-and-answer period, even from the liberal students asking questions. A number of conservative students took the opportunity to pose for a picture with Shapiro or shake his hand.

Taxpayers on the hook for Madison Women’s March

Thu, 02/09/2017 - 17:19

MADISON, Wis. — By all official accounts, last month’s Women’s March on Madison was a peaceful demonstration by a left-wing that has declared rhetorical war against Republican President Donald Trump and all they think he stands for.

But the march that drew an estimated 100,000 people to downtown Madison didn’t come free, and taxpayers of all political persuasions will be forced to pick up the tab.

Call it the price of protest.

NASTY WOMEN: Some of the tens of thousands of demonstrators that showed up for last month’s Women’s March on Madison.

While it’s hard to see the damage though a thin blanket of snow cover, the massive march on Jan. 21, the day after Trump’s inauguration, did a number on the Capitol grounds.

Portions of the lawn will have to be re-seeded at a quoted price of $2,280, according to the Wisconsin Department of Administration.

A DOA spokesman tells Wisconsin Watchdog that Capitol Police incurred $467.78 in overtime wages working the event, and the Wisconsin State Patrol paid out $318.28 in overtime costs.

City of Madison taxpayers may be left with a much bigger bill, although just how much remains to be seen.

Madison Police Department spokesman Joel DeSpain said it could be a month or more before the agency’s finance unit manager has all of the numbers tabulated. Officers who work such events — and liberal Madison has had plenty of them over the years — may take paid time off in lieu of their crowd-control services.

DeSpain said there were “a lot” of officers working on regular hours, but there would be additional costs for the department’s special events team.

“The biggest thing our officers did was block a couple of streets as the march moved up from the university (UW-Madison campus) to the Capitol,” he said.

As of Thursday afternoon, Wisconsin Watchdog had not received information from the city of Madison regarding ancillary costs, such as assistance from other emergency services and sanitation crews.

In the hours after the event, trash — from spent protest signs to fast food bags and wrappers — littered the streets and spilled out of downtown garbage receptacles.

SIGNS, SIGNS, EVERYWHERE, SIGNS: Spent signs from the Women’s March, left behind at the Wisconsin Capitol.

DeSpain and Capitol police officials did not report any arrests or citations during the demonstration.

Mainstream publications gleefully reported on the Madison march and others across the country, including what the New York Times described as a “kind of counterinauguration.”

“Rivaling the massive protests against Gov. Scott Walker’s Act 10 anti-union legislation in 2011, a crowd police estimated at between 75,000 and 100,000 people marched on the state Capitol on Saturday to voice concerns over rights and causes they fear will be endangered by Donald Trump’s presidency,” the Wisconsin State Journal reported.

“As they marched up State Street to the Capitol for the Women’s March on Madison, women, men and children held signs in support of women’s reproductive rights, public education and the scientific consensus of global climate change, among other causes.”

Wisconsin taxpayers have seen this movie before.

Nearly six years ago, tens of thousands of left-wing protesters descended on the state Capitol to demonstrate against Walker’s public sector collective bargaining reform initiative known as Act 10. For weeks, protesters camped out at the Capitol, doing an estimated $347,500 in damage.

The cost was significantly lower than the $7.5 million the Department of Administration first reported, but the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel’s Politifact team shrugged off the hundreds of thousands of dollars in damages as if the protesters had merely broken a lamp and a couple of beer mugs at an extended house party.

State Sen. Tom Tiffany, R-Hazelhurst, who was just weeks into his first term in the Legislature when the Act 10 demonstrations exploded, said the rest of the nation should be fully prepared to go through what Wisconsin endured in 2011 and 2012.

“What happened in Wisconsin six years ago is being writ large across the country,” Tiffany said.

State Sen. Dave Craig, R-Town of Vernon, said the recent damage done to the Capitol lawn underscores the need for fencing or other “demarcation alerting protesters to stay on the pavement in the interest of taxpayers.”

Demonstrators have often invoked the “people’s house” idea, that the Capitol and the institutions of government therein belong to the people of Wisconsin. True, Craig said, but the people’s house doesn’t exclusively belong to protesters. It belongs to everyone, including taxpayers who have grown tired of paying for seemingly perpetual demonstrations of duly elected representatives and policies and laws they don’t like.

“The state Capitol is a building of symbolic importance, and with that should come an elevated respect of all citizens of Wisconsin, that when they come to it they are coming to the seat of our part of the great American republic,” Craig said of the building which this year celebrates its centennial. “There is something to be said for the fact that the Capitol has endured for 100 years, but that has not come without a cost. It is the result of a lot of work from people, all of which has been funded by our taxpayers.”

VA secretary nominee faces little resistance, lots of challenges

Thu, 02/09/2017 - 14:27
Part 43 of 43 in the series Tomah VA Scandal

MADISON, Wis. – Unlike many of President Donald Trump’s other cabinet picks, David Shulkin’s nomination for VA secretary has been relatively smooth sailing.

‘WORTH SAVING’: VA secretary nominee David Shulkin stands on the verge of confirmation. Can he save the VA by keeping it intact?

The Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee this week unanimously approved Shulkin’s nomination, sending it to the full Senate.

But as the Washington Examiner has noted, Shulkin, the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs undersecretary of health, “faces the unique challenge of overhauling” a troubled health care system “he’s spent the past two years defending.”

Some whistleblowers, employees and veterans advocates have misgivings about naming an entrenched member of VA leadership to the top administrative spot. They continue to be concerned that the same people who allowed misconduct, dangerous medical practices and retaliation against whistleblowers at hospitals like the scandal-plagued  Tomah VA Medical Center are now being rewarded with promotions.

Tomah was the subject of congressional investigations for its opioid prescription policies that led to the death of a Marine veteran. Whistleblowers said they were retaliated against, and some patients who complained were treated terribly, according to multiple sources.

Last month, the VA tapped Victoria Brahm to lead the troubled Tomah VA Medical Center.

Brahm has served since October 2015 as acting director of the southwest Wisconsin hospital once described as “Candyland” for its practice of overprescribing painkillers.

A VA official said  in a deposition that Brahm had received significant evidence of opiate abuse before the abuses came to light in January 2015. Brahm, who was the regional office’s nurse executive at the time, determined that there was no truth to the reports, according to the deposition.

RELATED: Opinions differ on whether its ‘meet the new boss, same as the old boss,’ at Tomah VA

On Wednesday, U.S. Sen. Ron Johnson met with Shulkin. The Oshkosh Republican said he stressed his concerns about veterans’ care and whistleblower protections during the afternoon meeting with the nominee.

“The finest among us, our nation’s veterans, deserve the highest level of care,” Johnson said in a statement. “If Dr. Shulkin is confirmed, I will continue to use my position as Chairman of the Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs to ensure that veterans have access to the health services they need, irresponsible VA employees are held accountable and VA whistleblowers are protected.”

In May, Johnson’s committee released an exhaustive report on the “culture of fear” that contributed to the deaths and maltreatment of veterans at Tomah.

“The Systemic Failures and Preventable Tragedies at the Tomah VA Medication Center” lays out a long list of misconduct, abuse, and retaliation charges over several years, and nearly as many red flags that critics say, had they been heeded, could have saved lives.

Shulkin doesn’t see a department in need radical change or widespread firings, even as his would-be boss once described the VA as “the most corrupt” federal agency. The nominee has no interest in privatizing the VA’s single-payer health care system. 

“VA is a unique national resource that is worth saving, and I am committed to doing just that,” Shulkin said in prepared remarks obtained by Associated Press. “There will be far greater accountability, dramatically improved access, responsiveness and expanded care options, but the Department of Veterans Affairs will not be privatized under my watch.”

Gov. Scott Walker invokes ‘Reform Dividend’ in rolling out ambitious spending plan

Wed, 02/08/2017 - 18:55

MADISON, Wis. – Buoyed by better-than-expected revenue that he describes as the “Reform Dividend,” Gov. Scott Walker rolled out a biennial budget plan Wednesday that calls for significant increases in education spending, state-sponsored college tuition reductions, welfare reform and continued tax cuts.

While some fiscal conservatives expressed concerns about some of the governor’s spending initiatives, Republicans in the main warmly endorsed their party standard-bearer’s proposals.

YOUR MONEY: Gov. Scott Walker laid out his $76.1 billion biennial budget plan Wednesday before a joint session of the Legislature. The proposal calls for significant increases in k-12 education spending, a 5 percent tuition cut, and no gasoline tax increases.

Democrats, to no one’s surprise, railed against the budget blueprint, complaining that Walker’s plan to boost K-12 funding by nearly $649 million – state aid increases Dems have long clamored for – is nothing more than a political stunt as the governor eyes a third term in 2018.

“This budget includes historic investments in our priorities,” Walker said to a joint session of the Legislature. “We’re putting more money into public education than ever beforemaking college even more affordable, caring for the truly needy, building a stronger infrastructure, rewarding work, and cutting taxes to the lowest point in decades.”

The governor said such “historic investments” are possible because of “common sense,” and often hard-fought, government reforms led by Walker and the Republican majority since they swept into power in 2010.

According to the state Department of Revenue, Wisconsin ended the most recent fiscal year with a surplus of $331 million. That balance is estimated to grow to $427.2 million by the close of fiscal year 2016-17, a budget summary states.

“A lower than estimated increase in Medicaid enrollment due to a growing economy and higher than previously estimated revenue growth contribute to the higher estimated ending balances,” the budget document asserts.

The $76.098 billion biennial budget plan works out to about a 1 percent increase in 2016-17, and 3.2 percent in 2017-18, on an annualized basis, according to the Department of Administration.

But it’s enough of an increase, in particular targeted areas, to raise the eyebrows of some fiscal hawks and education reformers, and not nearly enough to placate Walker’s critics who have charged the Republican has gutted state spending in recent years.

Cutting tuition

COLLEGE COMMITMENT: The University of Wisconsin System would receive $100 million in additional funding Walker’s budget plan.

Among the proposal’s key provisions, a 5 percent reduction in tuition for undergraduates from Wisconsin at all University of Wisconsin campuses. That’s on top of recent tuition freezes called for by the governor and approved by the Legislature.

“During the decade before our freeze, tuition went up 118 percent,” Walker said. “If that trend had continued, a typical UW student would be paying $6,300 more over the past four years.”

To pay for the tuition cut, the governor puts $35 million more into the UW System budget, on top of the $100 million-plus in new state funding he is pitching. This comes a few years after accountant-lawmakers discovered the system was carrying hundreds of millions of dollars in surpluses, even while asking for more state funding.

Critics, stage left

Even before Walker fully rolled out the spending plan, Democrats chastised the budget proposal and their political Public Enemy No. 1.

State Sen. Lena Taylor, D-Milwaukee, in a joint political statement issued Wednesday morning, said Walker again is placing politics above good governance.

“I’ve been watching Scott Walker bungle budgets since he was Milwaukee County Executive,” said Taylor said. “He’s making the same irresponsible mistakes with the state that he made with the county.  Budgets are about priorities and Governor Walker’s priority is politics over solving Wisconsin’s long-term problems.”

State Rep. Katrina Shankland, who has become one of the Dems most strident political mouthpieces, took the left-wing party line that Walker’s latest budget was all about his expected run for a third term.

“After Governor Walker’s disastrous budgets, he is finally backtracking on some of his deep education cuts to preserve his poll numbers,” the Stevens Point Democrat said in the joint statement.

Still, $649 million in new education spending isn’t enough for Shankland and the Democratic Party of Wisconsin, which would very much like to see a Dem in the governor’s office come 2019.

Predicting the usual liberal spin cycle attacks, the Wisconsin Institute for Law & Liberty sent out a policy brief Tuesday countering what WILL assumed would be “predicable criticism” from opponents of education reform.

The Milwaukee-based free-market, public interest law firm and advocate of parental choice, billed its brief as “Back to the Future,” underscoring what it sees as the public education machine’s tired and often erroneous narrative about alternative education options.

WILL first had to counter the left’s PR agent, the Wisconsin mainstream media. The Wisconsin State Journal this week led its coverage of Walker’s education spending proposal with this assertion:

“Six years after engineering massive cuts to public schools, Gov. Scott Walker will propose a record level of K-12 education funding in his upcoming budget proposal.”

Strange bedfellows

As WILL points out, the Obama stimulus plan “temporarily inflated the amount of money Wisconsin spent on public schools. Once federal funding declined, Wisconsin faced cuts to K-12 spending.”

The Badger State in 2011 faced a massive budget shortfall, caused by declining state revenue, the drying up of federal stimulus money, and the expensive policies of Walker’s predecessor, Gov. Jim Doyle, and a Democrat-controlled Legislature.

Since 2012, Wisconsin has increased spending on K-12 public schools every year.

Still, as WILL notes, there is little evidence that increased spending on K-12 public schools leads to improved student outcomes. Case in point, Milwaukee Public Schools.

EVERS LIKES: Tony Evers, state superintendent of Public Instruction, has praised Walker’s budget proposal, which exceeds Evers recent funding request.

As Wisconsin Watchdog reported in November, of the 75,766 students in the district, more than half – 42,421 –are in schools rated as “fails to meet expectations” or “meets few expectations.” Forty-two schools serving 24,447 students are ranked as “fails to meet expectations.”

MPS boasts a $1.1 billion budget this school year. State aid increased by $7.8 million in the 2016–17 budget. The district’s revenue limit is $10,122 per student.

Walker’s ed-spending boost has earned him some unusual friends.

Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Evers praised the Republican governor for a budget plan that includes nearly $227 million more in state aid than the liberal education chief had requested. Evers, according to the Wisconsin State Journal, called Walker’s plan a “pro-kid budget” and “an important step forward.”

“Ironically, I don’t remember critics saying the budget request from the Department of Public Instruction wasn’t enough last fall – which is probably why school leaders are saying good things about our budget proposal,” Walker said, with a touch more lift in his voice, during his address.

Spending and cutting

The budget proposal calls for nearly $6.1 billion in transportation spending. Taking on critics from the left and in his own party, Walker said, “Now is not the time to raise taxes.”

“We should not raise taxes on farmers and manufacturers. We should not raise the income tax. We should not raise the gas tax,” the governor said, in a direct challenge to Republican leaders in particular who have called for hiking the state’s gasoline tax, one of the most costly in the nation.

Assembly Speaker Robin Vos told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel that the Assembly still wasn’t ruling out gas tax increases, vehicular registration hikes, and toll roads. In a statement, the Rochester Republican said the budget proposal is good, but it’s a “work in progress.”

“But it’s disappointing Governor Walker has forgotten that a long-term solution for transportation is a priority, too,” Vos said.

Walker’s budget plan would cut individual income taxes by a combined $200 million-plus over the biennium. The median-income family of four would save $1,542 in taxes by tax year 2018, including previous tax cuts in recent years, according to DOA.

State Sen. David Craig said he is encouraged by the nearly $600 million in tax and fee reductions contained in Walker’s plan, as well as the “substantive welfare reforms, the repeal of prevailing wage requirements for state projects, and regulatory relief like the REINS Act.”

“However, I am deeply concerned by the dramatic spending increases within the Governor’s budget which further expand government and increase the fiscal commitment of taxpayers going forward,” the Town of Vernon Republican said in a statement.

But Walker said after years of reforming government – through cost-saving laws like Act 10 – it is time to use the “Reform Dividend” to invest in the state’s priorities.

“Overall, our common sense reforms brought us here – to the point where we have a significantly better budget outlook,” the governor said. “Instead, now that we have higher than expected revenues from the Reform Dividend, we need to use those dollars to fund our priorities. That’s exactly what this budget does for the people of Wisconsin.”