Dan Cassuto says he's terribly disappointed: "This is not how democracy is supposed to work."
The WKOW 27 consumer/investigative reporter has lately been doing a bang-up job on stories that question the effectiveness of the state's main consumer watchdog, the Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection. And he feels like he's getting a little banged up in return.
"All along we've been just trying to do the right thing for the victims, trying to get them justice," says Cassuto, somewhat grandiosely. "The state is not fighting for them, and when a journalist asks 'Why not?' they clearly get pretty upset that we're asking that."
Cassuto's reports have highlighted businesses that generate multiple consumer complaints but no enforcement action from DATCP. They include a driving school, a company that sells (more often than it delivers) hot-air balloon rides, and a newspaper that sold subscriptions and then left town. Cassuto concluded that DATCP "sometimes ignores or hands off complaints," leaving consumers in the lurch.
But Cassuto's stories have also probed the agency's reaction to his inquiries, an approach that's yielded such interesting results it's a shame investigative reporters don't do this more often.
Cassuto reported, for instance, that DATCP officials including agency spokesman Lee Sensenbrenner traded emails that made fun of his visits. Sensenbrenner also sent an internal email that advised: "I think step one is to push back on Cassuto and say there's no way he's trying to tell an even-handed story here...."
Earlier this month, Sensenbrenner called Cassuto to complain about his reporting. "This is obviously a crusade for you," said Sensenbrenner, according to a WKOW web article. "This is going from journalism to borderline harassment."
Sensenbrenner, a former Capital Times reporter who until recently was Gov. Jim Doyle's press secretary, declines to critique WKOW's coverage in Isthmus: "Any concerns I have with their organization I'd like to express directly with them."
But Sensenbrenner stresses that DATCP takes seriously its obligations to respond to information requests, as shown by the fact that it turned over the internal emails discussing its response. And he says, "By pushing back, what I meant was we should argue our side of the story." Like that DATCP annually fields about 15,000 consumer complaints, many of which are satisfactorily resolved.
Cassuto is not impressed, saying it's been "a big struggle" to get information from DATCP. He notes that it was only after Isthmus made inquiries that Sensenbrenner provided an explanation regarding one information request. And he believes the agency's responses underscore a larger problem.
"If that's how a television station is treated, how are regular victims treated when they call to ask a question about their case?" asks Cassuto, who's now working on additional DATCP stories. "To me, I wonder: Well, who is fighting for victims of fraud and wrongdoing?"
Perhaps the best take comes from Glen Loyd, now retired after long stints as a broadcast reporter and the consumer protection office's spokesman. On a recent blog post, Loyd praised both WKOW and DATCP. Then he advised government agencies to "fasten their safety belts and welcome and help aggressive reporters like Dan Cassuto who ask tough questions and peek into dark places."
Bill Knobeloch says not to worry. Madison's parking manager admits there was a recent technological glitch with the server that runs the city's spanking-new downtown parking terminals. Something happened to "open up a portal on the server that let spam in." But the security of the system, which at times tracks payments made with credit cards, was never in doubt.
"It's a good system," he says.
As of this week, 14 of the terminals are in place, replacing dozens of meters; about 70 will be installed by year's end. Knobeloch expects the devices to be operational by month's end; the current meters will be replaced with stall-number posts (which hopefully will still double as bicycle racks).
The new system is known as a pay-by-space. Parkers walk to the terminal, enter their stall number and pay with cash or credit. If they use a credit card, the terminal encrypts the information and sends it via phone to a bank; the bank decrypts it, then relays back a "real-time" decision on whether to authorize the transaction.
Knobeloch says similar systems are in place at city parking ramp pay stations and gas pumps everywhere. But it's an improvement over previous ramp systems that ran credit card checks after the fact, letting scofflaws get away. (If only we'd known!)
Here's where it gets really funky. The terminals beam info on which stalls are paid (not credit card numbers) to a server in the City-County Building. Parking enforcement officers access this with handheld devices when they come by to write tickets.
"They still have to walk" to look at cars, to check for disabled or contractor tags, says Knobeloch. "Just because it's unpaid doesn't mean they need to write a ticket."
But enforcers won't have to check every spot, so they can cover more ground and ruin more people's days. There are also benefits for parkers. For instance, the terminals generate receipts that can be used to challenge tickets issued in error. And it will prevent people from, say, absentmindedly plugging a meter for two hours in a spot that will become a tow-away zone in 35 minutes.
"Hopefully, we'll get less towed cars," says Knobeloch. But let's face it: That's one old technology that isn't likely to become obsolete.
Former Madison activist Miles Kristan, bless his heart, remains something of a troublemaker. Earlier this month he was busted in Milwaukee at an event for Republican governor candidate Scott Walker.
"I was arrested for asking Jeb Bush how he likes the weather," claims Kristan. The former Florida governor and presidential family scion was helping Walker raise funds.
Isthmus readers may remember Kristan, now 24, as the young man ticketed last year by Madison police for writing on a city street with chalk, as a city ordinance expressly allows (Watchdog, 4/30/09). The bogus ticket was eventually dismissed, but Madison police then billed him for the letter explaining this decision (Watchdog, 6/11/09).
Kristan says he attended the Walker event hoping to ask some pointed questions of Bush, but was arrested as soon as he asked his question about the weather. He received a $185 non-criminal disorderly conduct citation. His camera and digital audio recorder were confiscated.
According to Kristan (Milwaukee police and court authorities each claimed the other had this information), the narrative on his citation suggests he was trying to cause a disturbance. He disputes this, saying his camera footage and recordings will support this view.
Milwaukee Police spokeswoman Anne E. Schwartz says the camera and recorder will "remain on inventory until his court date," set for April 30. And, she says, "Certainly the contents of the camera and recorder would be reviewed."
Kristan is incredulous that police would confiscate a camera and recorder to buttress a $185 disorderly conduct ticket. He says the camera contains footage of things unrelated to the Walker-Bush event, including antiwar protests.
Madison police spokesman Joel DeSpain, speaking in general, says officers here might review the contents of a camera or recorder "if they thought there was evidence of a crime therein." But Capt. Vic Wahl clarifies that "we probably wouldn't do that for an ordinance violation" and that, if police wanted to review the contents, "we'd probably get a search warrant."
Another county heard from
A letter to the editor to Isthmus by Everal Vermilyea of Richland Center (presented in its entirety to preserve its Zen-like zaniness):
"Are we determined to attempt to destroy the United States through bankruptcy? To be sure the Medicare system goes broke by taking five hundred billions from its funds? By spending a trillion a year, all borrowed? Are we going to vote a socialistic line? Do we believe that to change our capitalistic country someone must extend government control over private business enterprises? Did you know that for many years we have had communistic 'Red Cells' in our college and university campuses?
"The government of Czechoslovakia was a socialist country until the government decided to collect all the guns to protect citizens from criminals. One night at 2 a.m. soldiers rapped and when the door opened, rifles were pointed at the citizen and guns collected. One month later the country was communist.
"I am a fiscal conservative. When we default on interest we are bankrupt. Guns: our second amendment is under attack. The Czech said 'never let them take your guns.'"