MADISON (WKOW) -- We expect government to protect us. We expect government to fight for justice. We expect government to stand up for the little guy.
Sometimes, government does none of the above.
And they don't want you to know.
Who's protecting you?
Starting in November 2009, a WKOW Call for Action Investigation revealed the state's consumer watchdog agency sometimes ignores, hands off or rushes to close complaints about serious consumer fraud, scams and wrongdoing. Some victims wait months, even years, only to learn the department closed their cases with little to no investigation.
The Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection, or DATCP, receives 15,000 complaints every year about possible wrongdoing, fraud, defective products and other deceptive business practices.
Your tax dollars fund a department that's supposed to investigate complaints and work with prosecutors to track down suspects. But victims from across Wisconsin have expressed anger, frustration and disbelief when they never got justice and sometimes never even got a response after filing a complaint.
Our investigation revealed the department sometimes closes complaints after simply sending a form letter to the suspect.
When WKOW started asking questions, department staffers admittedly got irritated and frustrated by our investigative work. The department's spokesperson called our reporting "a crusade" and "journalism bordering on harassment."
Some senior DATCP staffers ridiculed us in internal emails we obtained through the open records law. They discussed ways to "push back" and avoiding locating and turning over public records.
Lawmakers tried to dodge questions and screen their phone calls.
Nobody wanted to talk about the victims who filed complaints and heard nothing.
But after six months of relentless questioning and digging, some lawmakers are now coming forward to criticize the department. Some candidates for governor now pledge to overhaul the agency's operations. One state representative told us, "that whole agency is committing a consumer fraud."
But the victims are still waiting for justice and DATCP says it has no plans to change.
On this section of WKOW.com, you can find links to our past reporting plus web-only content. We are preparing new installments of the series to air in April and May 2010.
Below, you'll find one of our first installments of our investigative series.
"There are so many crooks out there. They're getting away with it. The state is letting them," said Evelyn Dorn, a consumer victim from Oshkosh.
"There are no consequences," said Dan Teztlaff, a consumer victim from Madison. "Nobody is going to stop them."
"DATCP needs to do a better job of following up on these kind of things," said Helen Petrich, a consumer victim from Columbus.
WKOW uncovered three examples of cases that victims and legal experts say should've gotten more attention.
Case #1. A driving school in Oshkosh accused of owing at least $9,000 to clients. Consumers like Evelyn Dorn paid an extra $335 on the promise that the school would refund the money if her son passed his driving test.
He passed; the school never refunded the money. According to state records, 26 other victims filed identical complaints last year to Consumer Protection.
Consumer Protection referred the case to the Transportation Dept., which revoked the school's license. However, Consumer Protection did not try to track down the owner and get anyone's money back.
"Now I'm really upset," said Dorn, who learned the update from WKOW. "I thought they were on it. I thought we'd hear from them."
Case #2. A hot-air balloon company accused of selling tickets but never flying. Customers have been filing complaints about this outfit since 2002, racking up more than 40.
WKOW aired an in-depth investigation last fall. We tracked the company's flight status hotline for 30 days. It flew zero times.
The company is still selling tickets, but Consumer Protection says it has no plans to investigate.
Case #3. A newspaper in Columbus that sold 1 and 2-year subscriptions, mostly to elderly people, and then left town. Consumer Protection received 43 identical complaints last year, but many of those victims never even received a response.
"He needs to be caught and penalized," said George Jordan, one of the elderly victims. "A year is too long."
WKOW took these three cases to Randy Romanski, deputy secretary of the Dept. of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection.
In regards to the Columbus newspaper case: "My reaction is that the case has been resolved," said Romanski.
By resolved, he means his staff referred the case to a local district attorney. The DA filed a civil complaint, which means a court could order a monetary judgment. Collecting that judgment is another matter.
There will never be an arrest warrant, a trial, or jail time.
"If caught, you'll have this slap on the wrist," said Madison consumer lawyer Brian Pagel, who's defended victims in consumer cases for 10 years.
Pagel told us he doesn't believe the case is actually resolved.
"The consumers haven't heard anything. They trusted this agency to take action on their behalf," he said. "Criminal charges are much more effective. Many people don't even respond to a civil case."
The DA's office told us it didn't even consider criminal charges because that requires too much time and money.
Romanski is quick to praise his agency and the hard-working consumer advocates there.
Of those 15,000 written complaints, Romanski claims 90 percent of consumers who respond to questionnaires are satisfied.
Consumer Protection also claims it recovered $4.5 million last year for consumers. Some of that money was returned to the state's general fund.
The agency also says it's referring more cases to prosecutors than in the past.
"Consumers are typically very pleased with the service they get from Consumer Protection," said Romanski.
However, the response you get seems to have a lot to do with the overall organizational priorities.
Consumer Protection focuses on "Do Not Call" list violations, landlord/tenant disputes, and telecommunications problems. Each of these categories racks up between 1,000 and 3,000 complaints every year.
If your complaint falls far outside these priorities, Consumer Protection says you can either sue on your own or hope Attorney General J.B. Van Hollen takes the case.
"Well, our hands are somewhat tied by what Consumer Protection does," said Van Hollen, who agreed to an interview with WKOW.
He admits he could investigate and prosecute more of these cases, but claims the legislature funds DATCP to handle consumer issues.
The hot potato gets tossed right back to Consumer Protection.
But Van Hollen also tosses the hot potato to lawmakers, who've decreased funding for Consumer Protection over the past 15 years. The agency now has 22 fewer consumer protection positions than it used to.
None of the lawmakers who sit on the assembly or senate consumer protection committees responded to our letter requesting an interview.
In early January, we called Rep. Gordon Hintz (D-Oshkosh), who chairs the assembly's consumer protection committee. We sent him a DVD of our November investigation about that hot-air balloon company.
"People sometimes call and complain about the number of chicken McNuggets they get at McDonald's," said Hintz, who declined our second request for an interview. He said he rejects the premise of our story.
Then we obtained e-mails he exchanged with his aides through Wisconsin's Open Records Law.
In one email, his press secretary, Cecely Castillo, wrote to him," We should place on alert. Not have you quoted on this. Screen the calls carefully."
Another aide, Cody Lundquist, wrote to him, "My worry is that if you let this sit... [27 News] will catch you in the hall...and talk about McNuggets. I don't want to see that on TV in October in Oshkosh."
After we obtained these emails, Rep. Hintz agreed to an on-camera interview.
"It's too bad we got off on the wrong foot," said Hintz. "I'm actually really glad you brought this issue to my attention. It's something I care about and am concerned about."
WKOW's Dan Cassuto asked Mr. Hintz if he planned to do anything specific, such as call a hearing or ask Consumer Protection to testify. His response: "You know, again, we're concerned."
He then told us our time was up and ended the interview.
A week later, he copied WKOW on a letter he sent to Consumer Protection and the Attorney General. About that hot-air balloon company, Hintz wrote, "A business that has demonstrated consistent neglect for our laws to multiple citizens over several years should not be allowed to continue."
WKOW followed up with both agencies. They still tell us they do not plan to investigate.
"The clients are the only ones who are suffering," said Evelyn Dorn, a victim of that driving school in Oshkosh.
"Why have a Consumer Protection agency if they're just going to send it to someone else?" asked attorney Brian Pagel.
Online reporting by Dan Cassuto
Dan's Email: firstname.lastname@example.org
Dan on Twitter: cassuto_wkow
Dan's Consumer Blog: Call for Action
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