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“Scott Walker’s Little-Known Scandal”: When He Treated Welfare Recipients Like Dogs

Among the racist jokes and emails found in recently released documents connected to the criminal probe of Gov. Scott Walker’s 2010 campaign, one stood out: A “joke” about a woman trying to sign up her dogs for welfare, because “my Dogs are mixed in color, unemployed, lazy, can’t speak English and have no frigging clue who their Daddys are. They expect me to feed them, provide them with housing and medical care, and feel guilty.” The punch line: “My Dogs get their first checks Friday.”

Walker’s deputy chief of staff Kelly Rindfleisch replied: “That is hilarious. And so true.”

The joke is bad enough on its own, but it’s also worth noting: Back when Walker was Milwaukee county executive, and Rindfleisch was a top aide, he managed the county’s welfare programs so abysmally that after lawsuits by local clients, the state was forced to take them over. “They didn’t just call people dogs, they treated them like dogs,” one Milwaukee elected official recalled angrily.

“Milwaukee County has demonstrated a sustained inability to successfully provide services to its (poor) customers,” state health services director Karen Timberlake wrote in a February 2009 letter to Walker announcing the state takeover. Milwaukee became only one of 72 Wisconsin counties to wind up with its programs for poor people under state control.

It’s a chapter in Walker’s career that shows why, to many in Milwaukee, his staff’s racist jokes aren’t funny.

At the height of the recession, in 2008 and 2009, requests for aid in Wisconsin, and throughout the country, soared. But in Milwaukee, where 41 percent of African-Americans live below the poverty line, people had trouble getting help. Roughly 95 percent of calls to the county’s client-intake call center went unanswered in 2008, a state probe later found.

The social services department budget funded 25 positions at the intake center, but a Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel reporter found only seven staffers working among empty cubicles when he visited. Advocates and the county workers’ union complained, but Walker stonewalled. Aided by the outcry, Walker began arguing for privatizing the social services intake unit. “He was managing it to fail,” charges AFSCME contract administrator Dave Eisner.

In June 2008, Legal Action of Wisconsin sued on behalf of thousands of needy people who couldn’t get benefits even though they qualified, because they couldn’t get their eligibility verified.

“Milwaukee County has reached a low point in its [welfare] delivery service,” Legal Action lawyer Pat DeLessio wrote in a letter to the County Board. “It is almost impossible to get through to anyone on the phone” to apply for or verify benefits.

But the problems weren’t just at the call center. In 2008, one out of five food stamp recipients dropped for ineligibility were in fact eligible, and wrongly cut from the program. In 2007, 60 percent of county decisions to cut food or other aid were overturned on appeal within two months. Roughly 30 percent of needy applicants were waiting more than two weeks for aid. Two-thirds of all complaints received by state welfare agencies involved Milwaukee County residents having problems obtaining Medicaid, food aid and child care services. And while the state paid a higher share of Milwaukee’s income-maintenance program costs than in other counties, Walker complained that state funding was inadequate.

With the call center problems and need rising, clients took to lining up at county offices for services before they even opened, DeLessio recalled, because by midday workers would declare the building was full, and turn away new applicants. In June 2008 at least 3,000 people showed up before dawn seeking food vouchers in what was later called a “food riot.”

“The food crisis in Milwaukee and throughout the United States is worse than many of us have realized,” said Milwaukee Common Council president Willie Hines. “We expect long lines for free food in third-world countries.”

Walker’s answer was to privatize the intake unit and other services. His proposed September 2008 budget featured his privatization proposals, but the county board blocked him. “It was clearly a game – he didn’t give a damn about poor people,” Eisner charges.

State officials repeatedly complained about the service inadequacies, and eventually threatened to take the programs away from the county. Politics clearly played a role in the conflict; in 2006 Walker had planned to run for governor against incumbent Democrat Jim Doyle, but soon dropped out of the Republican primary. “I believe that it was God’s will for me to run,” Walker said at the time. “After a great deal of prayer during the last week, it is clear that it is God’s will for me to step out of the race.” It was an open secret that Walker was planning another run for governor in 2010, and if his skirmishes with the Doyle administration hurt Milwaukee’s poor, they helped its county executive with the state’s conservative GOP primary voters.

After a series of tense meetings between county and state administrators, when it was clear the state was going to take over the anti-poverty programs, Walker made a brazen move. He wrote to state social services director Karen Timberlake and invited the state to take over the county’s income maintenance program.

“This is a state mandate,” Walker wrote, in a letter he immediately released to the media. “It’s amazing state government has been such a lousy partner on this.”

County board chair Lee Holloway told the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel that Walker invited the state in, over his and the board-majority’s objection, to preempt the state’s embarrassing announcement that it was taking over Milwaukee’s programs. “Holloway said he thought Walker’s letter was meant to upstage state officials ‘before they make a move on him,’” the paper reported.

“The county board didn’t want the takeover,” recalls Legal Action’s Pat DeLessio. “There’s a strong system of county control in Wisconsin. But Walker just gave up.”

No one was fooled by Walker’s letter. A day after he released it, the state announced its takeover. In her letter to Walker explaining the move, Timberlake wrote that Wisconsin state government “has in fact expended millions of additional dollars and thousands of hours of staff resources to assist your county over a period of years. Despite these efforts, Milwaukee County’s performance fails national and state standards and is failing the people of the county.” Yet two years after the state took over his social service programs, Walker took over the state as governor.

Kelly Rindfleisch, who found the joke about welfare-receiving dogs “hilarious” and “so true,” was Walker’s deputy chief of staff while he was mismanaging the county’s welfare programs. Her boss, chief of staff Tom Nardelli, himself circulated a racist joke about the “nightmare” of waking up black, gay, disabled and HIV-positive while working for Milwaukee County. Against the backdrop of the way Walker treated welfare recipients, their joking is even less funny.

Rindfleisch was eventually convicted of illegal campaign activity on public time, a felony conviction that she is appealing. She and Nardelli paid no penalty for enjoying racist jokes on public time.

 

By: Joan Walsh, Editor at Large, Salon, March 3, 2014

March 4, 2014 Posted by | Republicans, Scott Walker | , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

“Move Over Chris Christie”: Is Yet Another GOP 2016 Contender Flaming Out?

They say that misery loves company, and New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie (R) may soon have a friend who can sympathize with seeing a 2016 presidential campaign threatened by a tawdry political scandal.

On Wednesday, more than 27,000 emails were released from a now closed investigation into alleged illegal activity by Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker’s (R) 2010 election campaign. Though Walker himself was never charged with anything, the new documents for the first time tie him directly to his staff’s shady campaign dealings, an embarrassing blow that could hinder his re-election bid this year and dampen his appeal as an establishment alternative come 2016.

A quick recap on how we got here.

Back in 2010, when Walker was still the Milwaukee County executive, his staff established a secret wireless network in the county office to coordinate strategy with his political campaign. Because such coordination is illegal in Wisconsin when done on the taxpayers’ dime, a probe into the effort resulted in convictions for six of Walker’s former aides and allies, including his former deputy chief of staff, Kelly Rindfleisch, who pleaded guilty in 2012 to a felony for her role.

Walker, meanwhile, came through unscathed — until now, that is.

According to the newly released emails, the investigation into the Walker campaign’s misconduct widened one day before the 2012 election, with raids targeting Walker’s campaign office, the Milwaukee County executive office, and the homes of some Walker staffers. As for that secret wireless router, the emails provide the first direct indication that Walker knew about it.

From the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel:

“Consider yourself now in the ‘inner circle,'” Walker’s administration director, Cynthia Archer, wrote to Walker aide Kelly Rindfleisch just after the two exchanged a test message.

“I use this private account quite a bit to communicate with SKW and Nardelli. You should be sure you check it throughout the day,” she wrote, referring to Walker by his initials and to Walker’s chief of staff, Tom Nardelli. [Milwaukee Journal Sentinel]

Now, the emails do not prove that Walker actually used the secret network while on the county clock. And many of the details in the unsealed emails have been known for some time. Still, the negative headlines they’re generating — and the subsequent investigative reports they’re bound to spawn — are a stain on the resume of someone many believed to be the GOP establishment’s next best hope after Bridgegate tarnished Christie’s once-glorious political career.

Christie’s downfall is an apt parallel.

Though Christie hasn’t been tied directly to the politically motivated traffic scandal, his aides and appointees have. That leaves just two conclusions to draw about Christie himself: Either he’s lying or he surrounded himself with devious incompetents over whom he had little control. Neither interpretation reflects favorably on a chief executive’s character.

So while Christie is innocent (so far) of any personal wrongdoing, his popularity has taken a massive hit.

That’s the same problem now facing Walker. The governor could still be found guilty in the court of public opinion of poor judgment for hiring law-skirting staffers. Indeed, the Democratic National Committee and local Democratic operatives are now lumping the two governors together under one big umbrella of shame.

“This wasn’t the work of a few rogue staffers,” Michael Czin, a DNC spokesman, said in a statement, “this was a coordinated effort that goes right to the top.”

“Just like in New Jersey, top aides used taxpayer resources to push a political agenda,” he added. “And just like Chris Christie, Scott Walker has a lot of questions to answer.”

The emails support that claim, to a certain extent. One correspondence shows that Walker instructed a top aide to coordinate a daily conference call between county and campaign staff. Again, though that doesn’t implicate Walker in any illegal activity, it suggests he might have encouraged it in his underlings.

Walker’s problems don’t end there, either. As the Huffington Post noted, the emails also revealed that Walker once wanted to fire a doctor because she used to be a thong model, a tale that would be perfect fodder for Democrats who want to trot out their effective “War on Women” message. And the emails also contained a racist, homophobic chain message about a fictional nightmare. (Punch line: “I can handle being a black, disabled, one-armed, drug-addicted, Jewish, homosexual… but please, Oh dear God, don’t tell me I’m a Democrat!”)

Meanwhile, Walker’s recall campaign committee — the governor defeated an attempt to remove him from office in 2012, which is what earned him the national spotlight to begin with — is believed to be the subject of a second, ongoing investigation. Depending on what that investigation finds, Walker could be in for yet another round of awful coverage.

The symmetry between Walker and Christie’s tales is remarkable. Both involve a prominent GOP governor with presumed White House ambitions allegedly using his office for underhanded political machinations. And in both cases, the governor claimed innocence and ignorance of his staff’s misdeeds.

That excuse didn’t work for Christie, and there’s no reason to believe it will work any better for Walker.

 

By: Jon Terbush, The Week, February 20, 2014

February 22, 2014 Posted by | Chris Christie, GOP Presidential Candidates, Scott Walker | , , , , , , | 1 Comment

“An Unpleasant Day For Scott Walker”: In The Midst Of The Fallout Of Two Criminal Investigations

When it comes to ambitious Republican governors, gearing up for likely presidential campaigns, but burdened by scandals, we tend to think of a certain New Jersey official.

But as Rosalind Helderman reminds us this morning, Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker (R) is “in the midst of dealing with the fallout of two criminal investigations,” one of which is of particular interest today.

That could begin as early as Wednesday with the release of more than 25,000 pages of e-mails from an ex-staffer that were gathered as part of the now-concluded investigation. The probe focused on Walker’s time as Milwaukee County executive before his 2010 election as governor and led to convictions of six former aides and allies.

Even if Walker escapes the e-mail release unscathed, he faces an additional inquiry from state prosecutors, who are believed to be looking into whether his successful 2012 recall campaign illegally coordinated with independent conservative groups.

The Walker stories haven’t generated nearly as much attention as some other recent political controversies, in large part because Wisconsin’s secrecy laws have kept a tight lid on information about the investigations.

But Lane Florsheim recently summarized matters nicely: “Charles P. Pierce at Esquire has a good rundown of the lurking scandals: Aides from Walker’s first campaign went to jail for using his Milwaukee County Executive office to campaign for him for governor, another former aide was convicted of stealing money from a fund for families of U.S. soldiers who fought in Iraq and Afghanistan, and Walker’s administration gave raises that skirted state limits after a series of phantom job transfers took place. Another corruption probe is ongoing.”

Well, when you put it that way, it seems troubling.

Helderman fleshed out the significance of today’s revelations, in particular.

The e-mails being released Wednesday come from the files of Kelly Rindfleisch, a former Walker deputy chief of staff who in 2012 pleaded guilty to a felony for performing political work for a Walker-backed lieutenant governor candidate during hours she was being paid by taxpayers to do county business. The e-mails are being unsealed as part of her appeal.

Prosecutors said she sent 1,400 e-mails on county time related to political fundraising. More than 2,200 e-mails, they said, went to Walker campaign officials.

Many were sent using a private e-mail address and an Internet router installed in the county executive office suite with the intention of shielding the work from public access, prosecutors said.

Walker was copied on a handful of e-mails, released by prosecutors during Rindfleisch’s sentencing, that showed county workers and campaign aides jointly coordinating strategy.

There’s nothing to suggest Walker has ever been a target of the investigation, even though two of his former aides were convicted. His Democratic critics are nevertheless eager to see if the new materials implicate the governor to an extent beyond what’s previously been reported.

American Bridge, a progressive super PAC, has created a website that’s collecting and posting the newly released materials as they’re available.

Also note, while Walker is clearly eyeing a national campaign in the near future, he’s also facing a competitive re-election bid this year.

 

By: Steve Benen, The Maddow Blog, February 19, 2014

February 20, 2014 Posted by | Scott Walker, Wisconsin | , , , , , , | Leave a comment

More Fallout From Gov Walker’s Overreach: Abele Defeats Stone For Milwaukee County Executive

Chris Abele – a 44-year-old philanthropist, scion of a wealthy Boston family and political neophyte – handily defeated state Rep. Jeff Stone (R-Greendale) at the polls Tuesday to become the next Milwaukee County executive.

Abele had 61% of the vote to 39% for Stone, according to unofficial results with all votes counted.

Abele said he would immediately tackle tough county problems and work cooperatively with Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett and other leaders in the county.

“It is time for a new approach,” Abele said from his election party at the historic Pabst Brewery. “It is time to stop working apart and to start working together.”

He pointed to the undeveloped Park East property nearby as something on which the city and county needed to collaborate.

“I don’t see the mayor as a competitor,” Abele said. “I see him as a partner and a friend.”

Stone conceded the race about 10:05 p.m., promising to work with Abele to help fix the county’s problems. Stone called the campaign an amazing race run in “an unusual environment.”

Abele campaigned with $1 million of his own money as someone with fresh ideas to tackle the county’s nagging financial problems. Though light on specifics, Abele outlined an approach that emphasizes efficiency moves. He put much of his advertising firepower into trying to fuse Stone with Gov. Scott Walker and his controversial push to end most collective bargaining for public employees.

Stone said his loss “reflects the divide we have right now in Wisconsin.” He also said the big turnout in Milwaukee “was a reflection of some of the unrest we had in Madison” over Walker’s union measure.

Walker held the county executive slot for eight years before his election as governor last fall when he defeated Barrett.

Stone in his campaign faulted Abele as inexperienced and callous to everyday concerns, pointing to a long-delayed resolution of Abele’s 1996 drunken driving case, his avoidance of state income taxes and his dispute with the IRS over a $2.3 million federal tax bill.

The win gives Abele the final year left in Walker’s county term. Abele has said he plans to run for a full four-year term as executive in spring 2012.

Though a longtime supporter of Democratic candidates and liberal causes, Abele ran for county executive – officially a nonpartisan office – often sounding like a conservative. Like Stone, Abele vowed not to raise taxes and said he’d work hard to attract new business. Abele said he’ll push to wipe out inefficiencies and service duplications and might turn to privatizations, selling off county assets and marketing park services to the suburbs.

He also hinted at layoffs as a way to bring the county’s budget into long-term balance, promising unspecified “tough cuts.”

He said he wouldn’t be surprised “if we end up with a government that looks smaller.”

Mix into that formula Abele’s frequent assertion that he’ll serve as a cheerleader for Milwaukee, whether stalking development and jobs or demanding a fairer shake for the area when lobbying the state.

Calls for cultural change

He’s vowed to bring on a culture change in county government, where getting results is rewarded and poor performers are called on the carpet.

“The real key here is changing the way we think about stuff, changing this notion that the only solution to everything is either cutting services or raising taxes,” Abele said.

Abele has never held a government job, in contrast to Stone, who has spent the past 17 years as a state and local official. Stone derided Abele as “an amateur” whose government inexperience would hurt the county.

Abele sought to make a virtue of his clean political slate and said he would apply what he’s learned over the past 15 years in running the Argosy Foundation, a family charity, and two small businesses. Argosy and Abele personally have given heavily to arts, environmental, civic and community groups and Abele has served on many local nonprofit agency boards.

Abele’s introduction to the county’s financial concerns came as a member of the Greater Milwaukee Committee and a task force that concluded in 2006 that county government could be phased out, its services parceled out to the state, other municipalities and newly formed parks and transit districts.

As a candidate for county office, however, Abele has been more cautious. He says he’ll put his faith in detailed studies and proven practices to fix what’s wrong with the county.

Restructuring the county’s mental health programs by shifting to smaller, community-based care is something Abele has identified for change. He also wants to push for creation of a local government insurance pool as a way to trim county health care costs. He says he’ll cut back on county employees’ use of cars and cell phones and will expand energy audits of county buildings.

Stone on defensive

Stone found himself on the defensive over Walker’s collective bargaining bill since voting twice for it in February, following a three-week period in which news coverage of protests in Madison overshadowed other political news.

While often protesting critic’s claims he’d be a carbon copy of Walker, Stone said he and Walker shared a similar conservative philosophy. Stone also advocated for county policies pioneered by Walker, including ruling out tax increases, pursuing a possible long-term lease of Mitchell International Airport to a private firm and relying on business expansion to drive a county financial resurgence.

A key part of Stone’s plan to fix the county’s long-term budget shortfall was to reform employee health care with a wellness incentives and primary care available in or near county offices.

The job pays $129,114 a year. Unlike Walker, who returned up to $50,000 in salary a year during his tenure, Abele says he’ll accept the full pay.

By: Amy Hetzer and Mark Johnson, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, April 6, 2011

April 6, 2011 Posted by | Class Warfare, Collective Bargaining, Conservatives, Elections, GOP, Gov Scott Walker, Middle Class, Politics, Public Employees, Republicans, Wisconsin, Wisconsin Republicans | , , , | Leave a comment

   

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