What could the state be hiding?
Every scandal needs a name. This one is Dispensergate.
In late June, employees at the Madison headquarters for the Wisconsin Department of Revenue were told via email that new hands-free paper towel and soap dispensers would be installed in bathrooms and kitchenettes throughout the building, replacing existing devices. No reason was given.
An employee we'll call Dirty Thumb, the Dispensergate equivalent of Deep Throat, was intrigued. The name on the new dispensers was enMotion, a brand of Georgia-Pacific, owned by Koch Industries, headed by the Koch brothers, backers of conservative causes and Gov. Scott Walker.
Dirty Thumb, who thought the old dispensers worked just fine, found enMotion paper towel dispensers offered online for $499 each. And that's not even to buy them. The fine print says the devices must be subleased and stipulates that "only Georgia-Pacific enMotion® product be used in these dispensers."
The other new addition, enMotion soap dispensers, are priced online at $128.75 each, and also are said to require a sublease mandating the use of Georgia-Pacific refills.
"This looks like a cash cow for Georgia-Pacific," Dirty Thumb told the Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism. Follow the money.
The Center, true to its name, investigated. Its findings may come as quite a shock.
The Department of Revenue, fielding an open records request, initially claimed it had no relevant records, deferring to the state Department of Administration. But the Center's persistence led to DOR coughing up a handful of emails about the new units.
"I think this is (a) very green approach with much less maintenance needed," wrote one employee, an obvious suck up. Another asked why the soap dispensers were being replaced, as the ones in the building were "already hands-free."
Dirty Thumb wondered the same, saying in one communication, which did not involve a parking garage, "If there are improprieties or waste, I hope you will report on them." That's our job.
DOA officials took more than seven weeks, from July 21 to Sept. 10, to fulfill the Center's dispenser-related records request. What could they be hiding?
The released records reveal that a Georgia-Pacific account executive in March urged the state to install the new soap dispensers. He noted that Schilling Supply, which keeps state buildings stocked with hand soap and paper towels, had already decided to switch to enMotion towel dispensers. Both could be done at the same time.
In June, the account executive asked the state to send "the confidentiality agreement" that needed to be signed before work could begin. Be still our heart.
Other records showed that the paper towels for the new dispensers cost three times as much -- about $50 for six rolls, up from $16.58. Thump thump.
But invoices from Schilling confirm that the 36 new soap dispensers were free and the 55 new towels dispensers cost just $25 each, discounted from the usual bulk price of $125. There was no charge for installation. Other records document recurring service problems with the old towel dispensers.
It gets worse -- er, better. The new soap refills cost about the same as the old ones, and the new units can dispense 45 percent less soap. And while the state paid Schilling $5,468 for two batches of triple-cost paper towels, DOA officials say the machines have since been modified to use "any universal towel."
How can that be? DOA spokeswoman Stephanie Marquis says the state never signed a sublease agreement and was able to modify the units. The cheaper rolls the state went back to using are also made by Georgia-Pacific.
And what about the referenced confidentiality agreement? Turns out this was for the installers, who like other outsiders granted access to the DOR building must pledge not to snoop.
So, to sum up Dispensergate: Rather than being taken to the cleaners, the state appears to have gotten an excellent deal and committed no improprieties.
For some, as noted, that may come as a shock.
Bill Lueders is the Money and Politics Project director at the Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism. The Center produces the project in partnership with MapLight.
The Center collaborates with Wisconsin Public Radio, Wisconsin Public Television, other news media and the UW-Madison School of Journalism and Mass Communication. All works created, published, posted or disseminated by the Center do not necessarily reflect the views or opinions of UW-Madison or any of its affiliates.