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Oconomowoc schools comms director placed on paid administrative leave

Fri, 01/13/2017 - 09:39

OCONOMOWOC, Wis. — The communications and marketing director for the Oconomowoc Area School District has been placed on paid administrative leave pending the the investigation of her consulting work for the Cambridge School District in advance of its Nov. 8 spending referendum.

In an email sent to Wisconsin Watchdog on Wednesday, Oconomowoc Area School District Superintendent Roger Rindo said Kate Winckler, the district’s comms director, is on leave while official look into allegations that she did consulting work for another district during the Oconomowoc district’s normal business hours. 

RINDO INVESTIGATES: Superintendent Roger Rindo has placed Communications Director Kate Winckler on paid administrative leave pending an investigation into her consulting work for another school district.

“Ms. Winckler has been placed on Administrative Leave while the School District considers the legal and personnel implications of the issues which have been presented to the District,” Rindo wrote. “As you know, personnel matters are confidential and there is little more that can be disclosed at this time.”

Winckler’s paid administrative leave began on Jan. 9, after Winckler returned from a week of vacation. Winckler earns $75,378 annually in her position with the Oconomowoc district, according to Rindo.

Winckler did not respond to requests for a comment regarding her leave status.

The investigation by the Oconomowoc School District began after an open records request by Watchdog uncovered Winckler’s consulting work for the Cambridge district.

Winckler, under the company name School Creatives, signed an agreement with the outside district to provide public relations expertise, including the creation and editing of promotional materials. The Cambridge district paid her $1,572.50 for the work.

Email communications between Winckler and the district prior to Nov. 14 showed her sending more than 40 emails and doing work for the Cambridge during the Oconomowoc district’s normal business hours.

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

RELATED: Oconomowoc schools investigating marketing director who did consulting work during business hours

When her consulting activities were first reported, Winckler said in a statement that the Cambridge school district was her only outside client. “I did my best to keep the work confined to evenings, weekends, and the occasional lunch break during the day when I could answer an email or take a phone call,” Winckler said in December.

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

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

RELATED: ‘Informational materials?’ School districts spend more than $325,000 to advertise referendums

Oconomowoc School Board President Donald Wiemer confirmed in a phone message that the school board has been notified of Winckler being placed on administrative leave. “The superintendent has advised the board that he did place her on administrative leave while he is doing his due diligence with the investigation,” Wiemer said.

The Oconomowoc school board is expected to discuss the matter with the superintendent in closed session at its next meeting on Jan. 17.

Wisconsin lawmakers reintroduce REINS Act

Thu, 01/12/2017 - 17:10

WAUKESHA, Wis. – A bill that aims to rein in state spending and provide more oversight of the executive branch is getting a second wind this state legislative session.

Rep. Adam Neylon, R-Pewaukee, and Sen. Devin Lemahieu, R-Oostburg, have reintroduced the REINS (Regulations from the Executive in Need of Scrutiny) bill in the Wisconsin legislature. The bill would require state agencies to get legislative approval for any regulation with an economic impact of more than $10 million.

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

BRING ON THE WRENCH: Rep. Adam Neylon says if a government rule has a business impact of above $10 million, he is ‘very comfortable throwing a wrench into it, grinding it to a halt, and forcing the legislature to then approve it.’

The bill would allow the legislature’s Joint Committee for Review of Administrative Rules to request a public hearing earlier in the rule-making process before the economic costs are determined. After a determination is made, REINS also would allow an independent review of a proposed regulation’s economic impact, if the Administrative Rules committee requests it.

“Just having this tool, I think will hold bureaucrats more accountable because they’re not going to want the scrutiny that goes with having an independent economic analysis done,” Neylon said.

The bill also would require the Department of Administration to determine the regulatory agency’s ability to create the rule.

“Previously that was done through the governor’s office,” Neylon said. “I think that having that additional check and balance through the Department of Administration will allow for a drawback of some of that executive power.”

Neylon said that while the current administration under Gov. Scott Walker is very aware of the need to control regulations that hurt businesses, the bill is necessary to control regulatory growth under future administrations.

“The thing that I really want out of this bill, if you could boil it down to one thing, we basically freeze costly new regulations,” Neylon said. “An administrative rule like phosphorus or a state version of the Clean Air Act couldn’t get through the administrative rule-making process because we would block it until the legislature could vote on it.”

A similar bill passed in the Assembly in 2016 on a party-line vote but stalled in the Senate due to opposition from environmental groups and the Wisconsin branch of the National Federation of Independent Business. Environmental groups such as Clean Wisconsin and the Wisconsin League of Conservation Voters feared that the law would stop the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources from issuing new regulations to protect the environment. Neither organization responded to requests for comment on the reintroduction of the bill.

SEE RELATED: Lawmaker to Senate: REIN in government regulations, pass REINS Act

The NFIB objected to the bill in 2016 because it would have sent regulations affecting small business to the Office of Business Development before the state Small Business Regulatory Review Board. The Small Business Regulatory Review Board is a group of appointed volunteer small businesses owners that reviews and comments on rules and regulations that affect small business.

NFIB, however, is dropping its opposition to the current bill, which simplified the regulatory review process, leaving the regulatory review role of the Small Business Regulatory Review Board intact.

“The current bill that is being circulated has removed the small business regulatory review process from its application,” said Bill Smith, director of the Wisconsin NFIB, in an interview Wednesday. “So the current small business regulatory review process will continue with no change under this bill. This bill also does not provide additional responsibilities for unelected bureaucrats as the last bill did.”

“We’re certainly not going to oppose it,” said Smith. “We certainly believe that the people that we elect should have oversight and play a key role in the regulatory review process.”

A congressional version of the REINS Act passed in the House earlier this month. The bill requires any regulation with an impact of $100 million or more to pass Congress and be signed by the president.

Jeremy Symons, associate vice president of climate change policy at the Environmental Defense Fund, insists the bill “aims to obstruct even basic protections by requiring all new covered regulations to be approved by both chambers of Congress.”

“Under REINS Act, If either branch of Congress does not approve any covered rule within 70 legislative days, the rule becomes null and void and cannot be re-issued. This effectively gives one chamber of Congress veto power over any new significant public health and safety protection, no matter how non-controversial or sensible it may be.,” Symons wrote in a recent column for The Hill. 

Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Janesville, said the legislation “will provide more accountability and transparency before major rules or regulations take effect,” and “help make sure the government gets it right.”

Retired judges’ recusal proposal again tries to silence speech

Thu, 01/12/2017 - 16:55

MADISON, Wis. – Some of the same judges who actively chilled conservative speech are petitioning to do it again – all, once more, in the name of “good government.”

More than 50 retired judges filed a petition this week with the Wisconsin Supreme Court urging “strong new rules” on recusal. There’s just too much money in Wisconsin’s judicial elections, the 54 former judges assert, and that money is currying favor with like-minded arbiters.

ACCUSATORY RECUSAL: More than 50 former judges have filed a petition with the Wisconsin Supreme Court asking the justices to adopt “strong new rules” on recusal.

The petition seeks to slash the amount of contributions that would trigger judicial disqualifications. A Supreme Court justice, for instance, would be forced to step away from a case involving an individual (or his lawyer) who contributed $10,000 or more to the justice’s campaign. The limit is $2,500 for Appeals Court judges, $1,000 for Circuit Court judges, and $500 for Municipal Court adjudicators.

In 2015, the Legislature increased limits on direct contributions to judicial candidates and their campaign committees to $6,000 for
circuit court candidates in large counties and to $20,000 for Supreme Court candidates. Also in 2015, the state Supreme Court ruled that an individual or organization engaged in issue advocacy may coordinate with the campaign in any fashion, with no limits on what it may spend, without any obligation to report the source of its funds.

The retired judges want to rewrite of the recusal rules laid out by the Supreme Court in 2010, rules narrowly adopted (4-3) by the conservative majority. In Wisconsin, judges do not have to withdraw from cases involving donors to their campaigns, that such contributions don’t necessarily lead to bias on the bench.

 

The former judges, many of whom serve as reserve judges, also want to restrict contributions in the aggregate over two terms.

“The rule applies to campaign contributions made both during the judge’s term and during the immediately preceding term,” the petition proposes.

“As money in elections becomes more predominant, citizens rightly ask whether justice is for sale,” the petition states.

Citizens, too, have a right to ask just where the judges who signed the petition are coming from. Many of them have long judicial records of restraining, if not silencing, speech – at least right-of-center expression.

Speech police

Among the signers is Gerald Nichol, former Dane County judge and chairman of the Government Accountability Board, the now-defunct speech cop that partnered with left-leaning prosecutors of Wisconsin’s infamous “John Doe II” investigation.

Nichol, who supported the unconstitutional probe until the bitter end, once said of the investigation’s predawn armed raids on the homes of conservative citizens never charged with any wrongdoing, “I don’t have a problem with the way we played that role,” he said. “It obviously angered one specific party.”

Nichol, one of six retired judges who presided over the old GAB, still insisted that the GAB acted in a supporting role in the sweeping John Doe investigation. But court documents show the GAB was more than a bit player in this partisan probe.

The search warrants used in the raids were executed based on the request of GAB special investigator Dean Nickel, who filed the affidavit for probable cause. Francis Schmitz, the John Doe special prosecutor, was originally hired by the GAB as a special investigator on the case.

Nichol’s supporters point to the fact that he was elected as a Republican district attorney for Dane County years ago. First Amendment advocates counter that Republicans have been known to stifle speech, too.

John Doe judge

Former Court of Appeals Judge Neal Nettesheim also signed the petition. Nettesheim served as the judge of the secret investigation that overlapped with John Doe II. He presided over an investigation that began with a discrepancy in a Milwaukee County veterans fund and widened into a politically charged probe into aides and associates of Republican Gov. Scott Walker. At the time, Walker was Milwaukee County executive running for his first term as governor.

UNCONSTITUTIONAL PROBE: Some of the judges who signed the petition were involved in approving the rules that limited political speech and authorizing the investigations that punished it.

Walker aide Cindy Archer was swept up in “John Doe I.”

Like Walker, Archer was never charged with any wrongdoing.

That didn’t stop John Doe investigators from hounding her, harassing her and interrogating her on multiple occasions over the course of many months,  according to Archer’s civil rights lawsuit now before the 7th Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals.

In September 2011, law enforcement officers showed up at her Madison home and conducted an early morning armed raid.

Archer’s attorneys allege Nettesheim did not review the documents in the warrant request, and that he may not have even signed it. They say documents show the judge was working on another case elsewhere the day the warrant was signed.

“They even launched an armed, pre-dawn raid of Ms. Archer’s home based on a warrant that they knew was not reviewed by, and may not have been signed by, an impartial magistrate,” Archer’s appeals court filing states. “And this may be just the tip of the iceberg, as secrecy orders have greatly hampered pre-discovery case investigation.”

Thomas Barland, an Eau Claire County judge for 33 years and former chairman of the Government Accountability Board, also signed the petition on recusals. Barland’s name is on the famous court decisions that declared unconstitutional the GAB’s patchwork of contribution restrictions and various campaign finance rules and regulations.

“The United States Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit ruled that the aggregate contribution limit on individuals for donations given to organizations making independent expenditures was unconstitutional,” according to Ballotpedia. The court ordered a district court judge to enter a permanent injunction against the limits on free speech that Barland helped enact.

More than one-fifth of the judges that signed the petition for stricter recusal rules served on the ultra-liberal Dane County Circuit Court, including Judge Maryann Sumi. Sumi made national headlines in 2011, when she issued a restraining order against Walker’s Act 10, the legislative package that reformed Wisconsin’s public sector collective-bargaining laws. Multiple courts eventually upheld Act 10 and the process of enacting it.

Frustrating voter will

Rick Esenberg of the Wisconsin Institute for Law & Liberty says the recusal petition presents a number of constitutional problems.

The petition imposes a “tremendous burden on speech” for judges and those who support them in Wisconsin’s judicial elections, Esenberg said.

“I don’t think any lawyer would make a contribution because you don’t want to put yourself in a case where you lose a judge you respect and admire enough to support,” said Esenberg, president of the Milwaukee-based free-market public interest law firm.  “Maybe that’s what the petitioners want, but it seems to be inconsistent with Wisconsin’s system of electing judges.”

FRUSTRATING THE VOTE: Forcing judges off cases because of issue advocacy or campaign contributions could “frustrate” the will of the voters, according to constitutional law expert Rick Esenberg.

And the petition, on its own terms, doesn’t go far enough. There is no provision for recusal of judges on cases involving people or groups that spent money opposing a judge.

Case in point, Appeals Court Judge JoAnne Kloppenburg.

The recusal petition arises in the wake of the left’s indignation over state Supreme Court justices David Prosser (since retired) and Michael Gableman declining to step aside from the 2015 case declaring John Doe II unconstitutional. John Doe prosecutors and their supporters claimed the justices benefited from the millions of dollars in issue advocacy spending by some targets of the John Doe.

But what of Kloppenburg’s decision not to recuse in the appeals court ruling against conservative targets who challenged the validity of the John Doe probe? Kloppenburg, a liberal judge supported by unions and other progressive groups, ran unsuccessfully against Prosser in 2010, in an election that counted millions of dollars in special interest money on both sides.

Documents obtained by Wisconsin Watchdog show prosecutors and a particularly partisan member of the GAB, Shane Falk, hoped to game the system long before the controversial investigation went to court by laying out a strategy to force recusal of conservative Supreme Court justices while making sure liberal Kloppenburg did not step aside.

In a Nov. 27, 2013, email, Falk sounded confident that Kloppenburg would not recuse, but he urged Schmitz, the special prosecutor, to talk with her about the judge’s potential conflict problem.

In that same email, Falk encouraged the special prosecutor to “keep up the great work and stay strong.”

Beyond the First Amendment principles at stake is the impact such strict recusal rules would have on representative democracy in Wisconsin, Esenberg said.

“Voters elected these particular judges. … When judges are forced to recuse themselves, the will of the voters to that extent is being frustrated,” he said. “There are cases in which sometimes you have to recuse. But I have always argued that the bar for recusal has to be higher for the Supreme Court for that reason.”

Sources: Social Security judge accused of deciding cases on sex appeal retires

Wed, 01/11/2017 - 16:55
Part 51 of 50 in the series Deadly Delays

MADISON, Wis. – The federal administrative law judge accused of describing claimants as “buxom” and “gorilla-like” has left the Social Security Administration, the agency confirmed Wednesday.

John Pleuss retired on Dec. 31 from SSA’s scandal-plagued Madison Office of Disability Adjudication and Review, multiple sources with knowledge of the situation tell Wisconsin Watchdog.

Doug Nguyen, communications director for SSA’s Region 5 based in Chicago, confirmed Pleuss is “currently not employed by the SSA.”

The spokesman did not answer whether Pleuss left voluntarily or was fired.

“Judge Pleuss in not currently a Social Security employee and we cannot comment on personnel issues,” Nguyen said in a follow-up email.

Whistleblowers and others with knowledge of the federal investigations into Pleuss’ conduct said that the embattled administrative law judge has retired.

STEPPING OUT: Social Security Administrative Law Judge John Pleuss, accused of sexual harassment and other misconduct at the Madison office, retired last month sources say. The long-time federal employee stands to collect hefty retirement benefits checks.

Pleuss could not be reached for comment at his Madison home Wednesday.

For months, sources say, federal investigators have been looking into allegations that Pleuss sexually harassed ODAR employees and made inappropriate comments about the people who have appealed to him for Social Security disability benefits.

More serious are allegations that Pleuss decided cases based on the physical appearance of claimants.

Sources tell Wisconsin Watchdog that many of Pleuss’ cases are under review.

What happens next?

Insiders say Wisconsin’s U.S. senators are awaiting the release of a final report by SSA’s Office of the Inspector General. OIG has been investigating the sexual harassment allegations and a raft of misconduct accusations, including bribery and fraud, at the Madison office for several months. The Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs, chaired by Sen. Ron Johnson, R-Oshkosh, continues its inquiry into the SSA, an investigation that began in June. Sen. Tammy Baldwin, D-Madison, has for months demanded answers from SSA. And the Office of Special Counsel, too, sources say, has been investigating reports of whistleblower retaliation.

For now, it appears Pleuss will retire with his taxpayer-funded federal pension and all of the accompanying benefits, estimated to be worth nearly $1 million, based on his six-figure salary and his lengthy federal service. Federal retirement plans provide civil service retirement benefits from a combination of the Basic Benefit Plan, Social Security and the Thrift Savings Plan.

As Reg Jones, former head of retirement and insurance policy at the Office of Personnel Management pointed out in a Federal Times column, unless a federal employee is fired for any of the offenses cited in 5 U.S. Code 8313, “which largely involve treason, rebellion and seditious conduct,” the employee is eligible for a deferred annuity at age 60.

An SSA whistleblower said Pleuss’ retirement is a mixed blessing.

“On one hand, it is a satisfying resolution to me because the claimants and staff are no longer subject to that kind of behavior, but on the other hand it seems pretty unjust that he escapes with no consequences,” the whistleblower said. The SSA insider suspects the agency is trying to save itself and Pleuss from liability.

As Wisconsin Watchdog first reported in June, Pleuss in his case files described claimants as “attractive,” innocent-looking, “buxom.” In one case, he noted that a “young, white (woman)”appearing before him “looks like a man.”

RELATED: ‘Culture of corruption and ‘cover-up’ alleged in Madison Social Security office

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

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

In one document, Pleuss wrote, “I’ll pay this lady when hell freezes over!”

Following the reports, Pleuss was taken off cases, sources said. In November, he was escorted out of the Madison ODAR facility by armed guards, according to insiders.

“This is the beginning of justice being served,” one ODAR source told Wisconsin Watchdog.

Meanwhile, two top Region 5 officials who were expected to leave their leadership positions by the end of 2016 remain with SSA.

In October,  Sherry D. Thompson, chief administrative law judge for SSA’s Region 5 in Chicago, and Assistant Regional Chief Administrative Law Judge John J. Rabaut announced they would be resigning from their leadership positions at the end of the year.

Whistleblowers say the judges have not departed yet, something Nguyen confirmed Wednesday.

“Judge Thompson and Rabaut are both still employed by the SSA,” the spokesman said.

Walker: Workforce development, welfare reform top priorities

Tue, 01/10/2017 - 18:21

MADISON, Wis. – For fiscal conservatives, there seems to be much to like in Gov. Scott Walker’s 2017 State of the State address.

For liberals, Tuesday’s message was all just more rhetoric from the devil.

Such is life in the deep partisan divide that is Badger State politics.

In his latest address before a joint session of the Legislature, the two-term Republican governor laid out his vision of the biennial session ahead and very much sounded like a candidate seeking a third term in the governor’s seat.

“We are working and winning for Wisconsin,” Walker repeated several times throughout the course of his address.

The governor promised to not only freeze college tuition again but to cut tuition for all undergraduates in the University of Wisconsin System. He promised more tax cuts. And he held firm on his pledge of no gas tax or fee hikes without a corresponding reduction in expenses.

“I believe firmly we were not sent here by the people of Wisconsin to raise taxes,” Walker said.

WALKER TALK: Gov. Scott Walker pledged to cut taxes and tuition while increasing transportation funding and public education spending in his State of the State address Tuesday.

Such an intractable stance wasn’t welcome news to Democrats that have jumped on board the Transportation funding train alongside some very powerful Republicans pushing an everything-on-the-table approach to filling a $1 billion Transportation budget shortfall.

A new poll by Wisconsin Manufacturers & Commerce shows voters split on the gas tax issue, with 49 percent in favor, 48 percent opposed. But a majority of Republicans – the people most likely to vote for Republicans like Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, R-Rochester – oppose an increase, while 57 percent of Democrats – people much less likely to vote for Republicans like Vos – support a tax hike.

Walker hailed the tax-reduction work of his administration and the Republican majority over the past six years.

“I’m proud to report since taking office we cut taxes by more than $4.7 billion,” the governor said. That figure includes multiple taxing categories, according to the Wisconsin Legislative Fiscal Bureau.

But there’s much more work to be done, Walker said. Wisconsin remains one of the higher-tax states in the nation.

Sounding confident in his administration’s pursuit of job creation, Walker said his top priority in the 2017-19 budget cycle is workforce development.

“More people were employed in Wisconsin last year than at any point in the history of our great state,” the governor said. “Unemployment levels are the lowest in more than 15 years. And the percentage of people working in Wisconsin is one of the highest of any state in the country.”

Walker’s opponents attempted to pick his “rosy picture” apart.

Senate Minority Leader Jennifer Shilling, D-La Crosse, pointed to Walker’s pledge that Wisconsin employers would create 250,000 jobs in his first term, arguing that the job numbers remain “woefully under” Walker’s 2010 campaign promise six years later.

“Six years ago, Gov. Walker spoke before an audience in the Assembly chamber and made a lot of promises. He said Wisconsin would lead the economic recovery. He said we would stop kicking the can down the road on funding transportation. He said we can’t rely on short term fixes, and we can’t borrow excessively anymore,” Assembly Minority Leader Peter Barca, D-Kenosha said in a statement following the governor’s address.

“Yet here we are, as the Governor begins his seventh year and delivers the State of the State, we have a $700 million budget deficit, an economy that is lagging significantly behind the rest of the nation, the 3rd worst roads and the most diminished middle class in the nation.”

Barca’s $700 million assumption, however, is based on what state agencies have asked for, not necessarily how much taxpayer money they can collectively expect.

Just how Barca came to his assertion that Wisconsin has the most diminished middle class in the nation is not clear.

A Pew Research Center study in May found that Wisconsin is a prime example of middle-income America. The state boasts the top three middle-income metropolitan areas in the nation – Wausau, with 67 percent of adults characterized as middle-income, followed by Janesville-Beloit (65 percent), and Sheboygan (63 percent). Eau Claire is No. 9 on the list.

There are some troubling signs, however, as the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel pointed out in a story on the Pew study last year.

“The state as a whole has the country’s fourth-highest percentage of middle-income adults. But from 2000 through 2014, only eight states experienced a greater decline in the real median income of their middle-tier households,” the newspaper reported.

In his address, Walker invoked the $3.6 billion question.

“Are the people of Wisconsin – you, me, us – better off than we were six years ago? The answer is a resounding yes,” he said.

He noted the 133,000 jobs lost in the four years prior to when he took office in 2011, a couple of years after the job hemorrhaging of the 2007-09 recession. Unemployment peaked at 9.2 percent in 2009, compared to 4.1 percent in November, the latest data available. Walker began his first term facing a $3.6 billion budget shortfall. Recent budgets have finished with surpluses, much of which was used to buy tax cuts.

Today, Wisconsin’s economy has more than recovered the jobs lost under the final term of Democrat Jim Doyle’s administration, Walker noted, albeit not at the 250,000 new Walker first ran on. Wages are up and more than 50,000 new businesses have been created, he said.

TRANSPORTATION STANCE: Gov. Scott Walker is standing by his pledge of no new gas taxes in the upcoming budget, a position at odds with some members of his party.

“We went from a focus on ‘jobs, jobs, jobs’ to talking about ‘workforce, workforce, workforce.’ This is my top priority for 2017 – and beyond,” he said.

While Democrats and some in his own party have been critical of the governor’s transportation agenda, Walker noted that the state has invested more than $18 billion in transportation over the past six years – $2 billion more than his predecessor did during the previous six years. The 2005-2010 time period, however, included the recession years.

Walker noted the previous administration “raided” $1.4 billion from the state transportation fund. Over the course of his two terms, Doyle transferred the marked transportation funding into the state’s general fund.

The governor reiterated that his is placing a priority on safety and maintenance of Wisconsin’s existing roads.

“Looking ahead, we will provide local governments with the largest increase in transportation aids since the 1990s,” Walker said. “This includes an investment of 25% more over last budget alone in the Local Road Improvement Program$65 million in new local aids, and the largest increase to the Local Bridge Improvement Program in over 20 years. Local governments can use these funds to fix roads and bridges and potholes in their communities.”

Democrats doubled down on their push for more transportation funding, and blasted Walker for what Barca called Wisconsin’s “decrepit infrastructure,” noting that more schools than ever are forced to go to referendum to fill funding shortfalls. Conservatives counter that is precisely why the referendum process was created, to give local taxpayers the ability to decide increased funding questions while lifting some of the burden from state taxpayers.

While not going into too many specifics, Walker did say that his impending budget proposal will include $35.5 million more to expand broadband access, and he pledged a “significant increase for public schools.”

He also called on Wisconsin again to be a leader on welfare reform, continuing the work that Republican Gov. Tommy Thompson began a generation ago.

“Rewarding work will be our top priority,” Walker said. “Here in Wisconsin, we are willing to help people who are down and out. But public assistance should be a trampoline, not a hammock.”

How he intends to pay for tuition freezes and cuts, increased transportation maintenance spending,  tax breaks, and significant increases in public education funding remains to be explained.

Walker is expected to get down to details in the coming days leading up to the release of his budget plan.

Poll finds more optimism for Wisconsin economy, mixed opinions on gas tax

Tue, 01/10/2017 - 15:18

MADISON, Wis. — A new poll by the state’s largest business advocate finds Wisconsinites are more optimistic about the economy than they were this time last year.

The Wisconsin Manufacturers and Commerce Survey of Voter Attitudes shows that 35 percent respondents believe the Badger State economy will improve in 2017 while 42 percent believe it will stay about the same. Last year, 22 percent of respondents expected the economy to improve and 56 percent predicted it would stay the same.

Naysayer numbers are almost unchanged. The latest poll finds 19 percent of those questioned believe Wisconsin’s economy will falter this year, up 1 percentage point from last year.

“Confidence in Wisconsin’s economy continues to grow for Wisconsin voters, a sign that the policies coming out of Madison are moving our state in the right direction,” Kurt R. Bauer, WMC president and CEO, said in a press release.

“However, voters are still wary about ever-increasing health care costs thanks to the Affordable Care Act, the state’s burdensome tax climate and government regulations that will hike the cost of energy. Policymakers should continue to be mindful of this moving forward,” Bauer added.

PEOPLE WHO NEED PEOPLE: The people pictured here are representative of real human beings in Wisconsin’s job market. They are NOT real human beings.Workforce experts say Wisconsin businesses are having an increasingly difficult time finding qualified workers.

The poll of 506 Wisconsin voters was taken Dec. 12-14. It was conducted for WMC by the Washington, D.C.-based Tarrance Group. The margin of error, according to the authors, is plus or minus 4.5 percent.

About 32 percent of voters believe their personal economic situation will improve this year, up from 18 percent at the beginning of 2016, according to the poll. Roughly half of respondents expect their personal economic situation will remain about the same.

Wisconsin’s unemployment rate was unchanged in November (the latest data available), at 4.1 percent. The state’s jobless rate has long been below the national gauge, which ticked up in December to 4.7 percent.

The problem in Wisconsin these days is finding workers to fill the tens of thousands of job openings, employers and workforce experts say.

Wisconsin Department of Workforce Development senior economist Jeff Sachse told Wisconsin Public Radio last month that hiring continues to rise, but some sectors, particularly health care, are struggling to find qualified workers.

“It’s driven by concerns over a lack of availability of candidates, as well as uncertainty about a number of more broad policy issues,” including “changes to the Affordable Care Act,” Sachse said.

President-elect Donald Trump is urging congressional Republicans to repeal and replace President Barack Obama’s signature policy, the health care law often referred to as Obamacare. Republicans, now in the majority in both the Senate and the House, are moving quickly to sweep aside much of Obamacare.

A majority of Americans disapprove of the law, according to a new Politico/Morning Consult poll, but they are skeptical of repealing the ACA without a plan to replace it. Only 41 percent of voters surveyed approve of Obamacare.

The WMC poll may have found the reason for the low approval rate.

A majority of those surveyed, 58 percent, said their health insurance costs increased over the last year. Just 2 percent said their costs decreased.

“These numbers show that Obamacare continues to be a drag on the national and state economy,” the poll summary states.

The poll also found:

  • Wisconsin continues to be a high-tax state. When asked which taxes they would like to see cut, a plurality of respondents (43 percent) said they would like to see lower property taxes, followed by income taxes (31 percent) and the state sales tax (11 percent).
  • Voters are split on raising the gas tax, with 49 percent in favor and 48 percent opposed. However, there is a clear partisan divide on the issue. A majority (56 percent) of Republicans oppose a gas tax increase, and a majority (57 percent) of Democrats support a gas tax increase. Geographically, support for a gas tax increase is being driven by liberal Dane County (63 percent in favor/33 percent oppose) and the rest of the Madison media market (62 percent in favor/36 percent oppose). Milwaukee County (43 percent in favor/50 percent oppose), the rest of the Milwaukee media market (45 percent in favor/54 percent oppose) and the rest of the state (47 percent in favor/50 percent oppose) all have more voters in opposition to a gas tax increase.
  • On energy issues, voters are clearly concerned about government overregulation. A large majority (60 percent) said they would not support policies to combat global warming if it resulted in thousands of job losses. Additionally, two-thirds of respondents (67 percent) said they would not support a $25 increase in their electricity bill to pay for global warming regulations. Last year, 64 percent of voters said they would not support a $50 increase to pay for such regulations.
  • On other policies, 78 percent of Wisconsin voters support school choice, 81 percent believe students should be responsible for paying back their own student loan debt and 84 percent favor financial incentives for internships, apprenticeships or job shadowing.

Wisconsin could lead effort to restore states’ rights

Mon, 01/09/2017 - 17:26

MADISON, Wis. — The legislative session ahead promises to be busy.

There will be plenty of big-ticket, high-profile policy debates devouring the headlines. Health care. Education. Transportation.

TIME IS RIGHT: State Sen. Chris Kapenga, R-Delafield, says there may never be a better time to rein in federal power and restore the power balance between the states and the federal government.

But another key initiative, for the most part off the radar, could change states’ increasingly subordinate role in the U.S. system of federalism.

Wisconsin, again, could lead the way to reform.

“With recent changes at the federal level, we have a unique opportunity to have more authority delegated back to the states, especially regarding the delivery of public benefit programs,” state Sen. Chris Kapenga wrote in a recent newsletter to constituents.

The Delafield Republican recently was named chairman of the Senate Committee on Public Benefits, Licensing and State-Federal Relations.

While the committee may not draw as much attention as Transportation or the powerful budget-writing Joint Finance Committee, the panel expects to play a crucial part in advocating the powers of the Tenth Amendment to what is expected to be a more receptive Congress.

Wisconsin’s Republican-dominated congressional delegation has long led the group of conservatives that want the federal government to check its insatiable hunger for expanded powers — particularly those “not delegated to the United States by the Constitution.”

With a Republican-dominated Congress and an incoming Republican president signaling an interest in rebalancing the balance of power, Kapenga says now is the time for the federal government to relinquish powers “reserved to the states respectively, or to the people,” as the Tenth Amendment states.

“The key to our society is the federalism balance between the federal government and state government, and the Founding Fathers’ original intent was to have that balance in place because they saw the danger of an overly powerful national and federal government,” Kapenga told Wisconsin Watchdog recently on the Vicki McKenna Show. “We’re going to focus in on rebalancing that power.”

Gov. Scott Walker last month urged President-elect Donald Trump to restore state control and ease “incessant federal overreach.”

“The question is not what functions the federal government should give back to the states, but what functions should the federal government have in the first place,” Walker wrote in a letter to Trump.

“The federal government was originally created to be a small, central government of limited powers, with everything else left to the states. Through years of federal overreach, this model has been turned on its head, and now is the time to write the ship,” Walker added. “Power flows from the people to the government, not the other way around.”

RELATED: Walker urges Trump to restore power to the states

Wisconsin conservatives have some powerful allies in their corner. Kenosha native Reince Priebus, the outgoing Republican National Committee chairman and White House chief of staff, is among Trump’s top advisers. Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Janesville, has long sought to rework the federal-state relationship, particularly as it relates to taxpayer burdens.

Ryan, for instance, has urged that funding for Medicaid and other social service programs be delivered through block grants to the states.

Walker recently told MacIver News Service that states can administer programs “more effectively, more efficiently and definitely in a way that’s more accountable.”

“But I wouldn’t stop at Medicaid — I’d do transportation, I’d do workforce investment,” the Republican governor said. “Heck, I’d do education funding. I’d rather spend the dollar here in Wisconsin on my schools as opposed to sending it to Washington, and I think most people, regardless of party, would prefer to do that, too.”

The liberal Center on Budget and Policy Priorities has been critical of Ryan’s reform ideas.

“As we explained when [Ryan] made essentially the same proposal last year, this would very likely increase poverty and hardship, not reduce them,” wrote CBPP President Robert Greenstein in December 2015.

“Ryan said that the federal block grant funds would have to be used for the poor. But that wouldn’t prevent states and localities from substituting some of these funds for state and local funds now used for some of the same purposes and diverting those state and local funds to other uses, such as plugging budget holes,” Greenstein added. “That’s what happened under the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families block grant, despite Congress’ efforts to prevent it.”

Conservatives argue that the federal government has forced state and local governments to pay billions of dollars in unfunded mandates.

State Rep. Andre Jacque, R-De Pere, recently received an invitation that he “couldn’t turn down” from Congress to address the burdens of federal funding mandates.

In a recent letter to U.S. Rep. Jason Chaffetz, R-Utah, Jacque in particular takes aim at the Davis-Bacon Act, the 1930s federal “prevailing wage” law.

“Davis-Bacon has been shown to inflate the cost of federally funded construction projects considerably above what the free market would dictate, significantly increasing federal spending,” the Wisconsin lawmaker wrote.

The Labor Department, in applying the law, jacks up wages on average 22 percent higher than the market rate for similar projects, according to a study from the Beacon Hill Institute. Davis-Bacon wages cost taxpayers more than $1 billion per year in addition to the $100 million in annual government administrative costs, according to the Heritage Foundation.

“It’s protecting a small number of folks, in this case the unions, from fair competition for taxpayer dollars,” Jacque told Wisconsin Watchdog.

Kapenga, who has been out front in Wisconsin’s “Article V” efforts in the pursuit of a federal balanced budget amendment, said the time for reforming the federal-state relationship is now. There may never be a better time, the lawmaker said, because Congress seems to finally be listening to the states.

“I came in six or seven years ago. To my knowledge, I don’t recall that happening in the recent past. It’s exciting to see that,” Kapenga said.

Policy memo accuses Evers of acting unilaterally on ESSA

Fri, 01/06/2017 - 15:53

OVERREACH: CJ Szafir, vice president of the Wisconsin Institute for Law and Liberty, says Tony Evers and the Department of Public Instruction were making decisions on ESSA unilaterally instead of consulting the governor and Legislature.

A new public policy memo accuses the Wisconsin Superintendent for the Department of Public Instruction of acting unilaterally in implementing the Every Student Succeeds Act.

The memo, written by Libby Sobic, associate counsel for the Wisconsin Institute for Law and Liberty, and CJ Szafir, the group’s vice president, criticizes Superintendent Tony Evers of acting alone on ESSA.

“ESSA requires the state plan to be created with ‘meaningful consultation from the state legislature and the Governor,’” the memo states. “To date, the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction (‘DPI’) is making unilateral decisions on ESSA’s state plan with very little consultation with Governor Walker and the legislature.”

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

Wisconsin received about $204 million in Title I-A funding alone for school year 2016-2017, according to the memo.

“The more we started to follow it, and the more we reached out to stakeholders, it became abundantly clear that Tony Evers and the Department of Public Instruction were making a lot of these policy decisions unilaterally, or they were planning on making them unilaterally,” Szafir said in an interview Thursday.”

“There is little input from Governor Walker or the state Legislature,” he said.

State Rep. Dale Kooyenga, R-Brookfield, vice chair of the Joint Finance Committee, reacted to the WILL memo.

“ESSA will require changes to state law and common sense would lead me to believe Superintendent Evers would work closely with the legislature responsible for changing the laws and allocating funding,” Kooyenga said in a statement. “Education should not be a partisan issue, but the status quo defenders do not want to collaborate with legislators like myself who believe we can do more for Wisconsin students.”

In a statement Thursday, DPI Communications Director Thomas McCarthy disagreed with the accusations contained in the memo.

“The DPI has consistently briefed legislative leaders on ESSA and meets weekly with Governor Walker’s office on ESSA and other state and federal issues,” McCarthy said. “In Wisconsin, the constitutionally-elected State Superintendent of Public Instruction is ultimately responsible for submitting the ESSA plan. But Tony has put great value in reaching a wide-range of stakeholders through a thoughtful, fully-engaged process to develop our state plan.”

McCarthy said legislators and other education stakeholders are consulted through the Equity in ESSA Stakeholders Council, a group of over 30 members from different education interest groups and legislators.

“It is always unfortunate when sector politics are used in attempt to divide what has been a positive and constructive process,” McCarthy said. “But in this instance, it is particularly surprising, since WILL has been at all the ESSA Council meetings, has met several times with DPI staff over the last few months on a range of issues, and has participated in the School Choice Wisconsin regional meeting where DPI staff also presented.”

However, state Rep. Jeremy Thiesfeldt, R-Fond du Lac, chair of the Committee on Education, told Watchdog on Friday that he was not aware of the ESSA Council until he read the WILL memo. “I was not even aware of this committee that was put together,” he said. “I would think that DPI would be interested in involving me in that process in some sort of way.”

Thiesfeldt said he didn’t recall ever being contacted by DPI about ESSA implementation: “The Assembly, other than [state Rep. Adam] Neylon who is on the committee, has not been consulted one bit.”

Szafir said the ESSA council meetings don’t qualify as meaningful input, but that “council has no voting power; that council doesn’t really get to set the agenda.”

“They’re just kind of there to provide their own opinions on some things. And at the end of the day, Superintendent Evers doesn’t have to follow [what’s] said at the council,” Szafir said.

He added: “These are policy decisions, and under the Wisconsin Constitution the state Legislature is the policy making branch of government,” Szafir said. “And if they want to play a bigger role in the crafting of the state plan to comply with federal law, they’re well within their right to do so.”

The WILL memo offers steps the Legislature could take to be more involved in the law’s implementation. For example, the memo recommends that the state plan first be approved by the Legislature, education committees, or Joint Finance Committee before begin submitted to the U.S. Department of Education.

“It is possible the state legislature could even take it upon itself to write its own state plan or parts of it and require DPI to submit it on their behalf,” the memo states. “According to Wisconsin Supreme Court precedent, there is no question that the state legislature has authority over the Superintendent of Public Instruction for education policy.”

RELATED: Legislators to Evers: Worry more about students, less about dollars

Another concern expressed in the memo relates to the creation of an ombudsman position “to monitor and enforce the requirement that public schools provide Title services to private school students.”

“If independent from DPI, the ombudsman has potential to greatly empower children at private schools by giving them easier access to federal services from the Local Education Agency (LEA) (a public school district) that often acts as a gatekeeper for those services,” the memo said.

“This has always been a huge burden for private schools and, now there’s actually the creation of this ombudsman position that should mediate these disputes,” Szafir said. “This requires that the ombudsman position is thoughtfully created, thoughtfully selected, and quite frankly is independent from the Department of Public Instruction.”

McCarthy confirmed that the position of the ombudsman would not be within DPI and would not be under the DPI Superintendent. “Choice advocates (including Wisconsin Council of Religious and Independent Schools, School Choice Wisconsin, Wisconsin Catholic Conference, Seton Schools, Choice School Association, American Federation of Children) and the State Superintendent have agreed to create an independent private school ombudsman that will work collaboratively,” McCarthy said.

As for charter schools under ESSA, McCarthy said, “Charter advocates and the State Superintendent have worked together to ensure charter school autonomy is preserved under the ESSA plan.”

Darling seeks federal waiver to end ‘benefits cliff,’ reform welfare

Fri, 01/06/2017 - 15:27

MADISON, Wis. – A southeast Wisconsin lawmaker is calling on Gov. Scott Walker to help low-income workers transition off of welfare.

Sen. Alberta Darling, R-River Hills, and her conservative colleagues this week sent a letter to the Republican governor asking that the administration seek a federal waiver to create a “sliding scale” to reform the welfare system.

‘SLIDING SCALE’: Sen. Alberta Darling, R-River Hills, wants Gov. Scott Walker to help her take on the ‘benefits cliff.’

“A sliding scale would gradually decrease benefits until the worker can afford to completely move off government assistance,” Darling said in a press release.

Darling is hoping for some movement on a way to address the so-called “benefits cliff,” in which low-income workers face losing benefits after a pay bump – oftentimes a slight one.

Success can be a snare, punishing hard work and keeping people locked in government dependency, Darling said.

“I’ve talked to employers who had great employees turn down professional opportunities because the raise won’t cover the loss of benefits from public assistance,” the Republican said. “A federal waiver will help Wisconsin continue to be a leader in welfare reform.”

“Public assistance should never hold people back from reaching their full potential,” said the senator, co-chair of the Legislature’s powerful budget-writing committee. “It’s extremely difficult to accept a raise or a promotion if it means you lose your child care.  It can keep people stuck in a cycle of government dependence.”

Joe Doe lawsuit seeks to answer whether prosecutors have boundless immunity

Fri, 01/06/2017 - 15:03
Part 380 of 380 in the series Wisconsin's Secret War

CHICAGO – A three-judge panel of the 7th Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals on Friday asked some pointed questions of the attorneys on both sides of Wisconsin’s high-profile First Amendment case, Cynthia Archer v. John T. Chisholm, et al.

At issue in the civil rights lawsuit that arose from the infamous John Doe investigation are such questions as:

— Are abusive prosecutors immune from such litigation because of the “silver bullet” of probable cause?

— Do public employees sacrifice their First Amendment rights because they are government employees?

“If the U.S. Attorney’s Office said they would only pursue criminal cases against Democrats, is it your assertion that the (Democrats targeted) would have no right to bring a claim, as long as there were probable cause,” Judge Ilana Rovner asked Douglas Knott, attorney for the John Doe investigator-defendants.

Knott said yes, probable cause is the critical element.

But what if such investigations had the effect of silencing Democrats from expressing their political ideas? It was an interesting twist for a lawsuit that alleges John Doe prosecutors attempted to silence conservatives.

“You don’t see a distinct injury to the First Amendment?” Rovner pressed. “Isn’t that (the chilling of speech) precisely the danger the First Amendment addresses?”

JUDGE DIANE WOOD: Wood was nominated to the United States Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit by President Bill Clinton in 1995.

Knott agreed that such targeted investigations could have a chilling effect on speech, but questioning the well-established immunity of prosecutors creates a “slippery slope.”

“Where does it stop?” he said.

The legal team representing Milwaukee County District Attorney John Chisholm and his assistants assert the challenge to their absolute immunity must stop with the 7th Circuit.

Chisholm, the Democrat who launched the politically driven investigations commonly known as “John Doe I” and “John Doe II,” was not in court Friday morning.

The partisan prosecutor and two of his assistant DAs, Bruce Landgraf and David Robles, and his investigators, David Budde, Aaron Weiss, and Robert Stelter are all defendants in Archer’s complaint, originally filed in July 2015.

Archer, former aide to Gov. Scott Walker when Walker was Milwaukee County executive, is appealing U.S. District Court Judge Lynn Adelman’s May ruling tossing out the lawsuit.

In part, the liberal judge ruled that Archer did not necessarily have a reasonable expectation of First Amendment protections because she was a government employee tied to Walker.

Mark DeLaquil, a member of Archer’s legal team, said the courts have been clear that public employees do not give up all of their rights when they become public employees.

“That, while there are certain employment-related situations where they have less ability to speak, none of that has to do with law enforcement,” the attorney said in an interview after the hour-long arguments. “The idea that that puts you up to criminal prosecution, that is not OK.”

RELATED: Read Wisconsin Watchdog’s series, Wisconsin’s Secret War

Archer was swept up in Chisholm’s “John Doe 1” investigation that targeted aides and associates of Walker when Walker was Milwaukee County executive – in the months preceding his 2010 gubernatorial election win.

Like Walker, Archer was never charged with any wrongdoing.

That didn’t stop John Doe investigators from hounding her, harassing her and interrogating her on multiple occasions over the course of many months, according to Archer’s lawsuit.

In September 2011, law enforcement officers showed up at her Madison home and conducted an early morning armed raid.

Archer’s attorneys argue that John Doe investigators tipped off media about the planned raid and leaked secret investigative information to press members in their pursuit of retaliating against Archer and her fellow conservatives.

“These leaks are a crucial part of our retaliation claims,” DeLaquil said. “There were radio hosts doing entire programs making fun of (Archer’s) sexual orientation” as they said she was a subject of the investigation. Archer is gay.

Judge Diane Wood asked about the investigators’ possession of a battering ram during the early morning, armed raid of the middle-aged Archer’s home.

“You come prepared for everything,” said Chisholm’s attorney,  Samuel Leib, of the battering ram at the scene. “You take whatever you need. … This is all standard stuff.”

DeLaquil again alleged that John Doe Judge Neal Nettesheim did not review some of the warrants in the Archer investigation and appears not to have signed them.

Court documents show Nettesheim was out of the area working on another case at the time the warrants were issued.

“They even launched an armed, pre-dawn raid of Ms. Archer’s home based on a warrant that they knew was not reviewed by, and may not have been signed by, an impartial magistrate,” Archer’s appeals court filing states. “And this may be just the tip of the iceberg, as secrecy orders have greatly hampered pre-discovery case investigation.”

The prosecutors’ attorneys shrugged off the allegations, noting that the issue is not whether Nettesheim is “hardworking but that he is neutral.”

And Wisconsin’s “unique” John Doe procedure ensures that the judge overseeing an investigation is making sure that law enforcement is acting in accordance with the law, Leib said. So there’s no need for “civil liability.” Prosecutors have a judge, the attorney said.

Indeed they do.

John Doe probes are similar to grand jury investigations, but instead of a jury of peers deciding, a powerful judge presides over the procedure. Prosecutors hold the power. Targets and witnesses of the probe are compelled to testify, but their attorneys are limited. These are not adversarial proceedings. At the time Archer was targeted, a gag order prevented her from publicly defending herself. Doing so could have landed her in jail or stuck her with thousands of dollars in fines.

The probe netted Chisholm six convictions. But his defense attorneys were forced to acknowledge it was Walker’s top aide who took the original complaints of discrepancies in a county veterans fund to the Milwaukee County DA’s office, sparking the probe. Only two of the convictions had anything to do with the original scope of an investigation that kept widening as Chisholm and his assistants saw greater opportunity to go after the Republican county executive.

FACE OF JOHN DOE: Cindy Archer, Former aide to Gov. Scott, Walker, said she begged John Doe investigators not to shoot her dogs when they raided her home in September 2011.

The investigation rolled out in May 2010, just as Walker was firing up his campaign for governor. The Republican would eventually face off against Milwaukee Democratic Mayor Tom Barrett.

Chisholm, with Nettesheim’s blessing, took the myriad documents he grabbed up in the first John Doe proceeding and rolled them into what became known as John Doe II – a secret campaign-finance investigation into Walker’s campaign and dozens of conservative groups.

That probe was declared unconstitutional by the Wisconsin Supreme Court, which ordered it shut down. The U.S. Supreme Court in October rejected Chisholm’s request to have the state Supreme Court’s ruling overturned.

Wood called Wisconsin’s John Doe procedure a “fish or fowl problem,” a grand jury-like instrument that is part investigative, part judicial in nature.

“I confess, the whole system baffles me,” the judge said.

DeLaquil argued that the Wisconsin Supreme Court is the last word on the John Doe, and the court has found that the procedure is “primarily investigative.”

The difference is arguably important, potentially determining whether the prosecutors are absolutely immune from lawsuits or whether such immunity protections have a limit.

Wood isn’t  fond of “opening the door” to challenging the legal protections afforded to law enforcement.

“The purpose of the immunity doctrine is so that (government officials) can do their jobs without fear of these kinds of lawsuits,” Wood told DeLaquil. “Your theory bothers me because where do you draw the line?”

You draw the line at partisan prosecutors retaliating against people simply because of their political persuasions and who they associate with, Archer’s defense argued.

David Rivkin Jr., lead attorney on Archer’s legal team, said the defendants’ idea of immunity defies logic.

“Under the prosecutor’s theory, you can rape, pillage and loot because you have judicial supervision,” Rivkin said following Friday’s court proceedings.

Litigant in messy legal battle alleges corruption in Milwaukee County court

Thu, 01/05/2017 - 21:30

MILWAUKEE – A messy intellectual property battle between a Texas-based high-frequency trading firm and a dissolved Milwaukee company accused of stealing trade secrets has gotten a whole lot messier.

Now the tale of the defunct SXP Analytics LLC is mired in allegations of bribery, attorney misconduct and judicial abuse.

Milwaukee County District Attorney John Chisholm — the Democrat who launched Wisconsin’s infamous John Doe investigation against conservatives — and Milwaukee County’s political machine stand in the shadows of this story of alleged legal and government corruption.

‘Maliciously injuring’

Emmanuel Mamalakis, a Milwaukee entrepreneur and former securities litigator, has had a very bad time in recent years with receivers, adversarial companies, lawsuits and the FBI. Mamalakis is at the center of a nasty and expensive legal dispute between SXP and Quantlab Technologies Ltd. of Houston.

Mamalakis also is at the center of an arguably messier court battle in Milwaukee, where he is accusing O’Neil, Cannon, Hollman DeJong & Laing SC, the court-appointed receiver for SXP’s assets, of conspiring with Quantlab in an egregious breach of fiduciary duty.

And Mamalakis alleges that Milwaukee County Circuit Judge Paul Van Grunsven turned a blind eye to the law firm’s alleged double-dealing because of his ties to a cadre of politically connected local attorneys.

‘CLEAR-CUT MISCONDUCT’: Milwaukee entrepreneur Emmanuel Mamalakis, at the center of messy corporate litigation, alleges a Milwaukee law firm broke the law as a Milwaukee judge looked away.

According to court documents, Mamalakis alleges that the law firm and Seth Dizzard, the firm’s attorney who served as receiver, combined with an SXP minority partner “for the purpose of willfully and maliciously injuring Mamalakis and his reputation, trade, business profession in exchange for receipt of financial benefit.”

Mamalakis alleges the receiver did legal work for Quantlab, SXP’s main adversary, while it was legally bound to serve the interests of the receivership. The reason? Mamalakis asserts the receiver and his firm were leveraging for a big pay day if Quantlab won its lawsuits against SXP.

“This is clear-cut misconduct in public office and bribery,” he said in an interview this week with Wisconsin Watchdog. “They took money they were not allowed to take and lied in their filings about it.”

O’Neil, Cannon, Hollman DeJong & Laing SC has vehemently denied the allegations in multiple court proceedings and in an interview with Wisconsin Watchdog. An attorney for the firm tells Wisconsin Watchdog that multiple courts have found the firm’s conduct appropriate and legal.

Milwaukee County Judge Glenn Yamahiro is scheduled to take up the thorny legal matter next week.

Trade secrets

SXP, like Quantlab, was a high-frequency trading firm, which used powerful computers to make large numbers of stock market orders at exceptionally fast rates. SXP made a lot of money off the practice in its short run, between 2008 and 2012.

Quantlab claims those profits were the direct result of high-frequency trading secrets that SXP minority partners, Andriy Kuharsky and Vitaliy Godlevsky, stole after being fired from Quantlab in 2007. Kuharsky, a mathematician, and Godlevsky, a physicist, according to press accounts, were instrumental in building Quantlab’s fortunes in the industry.

“Quantlab was highly successful in the years after the two Ukrainian men joined the firm. Starting with trading capital of $1.5 million, it generated hundreds of millions of dollars of revenue between 2001 and 2007,” the Wall Street Journal reported in 2015.

“Quantlab’s founders, Wilbur ‘Ed’ Bosarge Jr. and Bruce Eames, became wealthy, records show. Mr. Bosarge bought a 72-acre Bahamian island and commissioned construction of a 180-foot yacht in 2008. In 2014, Mr. Bosarge put his 27,000-square-foot home on sale for $43 million.”

Mamalakis and his Ukrainian business partners met at a Greek Orthodox Church function in Phoenix in 2008 and soon after put together a business plan. Mamalakis repeatedly has claimed the processes SXP used were not derivative of Quantlab’s algorithms.

Quantlab, like other HFT companies, is very protective of its trade secrets. It sued SXP and the owners in a lengthy intellectual property lawsuit before SXP went out of business. Mamalakis said the company dissolved because of disagreements among the principals and because the owners wanted to pursue other opportunities.

Raids and suspicions

Amid Texas lawsuits, Dizzard, of O’Neil, Cannon, Hollman DeJong & Laing SC, was named receiver of SXP in 2013. Dizzard, at the request of SXP minority owner Godlevsky, began an investigation of Mamalakis’ handling of the company’s proceeds. The receiver claimed that Mamalakis had siphoned millions of dollars from the company, pocketing the money for his personal use. In February 2014, Dizzard filed a lawsuit against Mamalakis on behalf of SXP.

Mamalakis has long denied the fraud allegations, telling the Wall Street Journal in 2014 that he had donated millions of dollars to “churches, battered women’s shelters and drug rehab clinics,” among other nonprofits.

HIGH FREQUENCY LAWSUIT: The lawsuits involving Quantlab and SXP lifted the veil on the often-secret world of high-frequency trading.

No criminal charges ever came out of the receiver’s investigation, just as no charges came from earlier FBI raids following Quantlab complaints.

“FBI agents tapped Mr. Kuharsky’s and Mr. Godlevsky’s phones and Quantlab hired private investigators to sort through their trash, according to FBI files,” the Wall Street Journal reported.

“The case started ruining our lives,” Kuharsky told the newspaper. “Everywhere we went, we were paranoid and wondering if we were being followed.”

Still, the “money-laundering” allegation headlines hurt, Mamalakis said.

“They made my life a living hell.”

Mamalakis’ said he grew suspicious because of what he described as the receiver’s constant attacks. Something “didn’t smell right,” the attorney and former securities litigator said.

In 2014, Mamalakis sued Dizzard and the law firm. He demanded the firm’s billing statements, among other things.

In court, attorneys for O’Neil, Cannon, Hollman DeJong & Laing SC, told  Van Grunsven, the judge, that they could not release the requested information because it might violate attorney-client privilege. Instead, they sought a private, off-the-record meeting with Van Grunsven.

At first, the judge pressed for answers in court.

“I will ask this question, and I was told previously not to ask it, but is Quantlab in any way funding the receiver’s work?” Van Grunsven asked firm attorney Joseph Newbold at a November 2014 hearing.

“Your honor, we would like to answer that question in camera, and we believe that once you hear that, that answer to our question in camera, you’ll understand the reason why we want to answer that question in camera,” Newbold told the judge.

While Newbold declined to tell Wisconsin Watchdog whether his firm billed Quantlab for legal services, he did reiterate that the scope of the receiver’s job includes creditors of the receivership.

The judge raised the point that Mamalakis and his attorneys pushed, that the receiver has an exclusive fiduciary – or financial trust – duty to SXP.

“And that means doing everything in your power to avoid a judgment by Quantlab against SXP,” the judge said.

As Mamalakis’ attorney noted, Quantlab, at the time, was “adverse to every party” in the Milwaukee case. For the receiver to say anything but an “unequivocal no” to the question of Quantlab was funding the law firm “is very problematic to us, and it should be very problematic to your Honor.”

JUDGES: (From left) Milwaukee County judges Glenn Yamahiro, Paul Van Grunsven, and Jeff Conen.

It seemed to be. At first.

Van Grunsven said he was reluctant to take Newbold up on his offer to go into a private session “because I can’t memorialize or have a record should that become an issue later.”

In December 2014, the judge came back and proclaimed that he had done some research regarding receivership law and the roles of the fiduciary. From the bench he read:

”The United States Supreme Court has opined that a Receiver may not place itself in a position where its personal interests may be antagonistic to those of the estate it is administering. It may not deal with Receivership property to benefit itself at the expense of the estate, and it may not profit from its Receivership except through compensation approved by the court. If a Receiver breaches its fiduciary duty by profiting from the Receivership at the expense of the Receivership estate, the court must compel it to disgorge its profits and apply them to the Receivership estate.”

The high court ruling, Mamalakis said, underscores the legal obligation the receiver and the law firm had to SXP, and the conflict it would have in working with Quantlab.

Asked Thursday whether O’Neil, Cannon, Hollman DeJong & Laing SC took money from Quantlab while serving as receiver for SXP, Newbold again invoked attorney-client privilege.

“Again, we are not going to state whether elements of the receivership were or were not funded by Quantlab. However, the receiver and his counsel have done hundreds of thousands of dollars of work in this matter that remains unpaid to this day,” the attorney said.

Van Grunsven agreed to meet with the receiver’s attorneys privately in his chambers and placed under seal the explanation the law firm provided on the Quantlab question.

Dismissed

In January 2015, Van Grunsven dismissed Mamalakis’ complaints against the receiver and his law firm, ruling that the receiver has court-granted immunity. Receivers generally have “quasi-judicial immunity for any actions brought against them in their individual capacity, unless their activities exceeded the scope of their order of appointment,” according to law firm Ervin, Cohen and Jessup LLP.  In the Milwaukee case, Van Grunsven granted the receiver such immunity.

Van Grunsven declared that Mamalakis failed to state his claim on the breach of fiduciary duty charge.

“He said, ‘You didn’t write that law (fiduciary duty) into your lawsuit, so I’m ignoring it. He’s saying that he is throwing out my lawsuit on technicalities … but that’s no excuse to tell (the receiver and the law firm) they can take the money from Quantlab,” Mamalakis said.

The judge agreed with the receiver’s attorneys that Quantlab could eventually become a creditor of SXP and therefore, according to an “unpublished court of appeals decision,” the receiver may accept funding from “the corporation’s creditor in order to recoup money for the corporation from its principles.”

“Mamalakis’ claims that the Receiver accepted funding from Quantlab is not the silver bullet he believes it to be. It does not support the existence of a conspiracy between the Defendants and Quantlab,” the judge said.

Van Grunsven continued to keep the “answers” the law firm provided under seal.

Reached for comment Wednesday, Van Grunsven said he did not think it appropriate under the “code of ethics” to comment on a pending case.

Mamalakis was beside himself.

His lawsuit would harvest billing statements that Mamalakis says show O’Neil, Cannon, Hollman DeJong & Laing SC had billed Quantlab for some $73,000 in legal services in 2013 and 2014, long before Quantlab ended up being an SXP creditor – when it arguably was prohibited by law from working with an adversary of the receivership.

Legal experts not affiliated with the case told Wisconsin Watchdog that the relationship appeared to be a conflict of interest and presented a legal and ethical problem for the receiver, their attorneys and the judge.

“When (Van Grunsven) said they did nothing wrong, he lied and he did it under the color of law,” Mamalakis said. “The judge said, ‘If you think this is a criminal act, take it up with the DA.’”

Mamalakis did just that.

Milwaukee politics?

He said he first spoke with a Milwaukee County assistant district attorney in November 2015.

Mamalakis said he was told by the assistant DA that the judge’s handling of the case “looked odd” but that the DA’s office had “some political problems with Van Grunsven,” so the prosecutor advised Mamalakis to take the matter to the Wisconsin Office of Lawyer Regulation.

Not satisfied with that course of action, Mamalakis said he finally got an interview with Chisholm and the district attorney who supposedly was looking into the case.

“They said, ‘Golly, this is terrible. How could this happen? ” Mamalakis said, paraphrasing the prosecutors’ comments. “Three months later they told me this was dead on arrival.”

BACK AGAIN: Milwaukee County District Attorney John Chisholm, the prosecutor who brought Wisconsin an unconstitutional John Doe investigation, is accused again of putting politics in front of justice.

He said he learned along the way why that was.

Mamalakis said he was asked by one of Chisholm’s “political people” to keep the SXP case quiet until after Chisholm’s re-election bid.

“He said, ‘John is facing a tough election and this could flare up and be trouble for him.’ I was told to be a good soldier.”

As a generous and prominent member of Milwaukee County’s Democratic Party establishment, Mamalakis said he has on many occasions proved to be a good soldier for the party (he and his wife, Kim, gave $20,000 to Democratic legislative and statewide campaign committees in 2010). He said he did so again, hoping that the DA would do something with his case.

But when Mamalakis was told once more to be a good soldier and stay quiet until Van Grunsven got through his re-election bid this spring, he said he had had enough.

Chisholm, who has been criticized for targeting conservatives and protecting political allies, is a defendant in a civil rights lawsuit in the 7th Circuit Court of Appeals. Oral arguments are scheduled for Friday morning in Chicago.

‘Color of law’

Mamalakis’ misconduct charges are now before another Milwaukee County judge, Glenn Yamahiro.

In court transcripts from September, the receiver’s attorney decries the fact that the allegations are coming back up again. The defendants say they had the approval of multiple courts to work with “creditors.”

“Mr. Mamalakis has attempted to force the amount and the identity of the source of this independent funding. However, three judges have each found that the amount and source of this funding is protected by the attorney-client and common interest privilege,” the court document states.

“If Mr. Mamalakis wants to put accusations at us, that’s fine. But — and when we need to respond to those and we need to respond to them by going into the details of this case, and we’re glad to,” Newbold told Yamahiro during the September court session. “But I believe this is the third time now that we’ve had to do this, and he’s an attorney. I mean there’s — something at some point needs to be put to rest on this issue, and every single judge that has raised this concept we got funded by Quantlab has said there’s no big deal. I’m paraphrasing. But that’s our position, and we’re glad to brief it again before Your Honor.”

Mamalakis said the lawyers are misleading when they say three different judges have said taking money from Quantlab was “no big deal.” He said the subsequent judges, one in Milwaukee County and U.S. District Judge Keith Ellison in Texas, simply accepted Van Grunsven’s dismissal without seeking the billing statements.

Newbold said that’s not true.

“We agree with the decision by Judge Ellison, in which he stated under Wisconsin law a receiver may accept funding from a creditor of a corporation in receivership to seek, to obtain, recovery from principles of the corporation,” Newbold said. “And that statement made by Judge Ellison prior to the entry of judgement, simply when Quantlab was a prejudgment creditor.”

“Mr. Mamalakis can continue to make allegations against us, but we believe the decision by three different judges, including a federal district court in Texas and two circuit court judges in Milwaukee County correctly ruled that the receiver did nothing improper in this case,” Newbold said.

Asked about his legal troubles with SXP, Mamalakis said whatever happened in those cases has no relevance to the conduct of the receiver and his law firm.

“This was all done under the color of law,” he said. “Whatever my fight with SXP and Quantlab is, and that’s my problem, the minute the system breaks down and justice is abused, that’s society’s problem.”

‘Informational materials?’ School districts spend more than $325,000 to advertise referendums

Wed, 01/04/2017 - 21:04

WAUKESHA, Wis. – Wisconsin school districts spent more than $325,000 in advance of Election Day to advertise and promote increased spending or borrowing referendums, according to information obtained in a Wisconsin Watchdog open records request. 

‘REFERENDUM PR: ‘The Arrowhead Union High School District spent $11,586 to advertise two referendums on the Nov 8 ballot. Both referendums failed.

The 47 school districts held a combined 67 total referendums on Nov. 8. Twelve of them failed. The Daily Reporter estimates voters approved a combined $1.3 billion for construction projects and operating expenses. 

State law imposes limits on school district tax levying authority as a way to hold down property taxes. School districts can exceed the limits by asking voters to approve an increase in a referendum. School districts also may go to referendum to ask for bonding authority to borrow for construction or maintenance.

Districts are prohibited from spending money to expressly advocate for the passage of referendums. But they can spend money for informational purposes, and many districts take advantage of that allowance. The complete list of school districts and what they spent is available here.

The Whitewater Unified School District spent the most to advertise and promote its referendum, seeking $23.5 million in bonds for school renovations. The ballot issue passed with 71 percent of the vote. The district spent $29,504.69, not including architectural costs, to inform the public. Among the expenses, the district spent $10,913.10 for the services of a consultant, School Perceptions.

At the other end of the spending spectrum, the School District of Florence County spent $540.56 on notices in the local newspaper to advertise for two referendums asking voters for a total of $14.5 million in new debt for school renovations. Both referendums passed.

The Arrowhead Union High School District spent $11,586 on advertising, the most money in a losing effort. The district asked voters for $64.7 million in borrowing authority for renovations and construction. That referendum failed with 54.3 percent voting no. The district also asked for an additional $173,000 annually from the taxpayers for operational costs, and that referendum failed with 56 percent voting no. Arrowhead is expected to bring back the referendums in the spring election, hoping a different electorate will be more sympathetic.

The biggest referendums to lose were in the Chippewa Falls school district. The district spent $2,654 on advertising, while asking voters for $159.2 million combined for construction and renovation in the two failed referendums.

The amount spent by the school districts included any surveys of the public done prior to the referendums, as well as mailings, advertising, printing, postage and the creation of promotional materials. Calculation of the total spending, however, was dependent on the districts’ interpretation of spending on the referendum and their cooperation with the open records request.

For example, the Madison Metropolitan School District was reluctant to share any information about spending to inform the public about its referendum. The district asked voters to approve $26 million in spending above the state-imposed revenue caps for school operations. The referendum was approved with 74.3 percent voter support.

A month after the district received the open records request, associate general counsel Matt Bell responded, “Please note that the District did not ‘advertise’ or ‘promote’ the referendum, thus no responsive records exist.”

Bell added:

“All of the costs related to those informational materials were internal costs and thus are not identified as a line item on any budget but instead were subsumed within the the general budget of the department providing the service.  For example, printing of informational materials was done by the District’s printing department and was not singled out from any other printing work done by that Department.  So no record exists documenting that specific task of printing informational referendum materials. Similarly, the time staff spent providing information regarding the referendum is also not identified in any District records.  Any cost associated with that time is subsumed within the employee’s’ salary.”

Following a request for an interview with Superintendent Jennifer Cheatham to explain the district’s reluctance to share how much it spent, the superintendent emailed, “We stand by our response.”

When asked if district taxpayers have the right to know how much MMSD spent on the referendum, Cheatham emailed that the district spent $706 on “informational sessions and other informational materials” from the existing communications budget.

SEE RELATED: No specifics on how Madison schools would spend new tax money

That amount would not include the time and cost of the employees working on the informational materials. No further explanation was ever provided by the Madison school district.

The list of school districts that held referendums on November 8 and how much they spent on advertising and promotion.

Madison wasn’t the only district to object to the wording of the open records request, asking how much was “spent to advertise and promote the referendum.”

“Oregon School District has no records in response to your request.  By law, we are not authorized to use school district funds to promote a referendum,” said Jina Jonen, the in-house counsel and director of human resources for the Oregon School District.

After it was explained to Jonen that “advertise and promote” did not mean expressly advocate for the passage of the referendum, the district revealed it spent $14,853.76 to advertise the referendum for $1.5 million in recurring operations spending above the state-imposed revenue caps.

Arrowhead’s Superintendent Laura Myrah also objected to the wording of the open records request.

“No money was budgeted by Arrowhead to advertise and promote the referendum, as those terms sound like advocating to me,” she wrote in her email response. “It would be illegal for school district resources to be used for advocacy related to a referendum.” But Myrah also included the information about the amount spent to advertise and promote the referendums.

SEE RELATED: Wisconsin taxpayers approve nearly $804 million in school referenda

Two districts, the Kewaskum School District and Plum City School District, have yet to respond to the open records requests emailed to them on Nov. 7. Both districts promised, after repeated requests, to mail their responses to Watchdog’s Madison office. No reply to the open records requests had been received as of Wednesday.

In the open records requests and in the emails that followed, the school districts were reminded state law requires them to comply, “as soon as practicable and without delay.”

Chancellor moves to fire UW-P whistleblower professor

Wed, 01/04/2017 - 16:47

MADISON, Wis. – The University of Wisconsin-Platteville criminal justice professor who blew the whistle on misconduct at the school –and claims administrators retaliated against her for doing so – has been suspended and now faces possible dismissal.

SUSPENDED: Whistleblower Professor Sabina Burton faces firing from the university. Burton, who has lodge several complaints of misconduct and retaliation against UW-P administrators, has been locked out while an investigation into her conduct continues.

Associate Professor Sabina Burton received a letter Tuesday from Chancellor Dennis Shields advising that he is “initiating the dismissal process.”

“As a result, I am instigating an investigation. I will provide further information about the investigation as soon as possible,” Shields wrote. “I expect you to give your full cooperation to the investigator.”

The investigation comes a little over a month after Shields dismissed another complaint against Burton, noting the “complaints do not warrant disciplinary action or further investigation.”

In that probe, Shields hired a private investigator to question Burton at her home. Burton has provided evidence showing the allegations made against here were false and has told Wisconsin Watchdog that the probe was nothing more than a means to push out a vocal critic of Shields’ administration.

The latest move to get rid of the outspoken professor is just more of the same, Burton said Wednesday.

“This is the most corrupt administration I have ever encountered and I worked for the federal government in Germany,” she said. “I’ve never seen anything like this happen. It reminds me of a mafia system, short of assassinating me; but it’s character assassination.”

The latest complaint against Burton was filed by outgoing Interim Provost Elizabeth Throop and Melissa Gormley, interim dean of the College of Liberal Arts and Education. Throop, who is leaving following the spring semester for an administrative post at Frostburg State University in Maryland, is a defendant in a federal civil rights lawsuit that Burton filed against the university. The case is now at the appeals level after a lower court said Burton’s case did not meet standards laid out by civil rights law. Burton alleges Throop repeatedly retaliated against her after the professor tried to help a female student who said she was sexually harassed by a male criminal justice professor.

Shields, who has been criticized by faculty and students for his handling of other misconduct allegations, informed Burton that if the administrators’ allegations are true, they would warrant “Burton’s dismissal.”

Among other offenses, the complaint alleges Burton behaved “unprofessionally,” including “involving students into your personal concerns.” The chancellor asserts Burton has broken the trust with her colleagues. Administrators complain about a website Burton and her husband, Roger Burton, operate. They charge that universitycorruption.com includes confidential personnel information in the form of audio recordings and transcripts. Burton says she has invoked her right under Wisconsin law to record Criminal Justice Department meetings as evidence for her case. Her website includes a raft of court documents, including depositions. The professor has often said, “Don’t take my word for it, read the record of this case.”

Burton said she has never involved her students in her legal battles with the university.

“I teach only to the subject matter. I don’t bring politics in it,” she said.

Scores of students came to Burton’s defense in October following Wisconsin Watchdog’s first investigative stories into the university. Students were outraged when administrators, with little advance notice, canceled a public forum on Burton’s allegations. They instead held their own session, with Burton telling her version of events. Many of the students expressed frustration with administration’s handling of myriad campus issues, most notably reported sexual assaults. That prompted UW-P to schedule a follow-up informational session, this time exclusively on protocol for handling sexual assault reports.

The criminal justice professor has boasted an exemplary performance record even after she began filing complaints against administrators following the October 2012 sexual harassment case. Her fall evaluations give Burton high marks.

“Even though she is in the hot seat with the university, she ALWAYS gives her best work and attention to her students,” one reviewer wrote.

Administrators and some colleagues have claimed Burton is openly hostile, even threatening. The embattled professor is confrontational and very direct, but she says she has acted professionally as she has sought to defend herself from an onslaught of campus corruption and retaliation.

RELATED: UW-Platteville chancellor dismisses complaint against whistleblower professor

The complaint decries the exposure the university and its troubled Criminal Justice Department has had, mostly through Wisconsin Watchdog’s investigation.

IN DEFENSE: Criminal justice professor Sabina Burton speaks in early November at canceled university-sponsored student forum. The session was called in response to Wisconsin Watchdog’s investigation into allegations of misconduct and retaliation at UW-Platteville.

In his letter, Shields writes that he has consulted with the Executive Committee of the Faculty Senate. The chancellor asserts– before his investigation has been completed — that he has “found that substantial harm to the institution may result if you are continued in your position.”

“I am therefore relieving you of your duties immediately,” he wrote. “Your pay will continue until a final decision is reached by the Board of Regents of the University of Wisconsin System.”

The diminutive criminal justice professor is perceived to be such a threat that she is not allowed on campus without police presence. She was informed that she has until Jan. 18 to empty out her office, even though she has yet to be dismissed from her tenured position. And two days after receiving Shields’ letter, Burton has been locked out of her campus email account.

Rose Smyrsk, UW-P’s chancellor for university relations, said she could not comment on personnel matters. She declined to comment on Burton’s allegations that the latest administrative action is just more retaliation. A UW-System official said, “(W)e do not comment on a pending employee matter.”

Burton said she contacted the state Attorney General’s Office late last month seeking an investigation into alleged doctoring of her personnel folder. She said she found several key documents missing following a request for the information. Wisconsin Watchdog’s review shows the documents appear to be supportive of many of Burton’s allegations. In one case, it appears an administrator added information known to be false to a complaint file.

In the last Shields-led investigation into Burton, the professor said she was told the university was preparing to fire her based on complaints that were unsubstantiated in the course of the probe.

Burton said the chancellor and his administrative staff have long hoped to silence one of their biggest critics.

“I cannot defend myself against anything,” she said. “I don’t get hearings. People threaten me, I cannot ask for help. When people defame me, I cannot ask for help. I am being punished for standing up.”

Veterans advocate: VA hospitals’ ‘improvement’ doesn’t tell whole story

Tue, 01/03/2017 - 17:04
Part 39 of 39 in the series Tomah VA Scandal

MADISON, Wis. — The headlines last month declared that most U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs medical centers saw improvement in fiscal year 2016.

It seemed like a positive end to another rough year for the VA and the people the government-run health care system is supposed to put first.

But a veterans advocate is advising news consumers to read the fine print. While the vast majority of VA hospitals did note improvement in at least one category, that doesn’t mean the broken single-payer system is anywhere near fixed, said Kevin Nicholson, a veteran of two wars and member of the Wisconsin Board of Veterans Affairs.

“If you saw an individual facility that did improve a call response time, that’s great. I think we should all be rooting for the VA hospitals to improve,” Nicholson told Wisconsin Watchdog last week on the Vicki McKenna Show, on NewsTalk 1130 in Milwaukee.

“But I would not go and say that 82 percent of the hospitals measured in this study saw a collective widespread improvement that would indicate a directional change in the VA that we should be extremely happy about,” he said.

NOT IMPRESSED: Veterans advocate Kevin Nicholson is not impressed with the VA’s idea of ‘improvement’ at its troubled hospitals.

Last month, the department finally released its Strategic Analytics for Improvement and Learning Model report after criticizing USA Today for previously publishing the internal ratings. SAIL, as the ratings system is known, “accesses 26 quality measures in areas such as death rate, complications, and patient satisfaction, as well as overall efficiency at individual VA Medical Centers,” according to a department news release.

But not all quality categories are created equally. The categories include some measures not necessarily critical to veteran care.

Of the 146 medical centers rated, 120, or 82 percent, “improved” in the past year, according to the VA’s fiscal year 2016 ratings.

“When they say that 82 percent of facilities saw improvement, what they are saying is amongst these [26] metrics, 82 percent of hospitals measured bounced up in at least one of these metrics,” Nicholson said.

And one area of improvement does not a changed medical center make.

The VA’s improvement metrics include a one-star to five-star rating.

The Phoenix VA hospital, ground zero of a veteran care wait-time scandal, still ranked among the worst VA medical centers in the country.

Wisconsin’s scandal-plagued Tomah VA Medical Center also saw a decline in its rating, dropping to three stars. In 2015, the hospital was the subject of congressional investigations for its prescription policies that led to the death of a Marine veteran. Whistleblowers said they were retaliated against, and some patients who complained were treated terribly, according to multiple sources.

Most recently, the medical center earned more unwanted national attention after reports of a dentist potentially exposing hundreds of veterans to serious diseases.

The real baseline metric, Nicholson said, should be real improvement at the hospitals in Phoenix and Tomah and the John D. Dingell VA Medical Center in Detroit, which like Phoenix, received a one-star rating.

Phoenix, Nicholson said, is the “canary in the coal mine.”

“If that individual facility has not improved given the nationwide storm that descended upon it with the problems the Phoenix VA has had, that would indicate that collectively there has been no strong directional change in the VA system,” said the Milwaukee-area conservative who is mulling a 2018 run for the U.S. Senate seat held by Madison Democrat Tammy Baldwin.

“This is why I get upset with people like [President] Barack Obama, [U.S. Rep.] Nancy Pelosi and Tammy Baldwin. They just can’t turn their eyes toward these problems and just admit that, yes, there is a problem with huge government-run health care facilities,” Nicholson added.

The businessman and veteran of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq asserts that Tomah is symptomatic of a Titanic federal health system that does not have the will or the means to right the ever faltering ship. And while commendable, Tomah’s new leadership cannot solve the systemic problems of government-run health care, Nicholson said.

“If you look at the bureaucratic issues that create this kind of problem in the first place, boy it would be a lot better if something like Tomah were pushed down to the state level or to the private sector where people would be held accountable much, much earlier in the process, when these problems start to pop up and we’d actually see much greater response,” Nicholson said.

VA officials earlier said they did not release the internal rating because doing so “would likely confuse our veterans and the general public.”

They charged that USA Today was irresponsible for publishing earlier ratings, before lawmakers applied heat on the VA to publicly release them.

“It is a disservice to veterans to lead them to believe that a one-star facility means they won’t get care they need,” said David Shulkin, the VA’s under secretary for health.

U.S. Reps. Debbie Dingell, D-Mich., and Tim Walberg, R-Mich., said it would be irresponsible for the VA not to release the information.

“Veterans, just like every other patient, deserve to know how their hospitals are performing and what services need to be improved,” Dingell and Walberg wrote last week in a letter to VA Secretary Bob McDonald, as quoted by Stars & Stripes. “Having a secret rating system only serves to increase distrust of the VA and may give the appearance that the department has something to hide.”

Scariest People of 2016: No. 1-John Pleuss

Fri, 12/30/2016 - 05:03
Part 11 of 10 in the series Scariest People of 2016

2016 might go down as one of the most unusual years in the history of American politics. Voters chose historic change, but in all too many ways, it was business as usual.

Too many bureaucrats still put their own interests over the interests of the people they were supposed to be serving. Too many officials – elected and unelected – continued to act more like petty tyrants than servants of the people, imposing their own vision of how others should live their lives on citizens perfectly capable of making those decisions for themselves. 

All week we’ve highlighted the scariest examples by shining a light on those who seem to think your liberty is less important than their power.

Here’s No. 1.

It’s hard to say which is worse – an administrative law judge accused of deciding cases based on the attractiveness of claimants or a federal agency that allows him to remain on the payroll long after the allegations come to light.

Such is the story of John Pleuss and the Social Security Administration’s Office of Disability Adjudication and Review, or ODAR.

Pleuss, according to multiple sources, has been under investigation on allegations of sexual harassment of employees in the Madison, Wis., office and making inappropriate comments about the people who have appealed to him for Social Security benefits.

BAD ODAR? Questions continue to surround Administrative Law Judge John Pleuss and the troubled Social Security Administration.

As Wisconsin Watchdog first reported in June, Pleuss, in his case files, described claimants as “attractive,” innocent-looking, “buxom.” In one case, he noted that 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 ALJ wrote, and parenthetically he added, “(actually a gorilla-like appearance).”

Pleuss was escorted out of the Madison ODAR last month by armed guards, sources told Wisconsin Watchdog.

“This is the beginning of justice being served,” one ODAR source told Wisconsin Watchdog.

But sources say managers in the system have known about Pleuss’ alleged misconduct for years – long before the latest accusations came to light.

While sources said Pleuss was removed from cases weeks after the first public reports of his written comments, the administrative law judge has remained on the federal government payroll making his annual salary of at least $167,000 per year, according to federal wage records.

“The Madison staff was previously informed their office could not afford essential office supplies to serve the public. Yet Pleuss was wandering around the office doing nothing, while still collecting his full salary,” a source with knowledge of the situation said. “People are quite happy to see him go.”

Scandal-plagued federal agency looks to ‘act with integrity, honesty and respect’

Thu, 12/29/2016 - 07:00

MADISON, Wis. — The federal agency accused of widespread misconduct and whistleblower retaliation at several of its offices is now attempting to create an organizational culture built on several ethical pillars.

Last month, the Social Security Administration’s Office of Disability Adjudication and Review began a “conversation” with employees about the kind of culture the agency wants to promote in 2017.

CULTURE CLUB: The Social Security Administration’s ODAR operations look to change the agency’s culture. SSA whistleblowers say it will take a lot to change a ‘culture of corruption.’

Facilitators of that conversation have gotten as far as forming a “word cloud” of principles in slide show format, according to an internal email obtained by Wisconsin Watchdog.

“Together, we have identified themes like; Service, Respect, Quality, Trust, Professionalism, Fairness, and Responsiveness, as the culture we want in ODAR,” the email states. “As you can see, public service is more than just providing an answer.  It’s how we serve people and their families during some of the most difficult times in their lives.”

Under the agency’s new “culture statement,” ODAR employees will have the following expectations of conduct:

Adhere to the highest professional standards

  • We put claimants first.
  • We treat all claimants fairly.
  • We act with integrity, honesty, and respect.

Remember public service comes first

  • We are caring and compassionate.
  • We understand our work dramatically affects claimants’ lives.
  • We are committed to public service.
  • We provide timely, quality service.
  • We protect claimants’ privacy.

That’s all a tough sell for Ron Klym, a long-time ODAR senior case technician who was fired in August, a couple of months after he went public with allegations of lengthy case delays in the system.

In May, Klym detailed the Milwaukee ODAR’s growing backlog of cases. Wisconsin Watchdog obtained records of some of the more extended delays.

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

“We had two clients who stopped in the office yesterday wondering what’s going on, and they have been waiting for 21 months,” Jessica Bray, partner at Upper Michigan Law in Escanaba, Mich., said in the May 4 investigative piece. Her colleague handled the noted cases that topped 1,000 days. “I sent a letter to the Milwaukee office, but I don’t think it’s going to do any good. Those cases haven’t even been assigned yet.”

In March, ODAR’s pending claims awaiting a hearing hit 1.1 million cases nationally.

Klym, who is supposed to be protected under federal whistleblower laws, still is waiting for answers on his grievances, and the status of federal investigations into what he says is a clear violation of claimants’ due process rights.

The Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee opened an inquiry into the ODAR offices in Milwaukee and Madison more than six months ago. Sources say the inquiry goes on but the Social Security Administration has been less than helpful in supplying requested information.

Beyond service to its customers, ODAR says it wants to create a place where people want to work. And it all begins with “We,” according to the agency email:

  • We value all employees and promote diversity and inclusion.
  • We are inclusive and treat others as we want to be treated.
  • We exhibit strong work ethics everyday.
  • We are accountable for our actions.
  • We encourage innovative ideas and strategic action.
  • We do not tolerate bad behavior.
  • We report unethical and improper conduct.
  • We maintain a positive work environment and take public service seriously.

ODAR whistleblowers say the agency remains a closed-off workplace where ethics are no match for corruption, management is anything but accountable, unethical and improper conduct are routinely rewarded, and whistleblowing on waste, fraud and abuse is ignored and often punished.

In Madison, ODAR employees claim they have been disciplined for blowing the whistle on a “culture of corruption,” that includes management protection of an administrative law judge accused of sexual harassment.

According to multiple sources, ALJ John Pleuss has been under investigation on allegations of sexually harassing employees and making inappropriate comments about people who have appealed to him for Social Security benefits.

As Wisconsin Watchdog first reported in June, Pleuss, in his case files, described claimants as “attractive,” innocent-looking and “buxom.” In one case, he noted that 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 ALJ wrote, adding parenthetically, “(actually a gorilla-like appearance).”

Two Madison ODAR managers accused of intimidation, discrimination, retaliation, nepotism, fraud and other incidents of misconduct have been removed from their positions. But so has whistleblower Deborah Holland, who in August was walked out of her office by guards and stripped of her management position. She now works in special projects for SSA’s Region 5 headquarters in Chicago.

RELATED: Read Wisconsin Watchdog’s series, ‘Deadly Delays’

Another ODAR source claims her private veterans records have been compromised in retaliation for her complaints to federal investigators.

And a Chicago-area ODAR employee claims he has been discriminated against because of his sexual orientation. He complained and said he was greeted with more hostility and retaliation in his workplace.

A Social Security Administration spokesman has frequently said the agency cannot speak to personnel issues, but that SSA takes very seriously allegations of misconduct and retaliation.

Perhaps that’s what the “organizational culture” movement and the ODAR “culture statement” are all about.

ODAR sources say it will take more than mission statements and slogans, however, to change a culture of misconduct and fear at the government agency.

Scariest person of 2016: No. 7-John ‘Doe’ Chisholm

Tue, 12/27/2016 - 05:48
Part 5 of 10 in the series Scariest People of 2016

2016 might go down as one of the most unusual years in the history of American politics. Voters chose historic change, but in all too many ways, it was business as usual.

Too many bureaucrats still put their own interests over the interests of the people they were supposed to be serving. Too many officials – elected and unelected – continued to act more like petty tyrants than servants of the people, imposing their own vision of how others should live their lives on citizens perfectly capable of making those decisions for themselves. 

This week we’ll highlight the scariest examples by shining a light on those who seem to think your liberty is less important than their power.

Here’s No. 7.

John Chisholm was pretty scary in 2015.

He didn’t get any better in 2016.

The Milwaukee County District Attorney who brought Wisconsin the infamous John Doe investigation doubled down on defending his abusive probe even after the state Supreme Court declared it unconstitutional and a “perfect storm of wrongs” perpetrated against innocent citizens.

The highly partisan prosecutor joined two other Democrat DAs in petitioning the U.S. Supreme Court to overturn the state court’s ruling.

YEP, STILL SCARY: Milwaukee County District Attorney John Doe Chisholm just couldn’t quit his unconstitutional John Doe investigation into conservatives. The Democrat in 2016 failed in his attempt to save the probe.

Fortunately for the dozens of conservatives Chisholm and his assistants harassed and intimidated for years through his secret investigation, and fortunately for the Constitution, the U.S. Supreme Court quickly rejected Chisholm’s appeal.

What was the district attorney hoping to accomplish?

He was hoping to save an investigation that illegally seized millions of documents and personal possessions in a spy operation that would give the NSA a run for its money. He was defending the use of predawn, armed raids on political enemies and their families. He was fighting for “screamingly unconstitutional” secrecy orders that demanded silence from targets on penalty of imprisonment and hefty fines.

But mostly Chisholm continues to fight to save himself.

The new year opens with a civil rights lawsuit alleging Chisholm and his partners committed some very scary crimes against liberty. With much of the dust settling on the John Doe, 2017 could find more such lawsuits against the prosecutor who did not know when to say when.

Still, Chisholm is doing all he can to hold on to the “evidence” he illegally seized.

The prosecutor known as “John Doe” Chisholm is still scary after all these years.

Audit finds waste, law-breaking, little oversight in DEA informant program

Tue, 12/27/2016 - 05:30

MADISON, Wis. — Want to make some big-time cash?

Sign on as a confidential informant with the federal Drug Enforcement Administration and its War on Drugs.

A recent audit of the DEA’s controversial Confidential Source Program found significant concerns about oversight of a government effort that paid out $237 million to informants between Oct. 1, 2010, and Sept. 30, 2015.

One Wisconsin congressman in particular is appalled at not only the potential for waste, fraud and abuse, but by the constitutional questions the program raises.

“There are people getting more money from the federal government to inform on their coworkers than they are in their regular job, which is kind of outlandish,” U.S. Rep. Glenn Grothman, R-Glenbeulah, told Wisconsin Watchdog.  “Furthermore, in order to collect information that can be used, these people to a degree may be going through packages, mail, that sort of thing, something a federal employee can’t do.”

U.S. Department of Justice Inspector General Michael E. Horowitz and DEA Chief of Inspections Rob Patterson recently testified to Congress about the mismanagement of the DEA’s network of 18,000 confidential sources, more than 9,000 of those who pocketed a combined $237 million in payments for information or services they provided to DEA.

CONFIDENTIAL SOURCES: The DEA’s costly informant program is under fire again after another audit raises questions about conduct and oversight.

Grothman pointed to an incident in which a confidential source working in the parcel industry opened packages and alerted the DEA if they found cash.

“It seems a practical matter there — (the DEA is) giving payment, sometimes payments that are more than a person’s salary, to do something that would be unconstitutional if their own employees did it,” Grothman said during the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee hearing.

The audit found the DEA’s confidential source policies were not in full compliance with the Attorney General’s Guidelines Regarding the Use of Confidential Informants.

DEA headquarters do not provide comprehensive oversight of their field offices to make sure the use of confidential sources, and payments to them, is “appropriate, reasonable, and justified.”

“We found that the DEA did not adequately oversee payments to its sources, which exposes the DEA to an unacceptably increased potential for fraud, waste, and abuse, particularly given the frequency with which DEA offices utilize and pay confidential sources,” the audit states.

While DEA policy prohibits paying sources who have been deactivated because of arrest or warrant or for committing a serious offense, the audit found two “concerning instances” of payments to such sources.

In one case, the agency reactivated a confidential source who previously had provided false testimony in trials and depositions, according to the report.

“During the approximate 5-year period of reactivation, this source was used by 13 DEA field offices and paid $469,158,” the audit states. More than $61,000 of that was paid after the source was once again deactivated for making false statements to a prosecutor.

The Inspector General estimates the DEA may have paid approximately $9.4 million to more than 800 deactivated sources over the period. It appears that paying deactivated sources is common enough to “justify much closer managerial oversight and review of such payments.”

“Limited use sources” or “tipsters” took home stacks of taxpayer cash. These sources offer tips independently, without DEA direction. It’s a low-risk category, requiring limited supervision.

“Yet we found that Limited Use sources were some of the DEA’s highest paid sources,” the audit states, noting that 477 tipsters were paid a combined $26.8 million for informing on someone.

The program, according to the congressional committee, is rife with waste.

In one case, an Amtrak employee was paid more than $850,000 for information DEA could have obtained at no cost. In another, the agency paid $86 million to purchase and modify a surveillance airplane that will never fly its intended mission. That didn’t stop 14 senior managers from booking a combined $1 million in bonuses.

It arguably gets worse, according to media reports. An Atlanta-based DEA supervisor allegedly engaged in sexual relationships with two confidential sources, one of whom was paid $212,000. The source never entered into a written confidential source agreement.

“That source started receiving payments in 2011, including bonuses of $55,000 and $80,750, and monthly payments of $2,500, but claims that she does not know why she received the bonus payments,” wrote Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, in a letter last month to Chuck Rosenberg, DEA acting administrator. “The monthly payments covered the source’s approximate rent costs for her new apartment located closer to the DEA supervisor’s home. Reportedly, the supervisor forced his subordinates to falsify DEA reports to validate the payments, even when the source did not provide new information.”

Grassley, chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, is seeking a “full understanding of the DEA’s response to this reported misconduct, and the DEA’s efforts to improve oversight and accountability within the Confidential Source Program.”

Perhaps most troubling, Grothman said, is that the problems plaguing the program have been going on for a very long time.

“Your September 2016 audit highlighted widespread issues with the DEA’s tracking and oversight payments,” Grothman said to the inspectors during the hearing. “A lot of these issues have been going back and are similar to those that are happening in a report issued in 2005. So, we’ve had an 11-year period here and we’re still finding the same issues.”

Scariest People of 2016: No. 8-Michael Lovell

Tue, 12/27/2016 - 05:00
Part 3 of 10 in the series Scariest People of 2016

2016 might go down as one of the most unusual years in the history of American politics. Voters chose historic change, but in all too many ways, it was business as usual.

Too many bureaucrats still put their own interests over the interests of the people they were supposed to be serving. Too many officials – elected and unelected – continued to act more like petty tyrants than servants of the people, imposing their own vision of how others should live their lives on citizens perfectly capable of making those decisions for themselves. 

This week we’ll highlight the scariest examples by shining a light on those who seem to think your liberty is less important than their power.

Here’s No. 8.

Marquette University President Michael Lovell has brought back the Inquisition to Catholic universities.

When political science professor John McAdams criticized Philosophy Department instructor Cheryl Abbate on his blog in November 2014 for not allowing a student to defend Catholic teaching on same-sex marriage in her classroom, Lovell dropped the PC hammer on McAdams by suspending the professor and banning him from campus pending termination.

McAdams’ crime, in the view of Marquette University, was criticizing Abbate publicly because, in addition to being an instructor, she was also a prized graduate student. But what made it worse was that McAdams’ blog post went “viral” and Abbate received hate mail, even though McAdams did not encourage anyone to contact her.

Marquette University President Michael Lovell

McAdams appealed his termination and was placed in limbo while a faculty committee debated his fate. The suspension continued until April of this year when the panel completed its investigation. It recommended his suspension continue through the end of 2016, but that wasn’t good enough for Lowell.

Lowell said McAdams could not be reinstated until he acknowledged the blog post was “reckless,” accepted the judgment of the faculty committee and expressed regret over the hostile emails Abbate received. McAdams refused, instead demanding that Marquette live up to the promise of academic freedom in McAdams’ contract.

Now McAdams is suing to get reinstated, and the two sides are scheduled to appear in court Feb. 2.

Lovell’s actions have placed Marquette University on the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education’s list of Ten Worst Universities for Free Speech. Meanwhile, McAdams, a nationally respected expert on the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, is unable to teach students or even visit the campus.

But Lovell continues to govern Marquette, turning a once-proud university into a bastion of political correctness.

John Doe probe will never be over for furious Democrats

Mon, 12/26/2016 - 06:00
Part 380 of 379 in the series Wisconsin's Secret War

MADISON, Wis. — So you think Wisconsin’s infamous John Doe investigation is over.

Understandable.

Nearly a year and a half ago, the Wisconsin Supreme Court declared unconstitutional the Democrat-launched secret probe into dozens of conservative groups and Gov. Scott Walker’s campaign. The court agreed with a January 2014 ruling by the John Doe judge that found no probable cause that any alleged campaign finance/illegal coordination crimes had been committed.

DEM’S DOE: Legally dead for more than a year, Wisconsin’s infamous John Doe remains alive in the minds of liberals who despise Republican Gov. Scott Walker

Multiple courts have ordered the probe shut down, and in October the U.S. Supreme Court made quick work of rejecting a petition for review by Milwaukee County District Attorney John Chisholm, the Democrat who launched the politically motivated probe in August 2012.

But the John Doe case is never over in the minds of liberals like Assembly Minority Leader Peter Barca, D-Kenosha, who can’t let go of a burning disdain of Walker or the pounding the Republican governor and his fellow conservatives have given the left over the past six years.

Last week, WisPolitics.com reported that Dems are criticizing calls by Republicans to investigate the leak of “John Doe II documents” in September to liberal British newspaper The Guardian while passing over conservative activist Eric O’Keefe for disclosing details of the probe.

Chisholm and his assistants also are furious that documents showing the partisan nature of the investigation were obtained and published by Wisconsin Watchdog and the Wall Street Journal.

Attorney General Brad Schimel earlier this month said he would more than likely convene a grand jury investigation into the Guardian leak, which includes some 1,300 cherry-picked documents that attempted to make the case of a quid pro quo between Republican politicians and conservative groups.

The Wisconsin Supreme Court’s 4-2 ruling found that like-minded groups and politicians have every right under the First Amendment to communicate with each other, as left-leaning groups certainly did during Wisconsin’s bitterly partisan political recall season.

RELATED: AG says grand jury likely to probe John Doe leaks

Still, as WisPolitics reports, Assembly Dems continue to call for “an investigation into whether Walker violated laws banning corporate contributions to candidates and their committees. Walker’s campaign has called the request “frivolous.”

Barca told the publication that it’s “hard to understand why Republicans would focus solely on the leak and not the potential crimes.”

John Chisholm, his assistants, and the so-called nonpartisan state Government Accountability Board spent years hounding conservatives, spying on them, raiding their homes, stealing their property and threatening to put them in jail if they said anything about the probe, only to be told by multiple courts that their speech dragnet was a clear violation of the First Amendment.

Still, Barca and his fellow Dems continue to see “potential crimes.”

No, the John Doe will never really be over for liberals — or for the people the probe terrorized.

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