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Does prosecutorial immunity trump justice in John Doe-related lawsuit?

Mon, 03/20/2017 - 17:16
Part 384 of 385 in the series Wisconsin's Secret War

MADISON, Wis. —  A Madison-based free-market think tank will appeal its lawsuit alleging prosecutors of Wisconsin’s unconstitutional John Doe II investigation illegally seized and held electronic communications.

SEIZED EMAILS: A federal judge ruled John Doe prosecutors acted properly in seizing electronic communications from a free-market think tank because a John Doe judge gave them permission to do so. But the John Doe judge is not a court in the usual sense, and the prosecutors violated federal law, argues the John K. MacIver Institute.

U.S. District Judge William Conley last week dismissed the John K. MacIver Institute’s lawsuit alleging that “John Doe ringleaders” violated the federal Stored Communications Act by seizing the organization’s digital records during the lengthy probe into dozens of right-of-center groups and other conservative individuals.

The Madison-based federal judge, an appointee of former President Barack Obama, ruled that investigators acted within the confines of the law in secretly obtaining search warrants from MacIver. Besides, the judge decided, prosecutors have qualified immunity against such federal lawsuits.

Ben Hurst, attorney for the conservative organization, told Wisconsin Watchdog last week on the Vicki McKenna Show that MacIver intends to seek review of Conley’s decision at the 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Chicago.

He said prosecutorial immunity does not apply in this case.

“And we also believe that, to the extent there is a question about qualified immunity, about whether there was reasonableness (with the prosecutors’ actions), we think it’s been clear under Wisconsin law for many decades that a John Doe judge is not a court and that a John Doe judge can’t issue the warrants that satisfy the requirements of federal law on Stored Communications,” Hurst said.

That’s what the controversy boils down to: Whether a John Doe judge has the authority to approve the kinds of warrants used by prosecutors to secretly tap into and seize the electronic communications of subjects or targets of their investigation.

The lawsuit alleges that Milwaukee County District Attorney John Chisholm, a Democrat, and his co-defendants violated the federal Stored Communications Act by “secretly requesting, obtaining, and cataloging millions of personal and politically sensitive emails, contact lists, calendar entries, and associated records from the MacIver Institute and dozens of similarly situated individuals and groups in an attempt to amass a staggering database of political intelligence.”

“Because of their secrecy, defendants denied us the opportunity to ask a court to review their seizures before the harm was done,” Brett Healy, president of the MacIver Institute, said in a statement in August. “Now, years after defendants unlawfully seized and cataloged millions of our sensitive documents, we ask the court to vindicate our rights under federal law.”

RELATED: Federal judge scolds John Doe prosecutors for ’emergency motion’

Chisholm’s secret probe has been described by critics as a partisan witch hunt. The sweeping dragnet, which spread its tentacles well beyond the Badger State’s borders, has raised some alarming First Amendment and Fourth Amendment questions.

Other defendants include Kevin Kennedy, former director of the now-defunct Government Accountability Board, John Doe special prosecutor Francis Schmitz and top investigators and prosecutors who worked the probe.

Hurst said the records seized are those of “association.”

“Federal law requires that if you want to seize those records you either have to give notice or you’ve got to go through certain procedural hurdles,” the attorney said. “You have to seek a real warrant from a real judge in an open court.”

“What resulted was, these seizures were done without anybody knowing about it, without any ability of any of the organizations that were targeted to step in the court and say, ‘Look we didn’t want our stuff stolen. You don’t have a good basis for having our stuff stolen.’ And instead they didn’t find out about it until years later when the Wisconsin Supreme Court finally put a stop to the John Doe investigation,” Hurst said.

The conservative-led state Supreme Court in July 2015 ruled that the politically driven probe was unconstitutional and ordered it shut down. It ordered that the illegally seized property be returned.

The court’s ruling seemed to matter little to Conley, the district court judge. He wrote that the electronic communications were obtained through a warrant issued by a “court of competent jurisdiction.” He rejected the plaintiffs’ argument that a judge in a Wisconsin John Doe proceeding is not a “competent” court.

Hurst said the ruling defies a longstanding proposition in Wisconsin that a “judge is a man and a court is an institution,” and the “court is open.”

A John Doe procedure is not open, but very closed. The process is not adversarial in the way that other court proceedings are. Witnesses, including targets of the probe, are compelled to answer questions with limited legal assistance. Under Wisconsin’s former John Doe law, reformed by the Republican-led Legislature following the political investigations, those involved in the investigations could face six months in jail and pay thousands of dollars in fines for breaking a gag order that 7th Circuit Court of Appeals Judge Frank Easterbrook once described as “screamingly unconstitutional.”

Conley noted a 2009 amendment to the Stored Communications Act that he argues expanded the definition of judges qualified to oversee the kinds of warrants sought in the John Doe investigation. The John Doe judge, Conley wrote, is a “neutral, independent judicial officer” allowed to issue warrants for electronic information “only upon a showing of probable cause.”

Chisholm and his partners, as another federal judge ruled in a related civil rights lawsuit, are protected from such lawsuits under qualified immunity.

Documents released in previous lawsuits challenging the probe show the John Doe prosecutors were clearly involved in a spying operation. One target told Wisconsin Watchdog in June 2015 the property seizures were akin to the tactics used by the National Security Agency’s domestic spying program.

“It was actually worse because (Milwaukee County prosecutors) were taking the body of emails and looking at actual data,” said the source, who asked not to be identified for fear of retribution from the prosecutors.

“The (documents) reveal just how far they went,” the source said. “These warrants reached well beyond what could be seen as real targets.”

All these years later, MacIver, like other conservative groups, remains in the dark about precisely what the prosecutors seized.

“One of the central purposes of the lawsuit is to get those things back and make an assessment of how much damage was done,” Hurst said.

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

Attorney: Should UW-La Crosse chancellor be fired for his conduct?

Mon, 03/20/2017 - 12:23

MADISON, Wis. – The University of La Crosse employee fired – and then reinstated – for her comments in support of President Donald Trump would like to return to work, her attorney says.

SPEECH BATTLE: UW-La Crosse Chancellor Joe Gow finds himself in a free speech battle after the university fired an employee who made comments in support of President Donald Trump.

“However, it appears that an employee would need a doctorate degree in order to understand the ‘workplace expectations’ in the university’s disciplinary guidelines,” Lee Fehr, attorney for UW-La Crosse dispatcher Kimberly Dearman, wrote in a letter sent Saturday to the University of Wisconsin System Board of Regents.

“The university’s implementation of the guidelines appears to breach the protections of the Constitution of the United States as to due process and freedom of speech,” Fehr wrote. “The implementation defies fairness and any common sense as the terms would be understood by an average lay person.”

More so, Dearman seeks an investigation into whether UW-La Crosse Chancellor Joe Gow should be held to the same standard as Dearman, whether he should lose his job for using “threatening or abusive language” or exhibiting “conduct unbecoming a university employee.”

It is clear Dearman’s attorney is after a settlement, a proposal that has been rejected by the UW System.

On March 13, the university fired Dearman after she made statements to a student employee about Trump’s temporary ban on immigrants from countries known to sponsor or countenance terrorism.

Two days later, after Fehr made the matter public, the university walked back its decision and moved to reinstate Dearman.

Fehr asserts Dearman was fired for making a political statement, just as Gow had made in his email critical of Trump’s immigration ban in late January.

Gow asserts Dearman’s comments were racist. But on the advice of a UW System attorney, UW-La Crosse quickly decided to reinstate the employee because “our people made a mistake” in only noting Dearman’s comments about Trump and immigrants in the termination letter.  Dearman, according to Gow, had “other performance issues” in her personnel file. He could not provide specifics.

“This racist statement was kind of the final act. This person is not a quality employee,” the chancellor said in an interview Thursday with Wisconsin Watchdog.

RELATED: UW-La Crosse chancellor defends employee firing, reinstatement

In his latest letter to the Board of Regents, Fehr includes the complaint filed by the university student employee, who had just begun her job at the dispatch center and was being trained by Dearman.

Dearman told the new employee that Gow deserved the backlash he was receiving from students and others about the email the chancellor had sent on Feb. 1. In it, Gow said he had “erred in not writing the original message more thoughtfully.”

In that message, sent two days before to thousands of students, faculty and staff, Gow wrote that he was “shocked and saddened by President Trump’s order prohibiting refugees and people from certain predominantly Muslim countries from entering the United States.”

The email added:

“At such an unsettling time, we are writing to reaffirm our University’s commitment to support our international students, faculty, and staff, and our commitment to the values of international collaboration and engagement. Our students, faculty, and staff from around the world are an integral part of our campus community, and play a crucial role in our educational mission. Likewise, we want to reaffirm our commitment to ensuring a safe and inclusive campus environment for all individuals, regardless of their national origin, citizenship/immigration status, ethnicity, race, religion, sexual orientation, ability and other significant aspects of individual and cultural identity.”

The student employee, according to the complaint, told Dearman, “Since you disagree with what (Gow) said originally, I assume you take the opposite stance in the political argument?”

Dearman said, yes, “and then continued on to say how we should respect our president and trust that he knows best,” the student noted in the complaint. “(Dearman) continued to say that people ‘who don’t belong here should leave’ and that Trump is trying to make the best of a bad situation and we as a country should support what he does.”

The student employee said she told Dearman that “most people were upset” with Trump’s executive order because the countries that “were banned weren’t places that terrorists were known to come from.”

Trump’s order attempted to keep out for 90 days travelers from Iran, Iraq, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria and Yemen, all with abysmal records fighting Islamic extremist terrorism or of outright support for it.

“After that, Kim seemed to agree, but then she went on for about five minutes about how immigrants don’t belong and then turned to look at me and said, “but no offense to you,'” the student employee — who is, according to Gow, of Asian descent — noted in her complaint. “(Dearman) then went on to say how she believe she wasn’t a racist, but she believes that all immigrants deserve to go back to where they were from.”

LEGAL BATTLES: While the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse has offered to reinstate an employee it fired, the legal battles appear to be far from over.

The student employee said she debated about what to do but ultimately decided to take the matter to a supervisor and not to human resources, “because I believe that Kim didn’t mean it as horribly as it sounded.”

“I didn’t want to cause a big problem, but I am glad that the incident is being handled and I hope that instead of being a punishment, it becomes more of a learning moment for Kim,” the student employee said.

But it became a punishment.

The Human Resource Department concluded that Dearman used “threatening or abusive language” and acted in a manner “unbecoming” a university employee.

Fehr, Dearman’s attorney, argues that the chancellor’s conduct was also less than becoming, and that he embarrassed the institution by his politically charged emails to the wider UW-La Crosse audience. He contends that Gow’s ultimate failure to recognize the due process rights of an employee fired without a hearing, too, was an embarrassment to the university.

The attorney in his letter to the Board of Regents points out that Dearman is a “low-level employee making a modest salary,” while Chancellor Gow makes roughly $220,000 per year, is “highly educated,” and his “job requires above-average decision-making skills and judgement.”

Fehr wrote that his client is “very apprehensive about returning after being fired for her response to (Gow’s) politically charged and retracted email.” Rather than return, the attorney suggested a “fair and equitable settlement.” He said the idea was rejected.

“I then offered the university a ‘specific number’ to resolve the issue,” Fehr wrote.  The UW System’s legal counsel responded that UW-La Crosse had instructed the attorney “to reject the offer and not to make a counter offer.”

“(Dearman) has no money in a client trust fund to fight the taxpayer-funded university,” Fehr wrote. “She proposes an alternate solution.”

Dearman wants the Board of Regents to investigate, to determine whether she violated the policies the university originally claimed she did. “If so, she desires to understand what makes her speech so offensive as to warrant termination,” Fehr wrote.

Dearman also wants the board to determine whether Gow violated the same employee codes through his conduct and language.

“If the Chancellor’s conduct is found to be in violation of the Guidelines, Ms. Dearman would request a finding as to whether his violations warrant termination as her alleged violations did,” Fehr wrote.

If the Regents find Dearman committed a more serious violation than the chancellor, Dearman will provide a written apology to the university, the attorney offered.

“If not, she would request a fair and equitable process to resolve her claims outside of the court system,” Fehr wrote.

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

Justice Department sued over records in school choice investigation

Fri, 03/17/2017 - 15:43

A Milwaukee-based public interest law firm is tired of waiting for the federal government to hand over records regarding a four-year investigation of school choice in Milwaukee.

SLOW GO: WILL deputy counsel Tom Kamenick says the Department of Justice has taken too long to comply with a records request under the Freedom of Information Act.

The Wisconsin Institute for Law & Liberty is suing the U.S. Department of Justice over its failure to comply with a Freedom of Information Act request made in January 2016 after an investigation into whether the Milwaukee Parental Choice Program violated federal disability law.

“The DOJ claimed that it was looking for evidence that the private schools in the choice program were discriminating against disabled students,” Tom Kamenick, WILL’s deputy counsel, said in an interview with Watchdog Thursday on the Vicky McKenna Show.

“But, of course, it is not really possible for them to discriminate against disabled students like the DOJ claimed because the voucher schools take their students on a lottery basis,” Kamenick said. “If there are more students applying for the voucher school than they have slots available, it’s a completely blind pick.”

The Justice Department launched its investigation in 2011 following a complaint from the American Civil Liberties Union, Disability Rights Wisconsin and two unnamed families.

In April 2013, the Justice Department sent a letter to the Department of Public Instruction demanding the state education agency do more to “enforce the federal statutory and regulatory requirements” under Title II of the Americans with Disabilities Act. Title II does not apply to private schools in a voucher program because they are not public entities. DPI told the Justice Department it had no power to act on the request under Wisconsin’s parental choice law.

The investigation ended quietly in December 2015 with a letter from the Justice Department to DPI saying no further action was necessary. 

Kamenick said the FOIA request aimed to find out why it took the Justice Department four years to realize there wasn’t any discrimination by the MPCP.

“So we’ve asked for internal communications and external communications, and any complaints that were filed, and anything else related to this investigation,” Kamenick said. “One of our suspicions is that they never found anything and never had any real complaints. They sat there hoping and eventually had to give up.”

RELATED: DOJ quietly concludes ‘overreach’ into Wisconsin parental choice program

Kamenick said that given the hostility of the Obama administration to voucher programs like the Milwaukee Parental Choice Program, that the investigation may have been a “fishing expedition” to find something to attack school choice in Milwaukee.

“Even if it wasn’t discrimination related,” Kamenick said, “they could use it as part of their political machine in attacking the sort of choice systems that have worked so well in Wisconsin and other states.”

WILL is not the only group that got ignored by the Justice Department. During the investigation, DOJ officials did not respond to requests from school choice advocates, Wisconsin Watchdog and  U.S. Sen. Ron Johnson, a Wisconsin Republican who chairs the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, for information about the probe.

“It was a stiff arm, a stonewall,” Johnson told Watchdog.org when asked to describe the DOJ response to his request in 2015.

RELATED: Justice Department ‘stonewalls’ senator over Wisconsin school choice investigation

In 2016, Johnson attempted to insert add a provision to a spending bill that would have prohibited the Justice Department from conducting similar Title II investigations into private schools participating in voucher programs, but was unsuccessful.

The Associated Press reported that the federal government spent $36.2 million defending the Obama administration in its last year on lawsuits challenging FOIA requests. The Justice Department was responsible for $12 million of that.

“We really have no idea about how it’s going to change under the new administration,” Kamenick said. “But what we do know is that the courts are out there to help enforce these laws against recalcitrant government agencies who are just slow-rolling people across the nation.”

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

Duffy advises conservatives to ‘sheath their swords,’ pass Obamacare replacement

Fri, 03/17/2017 - 12:48

MADISON, Wis. — U.S. Rep. Sean Duffy says it’s time that moderate Republicans and conservatives “sheath their swords” and get behind legislation that will get rid of Obamacare.

The Wausau Republican said the internal battle between Republican leadership and fiscal hawks needs to end and congressional opponents need to roll up their sleeves and do what’s right.

GET TOGETHER: U.S. Rep. Sean Duffy, R-Wausau, says it’s time for battling Republicans to come together on a plan to replace Obamacare.

“Let’s start to work together to acknowledge that Obamacare is bad for America, bad for health care, it’s bad for our budget, it’s bad for Wisconsin, and it’s bad for American citizens who need coverage and it has to be replaced,” Duffy told Wisconsin Watchdog Thursday on the Mark Belling Show, on NewsTalk 1130 WISN in Milwaukee.

Without doubt, Duffy said, the American Health Care Act pushed by House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Janesville, can and should be improved. But that can be done through amendment, he said, something the congressman supports.

He dismisses criticism from some conservatives that the replacement plan is “Obamacare Lite” or “Obamacare 2.0.”

“The fact is that we’re repealing virtually all of the mandates that can be repealed within the structure of this bill, through reconciliation, with only 51 votes in the Senate and repealing all the taxes in Obamacare,” Duffy said.

The bill repeals the most significant portions of former President Barack Obama’s divisive 2010 law. It provides tax credits for health insurance, places limits on Medicaid spending, and reverses tax hikes on wealthy Americans — revenue drawn to prop up the Affordable Care Act, aka, Obamacare.

Conservatives in the House Freedom Caucus can’t stomach the wider advanced tax credits and some of the other measures in a bill they say doesn’t even live up to the legislation they last sent to Obama. Obama rejected that effort to repeal his namesake law.

On Friday, President Donald Trump sounded optimistic that a deal could be in the offing. He claimed conservative opponents of the bill have come to terms, thanks to unspecified “changes.”

“We are doing some incredible things,” Trump said during a meeting with a conservative Republican committee. “All of these nos, or potential nos, are all yeses. Every single person sitting in this room is now a yes.”

The president said he is “100 percent behind the bill.”

Fox News reported that GOP leaders are hoping to pass the proposal in the House next week, following narrow approval by the budget committee on Thursday.

U.S. Rep. Glenn Grothman, R-Glenbeulah, cast a vote to advance the American Health Care Act. He said he did so with the understanding that changes would be made before it comes to the House floor.

“Since the start of this Congress, Republicans’ first and foremost priority has been to repeal and replace Obamacare,” he said in a statement. “The American Health Care Act works towards providing relief for American families who have been saddled with skyrocketing health care costs.”

“I believe many of my concerns will be addressed by the time the AHCA reaches the House floor, and I am sure it will be a viable solution to ensure affordable and accessible health care coverage for Americans.”

Duffy defended the tax credit provision, asserting the bill would end the kind of restrictions in the Obamacare marketplaces that mandate “the kind of insurance you have to buy.”

“We’re walking away from that kind of government-mandated structure,” the congressman said. “Yeah, we’re helping some poor people buy insurance with a refundable tax credit, but we’re allowing them to go into the market and buy a plan that works for them and their family and the risks they face in their life. (We’re) giving freedom to choose to people.”

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

Baldwin paid nearly $90,000 to ‘political fixer’ during Tomah VA scandal

Fri, 03/17/2017 - 11:57

MADISON, Wis. – U.S. Sen. Tammy Baldwin’s campaign spent nearly $140,000 on legal advice from one of the left’s major “political fixers” since 2011, according to federal documents obtained by Wisconsin Watchdog.

LEGAL ADVICE: Sen. Tammy Baldwin’s campaign paid a Washington, D.C. law firm $87,000 in 2015. The firm, described as a ‘political fixer,’ assisted Baldwin during her troubles involving the Tomah VA Medical Center scandal.

The brunt of those legal fees – nearly $90,000 – were paid out in 2015, when the Madison Democrat was embroiled in a scandal involving the scandal-plagued Tomah Veterans Affairs Medical Center.

Baldwin’s campaign paid Washington, D.C. attorney Marc Elias $87,779 in 2015, according to filings with the Federal Election Commission. The campaign cut a check for $41,704 to the firm on March 27, 2015, during the thick of the scandal, and issued payment of $38,558 on May 21, 2015, according to campaign expenditures.  There were other smaller payments.

Elias, partner at international law firm Perkins Coie, LLP, served as general counsel for Hillary Clinton’s 2016 presidential campaign, and served in the same role for former Sen. John Kerry’s 2004 presidential campaign.

He is known inside and outside the Swamp as a “political fixer” for his adroit way of getting Democrats out of legal and public relations trouble.

In early 2015, Baldwin tapped Elias to deal with the fallout from revelations the senator and her office did nothing with an inspector general’s report that raised concerns about over-prescribing painkillers and other abuses at the Tomah VA Medical Center. Baldwin’s office failed to act after a whistleblower reportedly begged Baldwin’s office to do something.

In the wake of the scandal, Baldwin fired top aide Marquette Baylor, who headed up the senator’s Milwaukee office.

Baylor fired back, filing a complaint in April with the Senate Select Committee on Ethics. Baylor alleged Baldwin was involved in a cover-up. The senator offered her fired aide a severance package with a confidentiality agreement — hush money, as Republicans have described it.

The Ethics Committee eventually dismissed multiple complaints.

“After the public outcry, Senator Baldwin immediately sought to place the blame squarely on me,” Baylor stated in her complaint. “(Baldwin) instructed her Chief of Staff, Bill Murat, to fly to Milwaukee, fire me, and offer me a severance package that required me to stay quiet. Murat then moved into damage control, meeting with individuals in Wisconsin and telling them that the inaction was my fault.”

Damage control is precisely what Elias does.

In 2011, Politico named him to its list of 50 politicos to watch. The publication described the attorney as “quick-talking, Twitter-savvy.” Elias has represented a “veritable who’s who of Democratic power players, from Sens. Harry Reid and Chuck Schumer to the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee to a trio of new outside groups with close ties to party leaders that are angling to spend tens of millions of dollars on ads attacking Republicans in the 2012 elections — Majority PAC, House Majority PAC and American Bridge,” Politico wrote.

The attorney was among a team of lawyers assisting Democrats in their drive to overturn voter ID laws in presidential battleground states North Carolina, Ohio and Wisconsin.

FEC records show Baldwin’s campaign paid Elias’ firm $2,215 last year.

In 2012, when Baldwin beat former Republican Gov. Tommy Thompson in her first U.S. Senate run, the Democrat’s campaign spent $30,839 on legal expenses with Elias’ firm. In 2013, the bill was $14,337. The campaign spent $1,304 in 2011, and $2,299 in 2014, according to the federal documents.

Baldwin did not respond to Wisconsin Watchdog’s request for comment, sought on Thursday.

The Republican Party of Wisconsin, which this week launched an ad campaign attacking Baldwin on her Tomah VA record, criticized the senator for protecting the “status quo.” Republicans in Wisconsin and nationally see Baldwin’s seat as vulnerable in 2018.

“When Senator Baldwin had a chance to protect Wisconsin’s veterans, she protected the status quo instead and then called in a high-powered lawyer to clean up the mess,”Alec Zimmerman, spokesman for the Wisconsin GOP said in a statement. “She can get all the help she wants from Hillary Clinton’s scandal attorney and the liberal elites in Washington, but Wisconsinites have made it clear they’re fed up with insiders who have been part of the problem for decades.”

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

UW-La Crosse chancellor defends employee firing, reinstatement

Thu, 03/16/2017 - 23:20

MADISON, Wis. –What’s next for the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse employee who was fired after voicing her support for President Donald Trump’s immigration policies?

UW-La Crosse dispatcher Kimberly Dearman was reinstated late Wednesday after being fired earlier in the week.

RADIO DEBATE: UW-La Crosse Chancellor Joe Gow appeared on the Mark Belling Show on NewsTalk 1130 WISN Thursday. He defended his institution’s decision to fire and then reinstate an employee who expressed support for President Donald Trump’s immigration policy.

Dearman’s attorney, Lee Fehr, said his client has not decided what her next move will be. As of Thursday afternoon, Dearman had not decided whether she would return to her job.

“We feel the university has created a kind of hostile environment for her, especially now that we have heard that (UW-La Crosse) Chancellor (Joe) Gow has said she has made racist remarks and apparently is not a quality employee.”

Gow earlier in the day told Wisconsin Watchdog that Dearman was fired because she made “racist” comments to a fellow employee. According to Fehr’s letter to the University of Wisconsin System Board of Regents, “Dearman stated to a coworker that she felt Trump was put in a bad situation. She felt Trump was doing the correct thing by keeping terrorists out of the United States. She felt that those immigrants should go back where they came from.”

Dearman was commenting on emails critical of Trump’s policies that Gow in late January and early February sent to students, faculty and staff.

RELATED: UW-La Crosse backs down after firing employee for supporting Trump policy

Gow said the university, on the advice of a UW System attorney, decided to reinstate the employee because “our people made a mistake” in only noting Dearman’s comments about Trump and immigrants in the termination letter.  Dearman, according to Gow, had “other performance issues” in her personnel file. He could not provide specifics.

“This racist statement was kind of the final act. This person is not a quality employee,” the chancellor said.

Fehr said there is no lawsuit pending, that his client would like to “work things out” with the university.

“I think the University System itself has to answer a lot of questions about what these policies mean, because they are vague. Anybody can be fired for any reason, as was the case here, and, frankly, if we wouldn’t have brought it to your attention Ms. Dearman would be on the street.”

Gow and Fehr spoke to Wisconsin Watchdog Thursday on the Mark Belling show, on NewsTalk 1130 WISN in Milwaukee.

Listen to the entire interview here.

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

UW-La Crosse backs down after firing employee for supporting Trump policy

Thu, 03/16/2017 - 09:44

UPDATED 11:30 a.m. to include comments from UW-La Crosse chancellor Joe Gow

MADISON, Wis. — A University of Wisconsin-La Crosse employee fired for telling a co-worker that she supported President Donald Trump’s immigration policies could be back on the job soon, Wisconsin Watchdog has learned.

WRONGFUL TERMINATION? University of Wisconsin-La Crosse dispatcher Kimberly Dearman was fired for expressing her support for President Donald Trump’s immigration policies, according to her attorney.

Kimberly Dearman, a law enforcement dispatcher for the western Wisconsin university, was fired this week on multiple charges, including “conduct unbecoming a university employee,” according to her attorney, Lee Fehr.

“Late [Wednesday] UWL admitted they wrongfully terminated her position,” Fehr said in an email to Wisconsin Watchdog Thursday morning.

UW-La Crosse Chancellor Joe Gow tells Wisconsin Watchdog that the university, on advice from University of Wisconsin System legal staff, has offered Dearman her job back.  But the chancellor asserts that the employee was originally let go for making “racist comments.”

Ferh said his client is “considering options regarding employment.”

On Monday, Dearman was fired for a “comment she made in casual conversation to a coworker in response to Gow’s emails of January 30 and February 1, 2017,” Fehr wrote Tuesday in a letter to the University of Wisconsin System Board of Regents.

In the first email sent to thousands of students, faculty and staff, Gow wrote that he was “shocked and saddened by President Trump’s order prohibiting refugees and people from certain predominantly Muslim countries from entering the United States.”

The email added:

“At such an unsettling time, we are writing to reaffirm our University’s commitment to support our international students, faculty, and staff, and our commitment to the values of international collaboration and engagement. Our students, faculty, and staff from around the world are an integral part of our campus community, and play a crucial role in our educational mission. Likewise, we want to reaffirm our commitment to ensuring a safe and inclusive campus environment for all individuals, regardless of their national origin, citizenship/immigration status, ethnicity, race, religion, sexual orientation, ability and other significant aspects of individual and cultural identity.”

Gow also informed his readers that “except where required by law,” the university will not assist in “immigration enforcement or deportation of any individual, and [UWL police] do not inquire about or record immigration status when performing their duties.”

RELATED: UW-La Crosse chancellor ‘condemns’ Trump in letter to students

The letter did not sit well with many recipients. They complained. So did state Sen. Duey Stroebel, R-Saukville, who said multiple constituents were angered by the letter and forwarded it on to him.

“The email condemns our President for the policy he believes will keep Americans safe,” Stroebel said.

Stroebel represents Senate District 20 in southeast Wisconsin. UW-La Crosse is not in Stroebel’s district.

Dearman was one of the critics of Gow’s letter. She told a co-worker that she supported Trump’s position on immigration.

“In summary, Miss Dearman stated to a coworker that she felt Trump was put in a bad situation,” Fehr wrote in his letter to the Board of Regents. “She felt Trump was doing the correct thing by keeping terrorists out of the United States. She felt that those immigrants should go back where they came from.”

“She was terminated because of her political speech in support of President Trump.”

The university’s human resources department found that Dearman violated the institution’s policy, charging that Dearman used “threatening or abusive language” and exhibited “conduct unbecoming of a university employee,” according to the termination letter.

In an interview Wednesday with Wisconsin Watchdog on the Vicki McKenna Show, Fehr said it is his understanding that his client merely expressed her support for the president’s policy and did not use threatening language.

‘RED HERRING”: UW-La Crosse Chancellor Joe Gow says those who believe the firing of a university employee for expressing support for President Donald Trump’s policies are offering up a ‘red herring’ argument.

Gow asserts Dearman’s speech was not political, it was racist. He said university found the comment that, “those immigrants should go back to where they came from,” to be racist.

“That’s what precipitated this event,” the chancellor said. He added that the comment was made to a “student employee of Asian descent.” He said he did not know if the student employee is an immigrant.

And Dearman, according to Gow, had “other performance issues” in her personnel file. He could not provide specifics.

“This racist statement was kind of the final act. This person is not a quality employee,” the chancellor said.

Gow criticized Fehr for taking the matter to the media. He said he was not involved in the decision to fire Dearman, that it was the university’s HR director. He said the system attorney advised administration there there were “things deficient here and that we should honor (Dearman’s) request to be reinstated.”

“We offered her job back,” the chancellor said. “We have not received an answer on what she wants to do.”

A UW System official directed questions to UW-La Crosse.

 

Fehr noted the apparent speech double-standard on the UW-La Crosse campus.

“It appears to be the position of the University of Wisconsin that Chancellor Gow and other leaders can send out emails to initiate political discussions, but it is offensive and abusive for employees to have a casual workplace discussion about emails initiated by the University Wisconsin System through Chancellor Gow and his leadership team,” Fehr wrote.

Trump’s January order sparked a firestorm of protests and stranded travelers around the world. It sought to bar refugees from anywhere in the world from entering the United States for 120 days. Syrian refugees were prohibited indefinitely. It also attempted to keep out for 90 days travelers from the terrorism-sponsoring nations of Iran, Iraq, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria and Yemen.

The order was blocked last month by a federal appeals court. An updated order this week was blocked by another court.

In his letter, Fehr noted what he described as Gow’s “history of attempting to squash the protected speech of students and employees who do not share his political views.” In 2013, Gow’s email critical of a 9/11 memorial outraged conservatives.

“I’ve been informed that the 9/11 flag display on the UW-L campus has been constructed in the shape of a cross,” Gow wrote to students, faculty and staff. “Although I’m not sure what the students who put up the flags are attempting to convey with this particular design, I also would like to remind everyone that UW-L is a state and federally supported institution and as such we do not endorse any particular religion. The divesity [sic] of views we hold is one of the most basic strengths of our country – something the terrorists sought to attack on this day 12 years ago.”

It seems supporters of Donald Trump’s policies were not included in Gow’s diversity-of-views umbrella, according to Fehr.

“If political speech is offensive and abusive, when can the citizens of Wisconsin and employees of the University of Wisconsin expect chancellor Gow’s resignation or termination?” Fehr wrote to the regents. “Will the taxpayer-funded University of Wisconsin protect the average employee’s right to comment on the political email sent out by the leadership of the University of Wisconsin?”

Asked to comment, Gow said there’s an important distinction.

“My emails were not racist, her comments were,” the chancellor said. “No one has a right at our university to express racist views.”

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

Troubled Social Security Administration misses another deadline

Wed, 03/15/2017 - 13:00

MADISON, Wis. – As President Abraham Lincoln once said of an overly cautious general, the Social Security Administration has a terminal “case of the slows.”

Once again, the federal agency has asked for more time to comply with a Senate committee’s request.

MISSED AGAIN: The Social Security Administration, facing myriad allegations of misconduct, has once again failed to comply with a Senate committee’s deadline.

U.S. Sen. Ron Johnson, R-Oshkosh, had given SSA officials until 5 p.m. on Feb. 28 to provide documents related to allegations of widespread misconduct in the agency’s Office of Disability Adjudication and Review. Johnson is chairman of the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs committee, which last June opened an inquiry into allegations of corruption, due process violations and retaliation against whistleblowers.

A Senate insider says the SSA has asked for more time to do a “deeper review” of a report by the agency’s Office of the Inspector General. That report, posted at the OIG website, breaks down the major findings of the IG’s investigation in the Madison ODAR.

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 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, the OIG 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.

RELATED: Read Wisconsin Watchdog’s series, Deadly Delays

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.

And the Social Security Administration has, as it repeatedly has done throughout the course of the committee inquiry, failed to honor a committee deadline.

The Senate insider says committee staff have been in touch with the SSA on a regular basis to “ensure they understand the seriousness of the (OIG’s) finding and will make sure they address the allegations.”

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

Bill aims to change Madison-centric state leases

Wed, 03/15/2017 - 12:02

MADISON, Wis. – In real estate the mantra is, “location, location, location.”

MADISON-MINDED: A bill working its way through the Legislature would require the DOA to look beyond Madison and Dane County when selecting leased property for state agencies.

So it goes for the state’s agency leasing program.

But when it comes to the Department of Administration, the government’s leasing agent, location is most often Madison, Madison, Madison.

A bill authored by state Rep. Joe Sanfelippo, R-West Allis, and Sen. David Craig, R-Town of Vernon, aims to change that singular point of view.

The measure would require the DOA to identify the “most appropriate and cost efficient locations to place an agency when securing or renewing a lease.”

Leasing agents would have to consider situating a state agency where it provides the most services, and identify multiple locations – at least two of which are outside Dane County.

“When considering leases to house state agency headquarters, the Department of Administration (DOA) currently restricts eligible property locations to a limited geographical area,” Sanfelippo wrote in a legislative memo. “This practice has created an artificial market for commercial real estate which is inflating the cost of lease rates and resulting in taxpayers paying unnecessarily high prices.”

DOA’s general policy, Sanfelippo said, is that the state agencies have to be located in Dane County, and primarily in the county seat and state capital, Madison.

“You see these buildings all right there around the Capitol, for the most part,” the lawmaker said in an interview Tuesday with Wisconsin Watchdog. “These landlords know (about the DOA policy) and they screw us 10 times from Sunday when it comes to these leases.”

The lawmakers say they’ve received “mixed signals” from DOA officials regarding state statutes on government leasing. Sanfelippo said the agents couldn’t provide anything specific and ultimately said that the Dane County-centric leasing philosophy is “unwritten policy.”

DOA spokesman Steve Michels said the agency is happy to look at any proposal that might save money and improve its services.

“We are aligned in our shared goal to deliver value to the taxpayers through a more efficient government,” he said.

RELATED: Bill would provide more oversight on costly state leases

The argument has long been that Madison is the seat of state government. The infrastructure is there and that’s where state government operations should remain. There is no bigger advocate of that position than the city of Madison, a ready benefactor of state centralization.

Keeping state agencies together in the same city or geographical area makes it much easier for departments to interact with the executive and the Legislature, proponents say.

Sanfelippo says those arguments no longer apply, particularly in the Digital Age.

“The vast majority of employees that work in these agencies do not interact on a daily basis with the Legislature, and most of the secretaries don’t. That pretty much goes out the window,” the legislator said. “In 1848, when we became a state, maybe that made sense back then, with communications and transportation primitive at the time. In 2017, you don’t have to be in one place. It doesn’t make sense anymore.”

It’s also not fair to citizens who live hours away from Madison, the bill’s authors assert. Some government services arguably are much better suited for other locations around the state.

The Department of Natural Resources’ forestry division is a case in point.

Gov. Scott Walker’s budget proposal calls for moving the division north. The 2017-19 budget plan requires the headquarters to relocate by early 2018 to an existing DNR building north of state Highway 29.

State Sen. Tom Tiffany told Wisconsin Public Radio last month that the move would do wonders for forestry division recruitment.

“They like to hunt. They like to fish. They like to be in rural Wisconsin, small town Wisconsin,” the Hazelhurst Republican said. “It was limiting the pool of people that would apply for some of those jobs. I think it’s really good to move the division headquarters to northern Wisconsin, and hopefully that will be accomplished here.”

The state lease location bill also would require the Department of Children and Families to develop a plan to move its headquarters to Milwaukee County. DCF would have to complete the plan in time for it to be included in the agency’s 2019-21 biennial budget request, according to the legislative memo.

DCF’s lease is up in the next couple of years, and the agency is planning a move, Sanfelippo said. Why not consider moving the agency to Milwaukee, where more than half of its customers live and where rents are often substantially cheaper, the lawmaker said.

CHANGE OF ATTITUDE: State Rep. Joe Sanfelippo, R-West Allis, said the state needs to think more like a business in negotiating leases for agency operations.

“Look at the private sector. When a business is looking at a headquarters, they look at, No. 1, what’s most economical and, No. 2, where their market is,” Sanfelippo said. “You want to locate close to your market.”

Walker vetoed a similar measure in the last budget, but Sanfelippo said he believes that was merely a matter of timing. Walker was busy on the presidential campaign trail at the time.

“I needed to do a better job of communicating with the Governor and his staff,” Sanfelippo said.

Michels said talking about agency office space in a “vacuum” doesn’t always account for the “diverse program needs of each agency and its stakeholders.”

“The spatial and geographic needs of the legislative service agencies, for example, are very different from the DNR forestry division,” the DOA spokesman said.

Leasing reform legislation seems en vogue right now.

Last week, State Rep. Rob Hutton, R-Brookfield, and Sen. Chris Kapenga, R-Delafield, introduced a bill to require DOA to conduct a cost-benefit analysis before signing a lease for government buildings.

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

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

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

DOA has been working through its Madison Master plan, described by the Wisconsin State Journal as “a once-in-a-generation reshuffling of state offices involving thousands of workers. The plan is designed to trim the number of state building leases and, ultimately, save taxpayers money.

But it remains Madison-centric.

Sanfelippo said it’s time to change the attitude of the bureaucratic fiefdom. He knows that won’t be easy.

“These are their little kingdoms. They don’t like anybody telling them what to do,” the lawmaker said.

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

Report says Milwaukee defying state law regarding vacant school buildings

Tue, 03/14/2017 - 17:25

VACANT SCHOOLS: The city of Milwaukee is not complying with state law on selling vacant schools, according to a new report.

 

WAUKESHA, Wis. — A new report says the city of Milwaukee is defying state law by not putting sufficient effort into selling vacant school buildings.

The report, released Friday by the Wisconsin Institute for Law and Liberty (WILL), says Milwaukee is not in compliance with the state’s Surplus Property Law, which requires the city to sell unused Milwaukee Public Schools properties to education operators, private voucher schools and charter schools.

“Our report proves that the vacant school property problem that has plagued Milwaukee for so long remains unsolved,” CJ Szafir, vice president for policy at WILL, said in an interview.

“You have dwindling enrollment at Milwaukee Public Schools that has led to buildings that just sit empty, costing taxpayers money,” Szafir said. “These empty buildings over the course of the last decade have cost Milwaukee taxpayers well over $10.2 million.”

The Surplus Property Law was created in 2015. Prior to that, charter and voucher schools looking to start up or expand in Milwaukee found it impossible to purchase surplus MPS properties. Since the law went into effect, only one vacant building has been sold to a charter school.

“In many instances the city of Milwaukee is just blatantly ignoring provisions of the law,” Szafir said.

For example, the city of Milwaukee is supposed to list the vacant properties on their website as for sale. However, the city only lists five empty buildings, while WILL believes the number of properties for sale should be around 15.

In addition, the WILL report says Milwaukee allows MPS to hide vacant properties by saying they’re being used as “support buildings.”

“High performing charter and private schools can’t get access to the facilities they need to expand to take on more kids,” Szafir said. “Meanwhile, you have a Milwaukee Public School system with failing schools with a graduation rate below 60 percent.”

Szafir gave the example of Risen Savior, a Milwaukee Parental Choice Program (MPCP) school whose attendance has grown by 400 percent in the last decade. A vacant school, Fletcher, is a few blocks away.

“The city sat on their letter of interest for six months,” Szafir said. “And when they finally got around to entertaining Risen Savior, they came up with an appraisal of $1.4 million for a building that has sat empty.”

Because of the time delay and the cost, Risen Savior removed its application to purchase the vacant school.

To make the law stronger, the report by WILL suggests increasing the penalties for when the city loses a lawsuit over the refusal to sell surplus properties. State law could further clarify what counts as a surplus property so the city and Milwaukee would be forced to list them.

Milwaukee Alderman Jim Bohl, chairman of the Zoning, Neighborhoods & Development Committee, which controls the sale of the vacant school properties, said in a statement that several schools have expressed in purchasing the surplus property but did not follow through.

“I cannot say why for, but suspect that once some of the schools got into properties to assess condition and total costs to get the properties up to operational use, they may have determined the costs as prohibitive,” Bohl said.

Last year, two educational operators completed the process of purchasing a property, but one, Right Step, was denied the necessary zoning in order to operate the school. Bohl said he would not comment on the Board of Zoning Appeals’ decision.

RELATED: Zoning board stops vacant school building purchase by choice school

He also said that identifying the properties for sale was not the responsibility of the city, saying the Milwaukee Common Council’s responsibility is to identify educational operators eligible to purchase the properties and negotiate the price.

Szafir said Bohl was “flat out wrong in his interpretation of state law.”

“The city is responsible for putting the empty buildings on the website,” Szafir said. “They failed at that. They only listed five buildings. They’re supposed to list something closer to 15.”

State Rep. Dale Kooyenga, R-Brookfield, was one of the authors of the Surplus Property Law. Commenting on the report, Kooyenga said in a statement that the civil rights battles of the 1960s were about ensuring minority children could do better than attend “the status quo’s separate and unequal schools.”

“Today, government socialists abuse their power and disregard state law to prevent proven educational institutions the ability expand the mind and economic mobility of the poor,” Kooyenga said. “The buildings serve as an empty shrine to the left’s disregard for children and their embrace of the status quo.”

The other author of the law, state Sen. Alberta Darling, R-River Hills, said the problems listed in the report are unacceptable.

“MPS surely makes it as hard as possible to have so many hurdles to jump through,” Darling said. “One can’t wait and wait if they want to start a school and grow the revenues to get it done.”

However, Darling questioned at this point what can be done to force MPS and the city of Milwaukee to comply with state law.

RELATED: Voucher school wants to buy unused building; Milwaukee schools won’t sell

“I know there are those that want financial repercussions for not cooperating,” Darling said. “I don’t know how you do that. It’s really hard to have teeth in the legislation because the ball keeps bouncing in different directions.”

Darling said that the issue needs to be resolved because it’s not just a matter of taxpayers paying the costs of the vacant buildings; the unused properties are bad for the community.

“It’s not good for public safety in those neighborhoods to have vacant, empty buildings,” Darling said. “When you have activity, you have safer neighborhoods.

“You would think that the taxpayers would be considered. You would think that the safety of the neighborhoods would be considered. You’d think that MPS would want to get these buildings off their hands.”

RELATED: Study: Milwaukee voucher program a half-billion dollar winner

When asked for a comment on the WILL report, MPS Director of Communications Denise Callaway said the cover showed four schools that were actually occupied.

“Other factual errors include listing the ALBA/Carmen South facility at 55 percent capacity when it is actually at 99.6 percent capacity and erroneously reporting that Milwaukee Spanish Immersion School — which is an MPS school — is “leasing” its own second campus on 88th Street,” Callaway said. “No lease is necessary.”

Szafir said in response that the ALBA/Carmen South error was a typo. “I suppose if they are focusing on the cover, then it’s a pretty accurate report.” 

Embattled UW-P criminal justice professor: ‘I have been treated like a criminal’

Tue, 03/14/2017 - 16:02
Part 14 of 16 in the series 'Troubled' Campus

MADISON, Wis. – A whistleblower professor facing termination has filed a federal complaint alleging discrimination and retaliation against her by University of Wisconsin-Platteville administrators.

DISCRIMINATION CLAIMS: UW-Platteville Professor Sabina Burton claims a colleague falsely told fellow professors she had a mental illness and described her father, a German national, as a Nazi or Nazi sympathizer.

Associate criminal justice professor Sabina Burton in the complaint filed with the Equal Employment Opportunities Commission claims she has been the “target of vicious retaliation by both her fellow professors and the administration of the school.”

“She has suffered numerous adverse actions ranging from intimidation to attempts to block her career aspirations to threatened termination,” states the complaint. “These actions constitute retaliation against an individual who participated in protected activity, and stand as clear violations against EEOC guidelines.”

Meanwhile, a University of Wisconsin System investigation into allegations of misconduct brought by administrators against Burton appears to have concluded with a favorable finding for the administration.

Burton’s complaint, as her federal civil rights lawsuit pending before the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 7th Circuit, alleges the professor has paid a substantial price for intervening on behalf of a female student who, in the fall of 2012, confided that she felt sexually harassed by a male professor.

The male professor, Lorne Gibson, handed student Alexandra Zupec a note in his class. The note said, “Call me tonight!!!,” and included the professor’s private cellphone number.

Burton took the issue to Elizabeth Throop, who at the time was dean of liberal arts and education and has since been promoted to provost.

Throop at first voiced her concern about the serious nature and apparent inappropriateness of the note, according to emails obtained by Wisconsin Watchdog. She took issue with then-Criminal Justice Department Chairman Thomas Caywood’s claims that the note was part of a “secret experiment on social norms.”

Eventually, according to court documents, Throop backed up the male professor and Caywood. A faculty grievance committee ruled that Burton and the student were right. The committee didn’t buy the “experiment” explanation. It found that Gibson used “extremely poor judgment” in offering the note, and expressed doubt that Gibson was acting in an academic capacity.

“While the grievance committee was not paneled to determine a course of action related to this third party, his actions were so egregious that the committee felt compelled to provide this letter to your [sic] for review,” the committee wrote in an April 2013 letter to Chancellor Dennis Shields.

The committee accused Gibson of “slut-shaming” Zupec and that the professor “has serious liabilities and lacks even a fundamental understanding of structural sexism.”

University officials contend the original subjects of the harassment allegations are no longer with the university, so, problem solved.

Burton said Caywood, who has since resigned, Throop and other administrators – all the way up to Shields – have made her professional life a living hell.

RELATED: UW-Platteville whistleblower professor ordered to clean out office

In Wisconsin Watchdog’s investigative series, “Troubled Campus,” Burton claims administrators took away a grant, committee seats, and effectively stalled her professional career after she spoke out about the handling of the sexual harassment complaint. She claims she was physically threatened by then-Acting Criminal Justice Department Chairman Michael Dalecki, that she was defamed by an instructor, and saw her health rapidly deteriorate in a four-year campaign of harassment and retaliation.

Burton, who has filed previous EEOC complaints, says she is viewed as a “troublemaker” by administration and staff.

In July 2015, the EEOC issued Burton a right-to-sue letter related to her second EEOC complaint on retaliation and discrimination. The agency determined that grounds exist for a discrimination claim.

The latest EEOC complaint alleges that “Dalecki immediately began to retaliate against Dr. Burton.”

“On more than one occasion, Dr. Dalecki asked Dr. Burton to dismiss her EEOC complaint. When Dr. Burton made it clear that she was going to file a lawsuit, Dr. Dalecki asked Dr. Burton not to do so.” When Burton persisted, Dalecki told her to “get over it,” and said, “You can’t expect to file a lawsuit without consequences,” the complaint alleges.

Eight days after Burton filed another complaint, Throop sent Burton a “Letter of Direction,” claiming Burton had harassed and bullied other staff. The latest EEOC complaint asserts the administration’s charges are “either factually inaccurate” or involved incidents “based on protected activity on the part of Dr. Burton.”

The complaint also alleges Burton’s co-worker, Deb Rice, created a “hostile work environment” for Burton. Rice, according to the complaint, falsely told members of the Criminal Justice Department and at least one student that Burton suffers from a mental illness and is “prejudiced against East Germans.” Rice admitted to UW-P administration that she made the statements, “but no discipline … was ever undertaken,” according to the complaint.

During a 2013 school trip to Germany, Rice claimed that Burton seemed “detached” during a tour of a Nazi concentration camp, according to the complaint. “Deb Rice then made false allegations that Dr. Burton’s father (a German national) was a Nazi/Nazi sympathizer somehow/connected to Nazis.”

“These statements are outlandishly discriminatory,” making Burton feel marginalized in the workplace, the complaint states.

INITIATING DISMISSAL: UW-Platteville Chancellor Dennis Shields in January advised Burton that he was “initiating the dismissal process’ and opening an investigation into the criminal justice professor.

In January, Shields ordered Burton to clean out her office and prohibited her from being on campus while the investigation into complaints against the professor continued.

The investigation was announced a little over a month after Shields dismissed another complaint against Burton and a counter complaint by Rice, noting the “complaints do not warrant disciplinary action or further investigation.”

In that probe last fall, Shields hired a private investigator to question Burton at her home. Burton provided evidence showing the allegations made against her were false and told Wisconsin Watchdog the probe was a means to push out a vocal critic of Shields’ administration.

Shields, who has been criticized by faculty and students for his handling of other misconduct allegations, advised Burton in January that he was “initiating the dismissal process” based on a complaint filed by Throop and Melissa Gormley, interim dean of the College of Liberal Arts and Education. Shields informed Burton that if the allegations are true, they would warrant “Burton’s dismissal.”

Among other offenses, the administrators’ complaint alleges Burton behaved “unprofessionally,” including “involving students into your personal concerns.”

Burton denies the allegations, providing evidence refuting accusations regarding internal email communications, for instance.

UW-Platteville officials and representatives from the UW System have declined to comment on the personnel matters.

Petra Roter, senior special assistant to the vice president for Academic and Student Affairs for the University of Wisconsin System Administration, led the latest investigation into Burton.

Roter recently completed a report on her findings. The investigation included interviews with Burton and her accusers, who claim it was Burton who has caused a hostile environment in the department.

“Colleagues describe the threats and harassment as an attempt to undermine them professionally and to do damage to their reputation and careers, including calling some unethical and imply(ing) that (Burton) could adversely impact tenure and promotion processes and decisions,” Roter wrote.

Burton disputes many of the reports findings on the webpage she has used to document her allegations, the webpage that has landed her in hot water with administration.

Overall, Roter’s report suggests a Criminal Justice Department that has been in disarray for some time.

“All those interviewed in the Criminal Justice program noted the department environment was ‘chilling’ and ‘dysfunctional’ and interviews of all parties, including Dr. Burton, report that they felt threatened directly and indirectly,” the report states.  “Dr. Burton reports being cursed at, belittled, misrepresented and felt she was being retaliated by her colleagues.  All those interviewed described threatening and harassing emails and interactions.”

While her accusers complained about their interactions with Burton, “everyone interviewed agreed that Dr. Burton is an excellent teacher.” The professor has personnel records indicating her exemplary performance – even through the legal battles with the university.

Burton says she will not simply “get over it,” as the former acting department head suggested she do.

“I have been suspended. Had to clear my office under police presence. Been treated like a criminal, like a threat.” Burton wrote. “This is very destructive and demoralizing to me, especially considering my professional past and the field I am teaching in.”

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

The left prepares ‘Indivisible’ playbook for Sensenbrenner town hall

Mon, 03/13/2017 - 12:15

MADISON, Wis. — When U.S. Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner holds the latest in a long line of town hall meetings Monday evening in Wauwatosa, the usual suspects will most likely be in attendance.

The Menomonee Falls Republican has hosted more constituent events than just about any other member of Congress this town hall season, and he’s encountered his share of hostile — even uncivil — questioners.

PROGRAMMED HOSTILITY? U.S. Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner, R-Menomonee Falls, holds a town hall meeting with constituents last month. Sensenbrenner, like other Republicans, has been confronted by an organized movement of Trump and Republican majority opponents.

And that’s all part of the plan.

As Wisconsin Watchdog reported earlier this month, the angry, often belligerent crowds packing the town hall meetings of Republican members of Congress are part of the so-called Indivisible movement.

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

There’s even a handbook, titled “Indivisible, A Practical Guide For Resisting The Trump Agenda.”

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

Joe Kraynick appears to be the leader of the Wauwatosa Indivisible group, among the more active and disruptive.

“Welcome to the resistance!” he says in recent online correspondence to fellow would-be liberal activists.

“Come prepared to take action and meet others who are working to resist Trump’s agenda,” Kraynick writes.

Kraynick did not return a request for comment, but he lays out his ideas for sticking it to Sensenbrenner in closed group messages.

Most recently, Kraynick bragged about the resistance’s turnout at Sensenbrenner’s town hall earlier this month in Elm Grove.

“Turnout, as we know, was huge. When Rebecca took her video, some people had already left, and there were STILL tons of people there. And the room itself was jam packed, with about 98 percent on our general side. So, that was awesome,” he wrote.

He offers some suggestions to activists on making things “rowdier.” Kraynick notes that the Indivisible activists haven’t “gone the full Chaffetz” with Sensenbrenner yet, referring to the raucous left-wing crowds U.S. Rep. Jason Chaffetz, R-Utah, confronted last month.

“It might not be quite time for that yet, but (Sensenbrenner) keeps avoiding answering certain questions,” the activist writes. “Reactions rattle him, he doesn’t like them. He tried at one point to move from Trump’s conflicts of interest to the Clinton Foundation, which earned an instant negative reaction, and he quickly dropped it and never came back to it.”

So much for the marketplace of ideas.

“He likes to bang his gavel and admonish everyone when they react. While we don’t want mindless chanting and abuse, in my opinion we should not be afraid to be supportive of good points questioners make and to put down obvious nonsense he uses to avoid answers. This is an issue that other Indivisible groups at his town halls are discussing. There is a lot of debate about how to best handle that aspect of it,” Kraynick writes.

The activist acknowledges Sensenbrenner, a 38-year veteran of Congress, has a busy town hall schedule, “which is great, but we don’t want to become PR props for him.”

“This is our chance to showcase that Republicans have no answers for the really thorny issues we have, that they are spineless when it comes to dealing with Trump, and that the things they wish to do, such as cutting taxes for rich people and ending regulation for, say, companies that pollute our water (for example), are really really bad for people. He works very hard to control the proceedings in his favor. These town halls should be for us to air our questions, grievances, etc., not a stunt for him,” Kraynick advises.

He adds that activist/constituents “don’t have to be jerks, but we don’t have to be nice, either. Tea Partiers weren’t nice in 2009 and 2010.”

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

The success of it all is predicated on getting as much media attention as possible, and that means building partnerships with media outlets.

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

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

Many of the questions that pop up at the town hall events, too, are preprogrammed.

Wisconsin Watchdog obtained a list of questions one of the Indivisible leaders was handing out to attendees at a Sensenbrenner town hall event over the weekend.

Under the heading, “No Piecemeal Promise,” one question attempts to hit the congressman on the GOP’s campaign to repeal and replace Obamacare.

“You promised in Pewaukee Library Feb. 11 not to support piecemeal repeal and replacement of Obamacare. Yous (sic)said it was too complicated to do that. The current trumpKare AHCA (American Health Care Act) bill is the first of three phases according to trump. It is a partial replacement using reconciliation? Will you stay true to the commitment you made a month ago and oppose the AHCA?”

It’s not clear whether Kraynick is being paid for his Indivisible activities in Wisconsin.

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

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

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

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

Despite the hostility and the, at times, uncivil behavior at the town halls, Sensenbrenner says they are critical events to connect with his constituents.

Sensenbrenner has held more than 520 town hall meetings since 2013, all of which have been in-person, Nicole Tieman, Sensenbrenner’s spokeswoman, told the Hill earlier this month.

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

Johnson brings back whistleblower protection bill as Sunshine Week opens

Mon, 03/13/2017 - 10:17
Part 46 of 47 in the series Tomah VA Scandal

MADISON, Wis. — U.S. Sen. Ron Johnson is re-introducing legislation aimed at protecting federal whistleblowers from the kind of retaliation that, sources say, proved fatal at the scandal-plagued Veterans Affairs Medical Center in Tomah.

‘IN MEMORY OF’: Sens. Ron Johnson, R-Wis., and Joni Ernst, R-Iowa, have reintroduced the Dr. Chris Kirkpatrick Whistleblower Protection Act. The bill, named after a Tomah VA whistleblower who took his life after being fired from the scandal-plagued hospital, aims to protect federal employees who step forward to report waste, fraud and abuse.

Johnson, R-Wis., and Sen. Joni Ernst, R-Iowa, last week announced they are bringing back the Dr. Chris Kirkpatrick Whistleblower Protection Act — just in time for National Sunshine Week.

The bill bears the name of the 38-year-old clinical psychologist who fatally shot himself in July 2009 after being fired from the Tomah VA facility. Kirkpatrick had questioned the medical center’s overprescription practices of opioids and other patient care concerns.

“Individuals who expose wrongdoing at VA medical facilities should be thanked and listened to, not silenced and subject to mistreatment,” Johnson said in a press release. “I’m pleased to partner with Sen. Ernst to ensure future whistleblowers like Dr. Kirkpatrick receive the support they deserve.”

The bill strengthens penalties for those who retaliate against whistleblowers, adds protections for probationary period employees and ensures federal employees have a greater knowledge of whistleblower protections, according to the senators.

Johnson is chairman of the Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs, which in May published a comprehensive report titled, “The Systemic Failures and Preventable Tragedies at the Tomah VA Medication Center.”  The 359-page report 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.

As USA Today reported in April 2015, Kirkpatrick had complained about patients being too drugged to treat. Other whistleblowers reported being retaliated against for raising similar concerns.

The story published a few months after the Center for Investigative Reporting broke the news about the opioid prescription problem at Tomah that claimed the life of a 35-year-old Marine veteran.

RELATED: Tomah VA Medical Center’s ‘Candy Man’ stripped of license

At a committee hearing in September 2015, Kirkpatrick’s brother, Sean, testified about the retaliation his brother faced after bringing allegations of wrongdoing to the attention of Tomah VAMC administrators.

The senators say their bill implements a number of suggestions Sean Kirkpatrick made at the hearing to improve whistleblower protections throughout the VA.

“This commonsense legislation would help to safeguard whistleblowers who speak up about corruption and mistreatment in our VA system, and take additional steps to hold retaliators responsible,” said Ernst, a combat veteran. “Efforts to fix the VA must be protected, not punished, as we work to improve access to timely and quality care for our nation’s veterans.”

The Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee approved the Dr. Chris Kirkpatrick Whistleblower Protection Act unanimously in May. However, Sen. Harry Reid, D-Nev., effectively killed it as one of the Senate minority leader’s many parting shots against GOP legislation before retiring.

“What happened to Chris is outrageous,” Sean Kirpatrick told USA Today in April 2015. “My hope and family’s hope is that people will take action so this doesn’t happen to anyone else.”

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

Speaker Paul Ryan turns pitchman for GOP plan to nix Obamacare

Fri, 03/10/2017 - 17:52

MADISON, Wis. – Speaker Paul Ryan has arguably become congress’ biggest salesman, playing pitchman for his party’s plan to repeal and replace Obamacare with a series of tax credits and health savings accounts that, Ryan asserts, will release the full power of the free market.

SALES PITCH: Speaker Paul Ryan on Thursday lays out the House Republican plan to repeal and replace Obamacare.

The Janesville Republican gave an audio version of his sales pitch Friday on the Vicki McKenna Show, on NewsTalk 1130 WISN in Milwaukee. He did so a day after providing a PowerPoint presentation on the Republican plan, rolling out a series of explanatory slides to those in attendance and the wider C-SPAN and cable news network audiences.

Ryan told McKenna that the American Health Care Act, as House Republicans are billing the Obamacare replacement plan, is part of three-act congressional play aimed at straightening out what conservatives (and anyone who has experienced skyrocketing premiums under the Affordable Care Act) assert is the health care insurance mess the Obama administration left behind.

“No.1 is the American Health Care Act, which is repealing the Obamacare spending, the Obamacare taxing, the Obamacare mandates, and replacing with Republican health care policy that has been longstanding conservative policy for decades – risk pools, health care savings accounts, tax credits for people in individual markets, which equalizes the tax treatment of health care to go buy what they want in a free market,” Ryan said.

The next step, according to the speaker, is to lean on Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price to use the power Obmacare granted the federal agency: enormous discretion. Ryan said Price can move to deregulate the marketplace and then “turn it back to the states so the states take over regulating health insurance like it was before Obamacare.”

Democrats have railed that the plan Ryan is pushing will rob the working poor of their new-found health insurance under the government-led Obamacare and a return to broader free-market control will send premiums soaring once more.

Ryan said competition, not burdensome government regulation and control, will save American health care from collapsing.

At the same time, Act 3 is all about a suite of conservative legislation that will empower associations and individuals to determine their own health care needs, Ryan said. And House leadership plans to take these “popular” bills to the Senate and the Senate Democrats the GOP is targeting in 2018.

“Let the Wisconsin farmer buy her insurance through the National Farm Bureau. Let the small business person buy insurance through the National Federation of Independent Business, and use the bulk buying power of millions of small business owners,” the speaker said.

Republicans also are taking another crack at tort reform, placing caps on the kinds of malpractice lawsuit judgments, they say, have financially crippled the health care industry and, consequently, health care consumers.

Ryan isn’t trying to make converts of Obamacare apostles. His pitch is to those in his party concerned about the generous advanced tax credits and other big-ticket spending proposals in the repeal-and-replace plan.

He’ll have to persuade the GOP’s standard bearer, President Donald Trump, too.

“But the group that Ryan really wanted to reach was much smaller: the Republican lawmakers—mostly conservatives—who are balking at the leadership’s bill and who will ultimately determine in the next few weeks whether it advances,” Russell Berman of The Atlantic wrote.

“To those members, Ryan’s most important message came at the end, and it boiled down to just a couple of sentences that have nothing to do with health-care policy. ‘This is the closest we will ever get to repealing and replacing Obamacare,” Ryan said. “It really comes down to a binary choice.’”

“It’s now or never, and it’s this or nothing,” Berman wrote.

Listen to Vicki McKenna’s interview with Speaker Paul Ryan here.

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

Assembly passes state treasurer amendment, issue goes to voters

Fri, 03/10/2017 - 11:47

The Wisconsin Assembly voted 68-31 on Thursday to amend the state constitution to eliminate the position of treasurer. The amendment now goes to a referendum in April 2018.

For an amendment to be successful, it has to pass each chamber of the state Legislature in consecutive sessions and then be approved by the voters.

ONE STEP CLOSER: State Treasurer Matt Adamczyk is one step closer to keeping his campaign promise of eliminating his office, thanks to the state Assembly on Thursday.

“It is my belief that the Office of State Treasurer in the State of Wisconsin is outdated, not needed and a waste of taxpayer money,” state Treasurer Matt Adamczyk said in a statement after the vote. “For this reason, I ran and was elected on the platform of eliminating the treasurer’s office.”

Adamczyk thanked state Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald, R-Juneau, and Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, R-Rochester, for bringing up the amendment.

The Assembly author of the amendment, Rep. Michael Schraa, R-Oshkosh, said in a statement after the vote that almost all of the duties traditionally assigned to a state treasurer are now done by the state Department of Revenue and the Department of Administration.

“This amendment is in line with our efforts to make Wisconsin government more streamlined and efficient,” Schraa said. “Since the main duties of the treasurer are now fulfilled by state agencies, it only makes sense to eliminate the unnecessary expense of this office.”

Because the legislature has reduced the state treasurer’s responsibilities over time, the sole remaining duty of the office is to serve on the Board of Commissioners of Public Lands, along with the state attorney general and the secretary of state. The board administers a public trust fund that distributes the interest earned to public schools. That seat on the board would be given to the lieutenant governor if the amendment is passed.

Assembly Democrats objected to that change, saying it put too much power in the hands of the governor’s office. They proposed an amendment to put the superintendent for the Department of Public Instruction on the board instead.

“We think to put this much power with this much money into one administration is not the way we should be handling our business,” said Rep. Christine Sinicki, D-Milwaukee.

RELATED: Amendment to eliminate state treasurer moves to Assembly

“We’re passing that money over to DOA under the auspices of the governor, and therefore we lose control of those funds,” said Rep. Gary Hebl, D-Sun Prairie. “We are getting rid of an elected official and turning over those funds to an appointed official. Bad, bad idea.”

Technically that is incorrect. In Wisconsin, the lieutenant governor is chosen separately in the partisan primary election, then runs on a single ticket with the same-party gubernatorial candidate in the November election.

“The last time I checked, the lieutenant governor is an elected position, I believe,” said state Rep. Tyler August, R-Lake Geneva. “So replacing one partisan official with another partisan official doesn’t cause any great harm.”

The amendment was defeated, 64-35.

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

Bill would provide more oversight on costly state leases

Fri, 03/10/2017 - 11:09

UPDATED: 3.13 to correct previous leasing information. The state Department of Administration property previously listed was purchased by the state, according to a DOA spokesman. Incorrect information was provided to Wisconsin Watchdog.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Taxpayers will spend nearly $13 million this year on the nine most expensive state leases, according to a list provided by Hutton’s office. The list includes the Director of State Courts operations, housed in a 52,000-square-foot space in a mixed-use building near the Capitol. Taxpayers will spend $1.53 million this year for the accommodations, or $29.42 per square foot.

Then there’s the University of Wisconsin System Administration property, at an annual lease payment of $1,074,797. The mixed-use property comes with 46,340 square feet, priced at about $23.19 per square foot.

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thu, 03/09/2017 - 18:04

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The reform bill would change that.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wisconsin Watchdog’s James Wigderson contributed.

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

 

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

Thu, 03/09/2017 - 16:43

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

If you do get through.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thu, 03/09/2017 - 08:54

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thu, 03/09/2017 - 08:41

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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