Monday, May 9, 2016

In Fitzwalkerstan, fraud is fine if you're WEDC, but not if you're poor

Recent revelations illustrate just how slanted things have gotten here in Fitzwalkerstan, where it pays to be in the "inner circle" and you are penalized if you are not. It is so slanted that federal action may be warranted in both cases, to bring the true fraudsters to jail, while guaranteeing the rights of those who have fallen on hard times.

The first example of this came as part of an in-depth article in Sunday’s Wisconsin State Journal about the cover-ups and shielding of information going on at the Wisconsin Economic Development Corporation (WEDC). Here’s just a taste of what Matt DeFour found, where WEDC’s overwhelmingly pro-GOP board is stalling and hiding details of millions of dollars in taxpayer handouts from the two Democrats on the WEDC Board- Rep. Peter Barca and Sen. Julie Lassa.
The dispute involves a request for records related to 28 economic development awards totaling $126 million for which the agency announced last June it could not find staff underwriting documentation. At one point the agency estimated the records totaled more than 462,000, but the Democrats said many of those documents had little or nothing to do with their request.

Agency CEO Mark Hogan and other board members pushed back against the Democrats at a February public board meeting, raising concerns that their request was a waste of taxpayer resources for a problem that has already been resolved, and that the tenor of the discussion has negatively affected employee morale. The Democrats argued their attempt to carry out their duties as board members had been met with stonewalling.
Awwww, it hurts the feelings of WEDC workers to be reminded that their organization is a Walker-created slush fund for the Wisconsin GOP and its donors? I’m guessing the corruption and cover-up factor is what really is hurting morale there, more than being reminded of it.

The article goes on to mention that after it was revealed last July that over $124 million in potential tax breaks were given out between 2011 and 2013 without a formal WEDC staff review, and then-WEDC CEO Reed Hall told Lassa and Barca they should submit a formsal records request to the organization, WEDC sat on the request for months. Then when WEDC staff did respond to the Dems’ demands for information, they pulled the old “drown them in detail” maneuver, and tried to blame the Dems for making them pull such a stunt.
In late January, the agency provided nearly 20,000 pages of documents for one award. [WEDC Legal Counsel Hannah] Renfro wrote to the lawmakers that the cost to taxpayers to provide the material totaled roughly $5,000, including 84.5 hours of staff time to review the documents for anything needing to be marked confidential. The records filled eight boxes.

Barca and Lassa wrote back that Renfro “needlessly wasted taxpayer funds and WEDC and legislative staff time” by printing any document that mentioned the company, rather than “all staff communication” as they had specified in November.

“It is difficult to avoid the conclusion that you are deliberately concealing public information that should be rather straightforward to provide,” they wrote.
But if WEDC staff actually got to the heart of what they did, then the pay-to-play tax handout's criteria might become clearer, and apparently they don’t want Dems or the public to see that. Guess we now know why Gov Walker wanted to exempt WEDC from parts of open records laws in his original 2015-17 budget, a move that was so odious that even the WisGOP-led Joint Finance Committee removed it out of the budget this time last year (before JFC GOPs tried and failed to gut the open records law themselves in early July).

Now compare that reaction (or lack thereof) at WEDC with recent press releases the Walker Administration have been sending out in relation to “getting tough on entitlement fraud.” This includes a note from the Walker-created Office of Inspector General (OIG) at the Department of Health Services which claimed that using tax dollars to go after Medicaid and Food Stamp fraud was a worthwhile investment that pays itself back with the amount of “improper” benefits that it recovers. In late March, the Capitol Times followed up with an article noting that the number of Wisconsinites who had their FoodShare benefits suspended for rules violations went from just over 100 in 2011 to nearly 1,200 in 2014 as part of this effort.

What’s not mentioned in that release is another one of these “tough on welfare” initiatives led to nearly 41,000 Wisconsinites having FoodShare benefits taken away from them as the Walker Administration claimed they did not search for work in Wisconsin. Notable is the lack of strictness to require employers to hire such people, nor in the desire to raise the minimum wage past its paltry $7.25 an hour to make it worthwhile for people to work and/or acquire skills to meet employers’ needs. In addition, the burden of proof is put onto the FoodShare recipient to prove they have looked for work, and for the state to agree he or she has done so, instead of having the state or employer prove that the FoodShare recipient wasn’t looking for work.

Along the same lines, Walker’s Department of Workforce Development released a statement last week crediting a better jobs market (What, no "Thanks Obama”?) and tougher oversight of people asking for unemployment benefits with the state’s unemployment trust fund turning from a deficit to a surplus. That statement also includes quite a bit of tap-dancing around a recent Wisconsin Appeals Court ruling which said the state had gone too far in denying unemployment benefits for a Walgreen’s service clerk fired for mistakes on the job.
A state appeals court ruled Thursday that employees in Wisconsin cannot be denied unemployment benefits for inadvertent errors, even if the worker has been repeatedly warned about such errors.

This is the 4th District Court of Appeals' first look at interpreting "substantial fault," a new threshold the state Legislature established in 2013 to tighten eligibility for unemployment.

That law says employees can't get benefits immediately if they're terminated for misconduct or "substantial fault," defined as acts that violate reasonable employer requirements. Misconduct is defined as "wanton disregard" of an employers' interests, and includes offenses like drug and alcohol use, theft or falsifying business records.
My guess is that the Walker Administration will spend more time and effort to appeal this case to the Wisconsin Manufacturers and Commerce-owned Supreme Court, in an effort to expand the definition of “substantial fault”, and allow more people to be cut off of unemployment benefits.

I have no issue with cracking down on fraud of any sort if fraud is indeed occurring, but it’s worthy to compare the “tough on entitlement fraud” claims from the Walker Administration with the stonewalling and cover-ups that have followed stories of WEDC fraud. Also note that GOP Attorney General Brad Schimel seems uninterested in investigating and charging WEDC fraudsters for ripping off Wisconsin taxpayers, but he has no problem throwing out huge amounts of money to suing the Feds if they dare to go against the Koch/ALEC agenda. It tells you that the Walker Administration and WisGOP really don’t care about the rampant waste of taxpayer dollars, if such waste comes to the benefit of their campaign contributors and allies. They just fear the political damage from being caught and exposed - a dead giveaway of the corruption and one-sidedness of their "governance", and should outrage anyone with a sense of decency.

But it’s really not too surprising when you think about it. The poor and the jobless don’t give campaign contributions, and don’t have the disposable income to hire lawyers and lobbyists to defend themselves to give their side of the story. Plus, poor people make for excellent scapegoats to crack down on, and distracts dimwitted white guys from being outraged at the real criminals in this state- the oligarchs at WEDC, WMC and WisGOP that skim their cut from what taxpayers like you and I pay for.

Since we can’t count on GOP hacks or the Attorney General’s Office to police WEDC, this requires a Federal investigation of WEDC’s practices, handouts and accounting, to get this information out to the public, and to have us get our money back from these fraudsters. And it’s far from the only place that the Feds are needed these days in Fitzwalkerstan.

1 comment:

  1. And thanks to whoever forwarded this on Facebook, as there's already 800 pageviews on this post. The contrast between the kid-gloves treatment of the "inner circle" vs the punishing of rest of us that needs to be blasted throughout the state.