Beth Hastings retired from the state Department of Administration last week, after 18 years. The planning analyst and project manager, previously from the private sector in California, has worked under Republican as well as Democratic administrations, and a succession of DOA secretaries. But she's never seen anything like this.
"I almost feel they've been co-opted," Hastings says of DOA officials. "It feels like they're grasping at straws. I'm kind of embarrassed for them that they can't make up better lies."
Hastings admits she's a Democrat and "a classic Madison liberal," but her analysis of DOA is not noticeably partisan. She praises the agency's "strong policy" orientation under Gov. Tommy Thompson and criticizes its lack of decisiveness under Gov. Jim Doyle. She says Gov. Scott Walker's DOA picks, including former Republican Assembly Speaker Mike Huebsch as secretary, run the gamut from "political payback" to smart choices based on relevant experience.
But what troubles her is the DOA's apparent new role as a purveyor of misinformation seen as helpful to Walker's political agenda. It's put out comically low estimates of protest crowds (a DOA spokesman, asked why his agency's crowd tally last Saturday was so much less than that of Madison police, said the cops may have been "counting people we weren't") and ridiculously inflated claims of the damage to the Capitol caused by protesters.
"We all just roll our eyes," says Hastings of the reaction of DOA employees, at least six of whom retired last week, just ahead of Walker's initial start date for benefit concessions. "They just think there's total lying going on."
On March 3, the agency's top lawyer claimed that protesters caused $7.5 million in damage to the Capitol, mostly to marble from the tape holding on signs and banners. Hastings notes that this claim was "flashed across the country" before being revised downward the next day to as little as $347,000.
On Monday, March 7, after the signs were all removed, DOA spokeswoman Carla Vigue said the agency was bringing in an "outside expert [to] determine the amount and nature of the work that will be needed to be done to bring the marble to its prior condition." On March 9, she said "it may be several days" before this information is in hand.
Now, well more than several days later, no further information has been provided. "Still working on it," said Vigue on Tuesday.
Jacob Arndt has a pretty good idea how much damage to the marble was actually caused: None at all.
Arndt owns Northwestern Masonry and Stone, a Lake Mills-based company that he says "does consultation work and has contracts with the state of Wisconsin." He toured the Capitol early this month with a DOA staffer, inspecting the various types of stone: Kasota-Mankato, Wausau red granite, Dakota red granite, verde jade.
"I looked at each of these types of stones," says Arndt. His conclusion: The painter's tape used to affix signs left "little or no residue" anywhere. The worst problem he saw was some residue where media had taped cords to the floor, but even this was easily removed with simple cleaning agents.
"There's no damage to the stone," says Arndt, who has been back in the building several times since, verifying this finding. He says the DOA official who showed him around agrees even the lower cost estimate is "completely ridiculous and politically inspired."
Hmm, maybe the Wisconsin Department of Administration should consider that - "completely ridiculous and politically inspired" - as its new motto.
Troopers at risk
When Leslyn Erickson says the Wisconsin State Patrol is being deployed in quite possibly illegal ways, there is ample reason to take her seriously.
Erickson is a former State Patrol trooper and sergeant who briefly served as assistant general counsel for the state Department of Transportation and counsel to the State Patrol, in 1991. She went on to teach constitutional and criminal law at the Federal Law Enforcement Training Center in Glynco, Georgia, for nine years, then worked as a consultant on these topics to various federal agencies. Now she works with the U.S. Marine Corps.
Erickson says that when the State Patrol "engages in a labor dispute, that is a violation of their statutory authority." But you don't need the State Patrol's former lawyer or an expert in constitutional and criminal law to say that. It's right there in black and white:
Section 110.07(2m) of the Wisconsin State Statutes reads, in relevant part: "No state traffic officer shall be used in or take part in any dispute or controversy between employer or employee concerning wages, hours, labor or working conditions." It goes on to say state traffic officers may be used "to safeguard state officers or other persons."
Erickson allows that this argument could be used to explain why dozens of troopers have been deployed at the Capitol each day. But she says the threatened use of state troopers to round up missing Democratic senators - and their actual dispatch to Sen. Mark Miller's house - is much harder to justify: "Where was the need for protection?"
In such a case, says Erickson, these officers are acting outside of their statutory authority and lose any claim to immunity for their actions. She feels they could be sued and even charged with "criminal harassment."
The troopers themselves seem aware of this concern. As reported by Jack Craver last week, their union last week put out a statement (PDF) saying the orders being given by Gov. Walker and State Patrol Superintendent Stephen Fitzgerald - father of Republican legislative leaders Scott and Jeff - "may be illegal" and put troopers "in the way of great personal harm," including from lawsuits brought against them.
State Patrol Col. Ben Mendez says the troopers have nothing to fear, as they were deployed "for purposes of security in the state Capitol," which is "within the scope of their authority." He says the troopers who showed up at Sen. Miller's home were there "for the safety and security" of the public official - the Senate sergeant at arms - who was also present.
Sally Stix, the attorney for the troopers union, says a court would have to determine whether the troopers were properly deployed. "State Patrol leadership is not the final authority on that."
Prosser's little helpers
Early this week a sleazy new website sprang into being to deliver shrill and cowardly attacks on Assistant Attorney General JoAnne Kloppenburg, who is running against conservative Supreme Court Justice David Prosser in the April 5 election.
joannekloppenburg.com is registered under Domains by Proxy, meaning the creator doesn't want to be known. On Wednesday, the site was not accessible, instead flashing a "Be Back Soon" sign. We can hardly wait.
The site -- see here (PDF) for copies of referenced pages -- consistently misspelled Kloppenburg's first name ("Joanne") while calling her "a left wing hack job." It used a Mr. Yuk symbol to declare her "Poison to Wisconsin."
Kloppenburg's years of prosecuting environmental violators under both Republican and Democratic attorneys general, the site said, "have left her with the blood of everyday Wisconsin homeowners on her hands." (Really, it said this.) It claimed she has "no judicial philosohpy," as opposed to Prosser, who has "Judicial Philosphy." And it directed readers to Prosser's campaign website and encouraged them to volunteer.
Or should that be "volutneer?"