VIDEO: Secretary Nilsestuen reverses decision, agrees to interview - WKOW 27: Madison, WI Breaking News, Weather and Sports

VIDEO: Secretary Nilsestuen reverses decision, agrees to on-camera interview

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MADISON (WKOW) -- Click on the video icon to the left to watch our entire unedited interview with Rod Nilsestuen, Secretary of the Dept. of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection (DATCP). 

This is the raw and unedited footage of our 30-minute interview.

For three months, Mr. Nilsestuen has ignored repeated requests for an on-the-record interview.

Many consumers say his department ignores or hands off complaints about fraud and wrongdoing without any serious investigation.

In April, Mr. Nilsestuen changed his mind and agreed to an on-camera interview.

DATCP staff had three demands: the interview must be conducted at its offices, his staff would interrupt us and end the interview after 30 minutes, and the department would tape-record the interview for its own purposes.  WKOW agreed to these requirements.

During the first two minutes of the interview, Mr. Nilsestuen twice touted the so-called "satisfaction rate" that claims 90 percent of consumers are happy with his department.  However, the secretary admitted he had no knowledge of how the survey was conducted. 

In fact, the statistician who designed the survey admits the department may be presenting the results in a misleading way. WKOW aired a special report about this flawed survey and interviewed the statistician on-camera, but Mr. Nilsestuen was not aware and his staff did not brief him before the interview.

The survey was not scientific and only includes opinions from people who took the time to respond to the survey in the mail.  Even the expert who designed the survey says the results could be wrong.

After 30 minutes, Mr. Nilsestuen did, in fact, end the interview.  He says he is very busy with many demands.  It should be noted when WKOW arrived at his offices, Mr. Nilsestuen was posing for pictures with elementary school students and Smoky the Bear in honor of Earth Day.


Unedited Transcript

Thursday, April 22, 2010

3:00 PM - Madison, WI

DAN CASSUTO, WKOW REPORTER: Mr. Secretary, I want to thank you for doing the interview with us.

SECRETARY ROD NILSESTUEN: Sure, glad to be here.

DAN: We've heard from dozens of consumers from across the state who say frankly your department failed them.  What's your reaction to that?

SEC: Well, we deal with thousands of consumers every year. I guess I wouldn't be surprised if a few people had a result they didn't want for any of dozens and dozens of reasons.  We've surveyed for years and years regularly over 90% of the people who use this agency have say that they'd do it again, that they're satisfied.  And more personally I have a lot of interaction with the legislature and people, particularly staff, say this is the most responsive agency they have in state government, and consumer protection is on the top of that.  Those things tell me that although we're stretched, and we're in the middle of a recession, and we don't have all the staff we would want in any case, we've got good people and they're doing good work.

DAN: When a consumer files a complaint with you, what do you think they're expecting?

SEC: I think they're expecting a couple things. The main thing they are expecting is an honest response done by a professional that takes a look at what is being done and tries to help them. I think that that 90% satisfaction rate talks about that.  I mean 15,000 written, that's not the 80,000 hits on the web, the hundreds and hundreds of call that come in.  Those are written complaints.  And usually when you have a written complaint, it's not a first time sort of situation.  So it isn't just a matter of picking up the phone and talking to the person and making them feel good. It's getting the information from the circumstance from both sides, trying to find out about it, trying to find out if there is a pattern, seeing if it is possible to redress that or if enforcement action is needed. And that of course runs the whole gamut of kinds of cases that we deal with.  One of the big big challenges this place faces now is again, given budget constraints, and the actions to greatly deregulate, particularly interstate companies.  There is just many cases were there are literally thousands of people that are affected by a particular issue or complaint.  And those too, we try to deal with.   In the end you end up doing what anyone is any line of work or profession does.  You try to deal with the largest, the most serious, the most frequent complaints and take it from there.  

DAN: I want to ask you about that 90% satisfaction rate. You mentioned that twice already now. Do you sir know how that survey is done?

SEC: I don't know all the details of that or a lot of the other things in a big organization like this of course.  I know that they go through a pretty thorough process.

DAN: They send the surveys to about 3,000 people. And that 90% rate is based on only the people who actually send back the survey, about a quarter of the people who get it. The man who designed the survey for you in this building said he's not comfortable with the way the department has been promoting that result because it wasn't a scientific survey.

SEC: Well and I don't know we hold it out as polling data.

DAN: You just said twice,sir.

SEC: I just said it twice. But it is a feedback mechanism to talk to us about what the responses are. Also if you have people that aren't satisfied, usually they call back or we continue to be in touch with them. So again, the primary point is, I think is we've got a lot of good people here.  They're not right every time. Like all human beings they make errors, but in my opinion, having been around a little bit, is that they do a very good job and that they work very hard at it and dedicated at it.  And I've been here for seven and a half years now and that was one of my very first impressions coming through the door.  I used to run the Wisconsin Federation of Coops and coops are, in my mind, the ultimate consumer entity because you own the business. So I'm used to some of those issues and I was very very struck by the reputation of  consumer protection that goes back over a number of years, of a number of administrations of both parties, the support that is there in the legislature, and then of course the kind of things that we've been asked to do in recent years no call  

DAN: I want to just interrupt you for a second here and get back to that survey.  90% of the people who respond to the survey say that they would call you again. But another question on that survey says, How happy are you with your results?  And far fewer people say they are happy.  Only 68% of people say they're happy with the results they got after filing a complaint.  

SEC: Well I guess that wouldn't be too surprising if you think about that thoroughly. If somebody has a problem, it isn't always rectified 100% to their satisfaction.  But I think it's telling and I think it's accurate and appropriate to say that follow-up question.  If 90% would call again, that does tell you something.  Now we could sit here and contest survey methodology, what does that mean or whatever.  But I think we're being straight in how we're representing it.  And I think the bottom line is that people are getting good service to the limit of the human and financial resources that we have here.  

DAN: I just want to show you this brochure.  And I brought a letter you wrote. If you didn't write this you can tell me, but this is from an open records request.  I just want to get your reaction.

SEC: I heard you did an open records request.  

DAN: I have.

SEC: I heard we filled the whole long table up with stacks of material this high. And I heard that you only spent a few minutes in there looking at those.I didn't know I was also told that didn't come really clearly through in your reports when you were on air.  So I guess we both have a question.

DAN:  I want to ask you this now.  A lot of people say there's a mismatch between what you say you'll be able to do for consumers and that's in the brochure.  90% would call again, look how much money you would get back. And then in this letter you wrote, you say you're actually going to be helping fewer people from now on.  

SEC: Well and what we're saying there is you're saying you want me to look at the highlighted area?  

DAN:  Yeah, that's your letter.

SEC: And what that reflects is the fact that we had to make significant decisions and adjustments to a budget.

DAN: And one of those decisions was to investigate fewer complaints, right?

SEC: The decision made was to totally reorganize the consumer protection division in the state. We closed, as was true in many other agencies, we closed three regional offices.  That wasn't a decision we lightly made.  Nor is the decision to have to soar as closely as we do on those numbers.  It isn't an capricious things as you're seeming to indicate, that we've decided to just turn off the switch or that we're not working hard enough at this.  But we have 12% less people than we had a couple years ago. We have 13, 14, 15,000 complaints and depending on the year, a lot of others as well.  And as we just talked about, a lot of those take considerable time.  And so as you've been told before, we have set priorities and we have tiered the kinds of complaints as most agencies in this kind in public service do.

DAN: Do you  think you're clear about that, though, to people when they're wondering if they're going to file a complaint? And if anything's going to get done?

SEC: Yeah, I think we're honest with them, that we send them a brochure in the mail when they call that in.  But I don't think there's anything deceptive about what's being done here, number one.  And number two, again, I'm very very proud of the people in this agency and the amount of work that they do. And again, if that wasn't the case, the number of sign-ups we have on no call, the number of serious penalties we have imposed on people, whether they're big boxes for not having their scanner accurate.  We've done fines of $50,000, $75,000, $100,000.  And again, that's an example of trying to classify and prioritize those kinds of things because when you go through the check-out counter, it may be 50 cents off.  We had a big box that was repeatedly off on their scale, 39% and we warned them, check your scanners, better check your scanners, and again better check your scanners and then find them.  Well, that's the kind of thing that's almost invisible to the public because we expect that whether they're truck scales.  

DAN: Mr. Secretary, you've given me a time limit on the interview so I want to shift away from the weights and measurements.  

SEC: But it's part of the overall protection.  You're asking the question about the veracity and the quality of service given by this agency.  And you're repeatedly indicating that a large number of people are dissatisfied or aren't being well-served.  What I'm trying to indicate to you in an honest, straight forward way is the breadth of that service in its trade and consumer protection which are all part of the same division and they blend together in a similar way.  It's an artificial thing to make that division.  

DAN: How many times would you say, Mr. Secretary, you closed complaints after simply sending a letter to the business or to the suspect asking them, Hey, what's going on here?  

SEC: I don't know what that figure is off the top.  I don't know what that figure is and I wouldn't hazard a guess.  Again, I'm sure it would run a range depending on the kinds of complaint and the kinds of things we're talking about.  

DAN: The statistics we have, it's hard to say because there could be some duplication, but it's anywhere from 30% to 50% of all complaints that come in get closed when there's just a letter to the business or suspect asking for mediation.  Sometimes complaints get closed when both parties are simply contacted.  

SEC: Well and again that would depend upon the individual circumstance and the severity of it.  And in some cases when there isn't a follow-up, it isn't either a major thing or it's essentially putting people on notice.  Again, we respond to multiple complaints.  We aren't able as much as we'd like to to go from the beginning to the end of every single item.  

DAN: Do you think the promotional materials tell consumers you are going to do that?  

SEC: No I don't. I don't think that's a fair conclusion.  And if that's your contention at the same time, I think you'd also want to tell them that as we sit here, there is the circuit court in St. Croix County that is going to levy five felony theft counts and six misdemeanors for cheating on LP gas.  Or that we were had a three year investigation in Eau Claire into charity fraud that resulted in prison time and there were dozens and dozens of citizens and senior citizens and ordinary people that were built out of that.  And a $5.5 million judgment on national rebate which ____ corporation. So again, if your point isn't only that very very thin, narrow one about a brochure. But if your point and investigation and explanation to the public is the overall quality of services to across the board that are given here and what consumer protection has meant to the citizens of Wisconsin for many years, then I think those things are relevant.  I think it's relevant to say that we've taken on big and tough cases and been the lead on them.   I think it's relevant to say that we handle a very high  volume of cases.  It's relevant to say that we have a hotline that's busy day in and day out.  So that's the balance.  

DAN: You get about 15,000 written complaints a year.  You have three investigators.  So simple math shows that each one person would presumably be expected to go through 5,000 complaints on their own.  That's not possible.  

SEC: No it isn't.  And again, I don't think it's separated out that simply in terms of the way it's done.  I don't disagree that we don't have the resources to be able to do everything that we would want to do.  And I think you would find that's true in a number of the other agencies in the state.  We are in a deep recession.  That has meant changes paying not only in state government for people.  I mean, people have lost their jobs by the hundreds.  There's been thousands of homes that have been in foreclosure nationally.  The interest in the public of being able to pay more in fees or in taxes is small. The fiscal reality of that is that you have to manage the best of one's ability services, whether the consumer protection or natural resources or health.  And that's what we're trying to do here.  

DAN:  When you send a brochure to people that say 90% of everyone is satisfied, people expect that they're complaints are going to get a lot of attention and that they're probably going to be satisfied.  

SEC: And I think as we just said repeatedly here to answer you again if you're counting, I think that's the fifth time you've asked me the same question and I think I've responded to it.  

DAN: Do you acknowledge that survey could be totally wrong?

SEC: I wouldn't characterize it in that way.  I'd say what I already said on that point, Dan.  

16:00 DAN: Your own statistician said it could be wrong.

SEC: Well I don't know who you're referring.

DAN: Bob Battaglia.

SEC: Bob Battaglia is the USDA and state statistician.  And again, he's talking about a different set of standards that you do for ag and crop surveys.  But as I told you before, you had a 90% figure and and 68% figure.  

DAN: Which both could be wrong.

SEC: And both could be a measure of what they are.  Point made. Ok. Let's also talk about this agency and the people of this agency do for Wisconsin if we're going to be accurate and fair about it.

DAN: I want to show you this DVD now, Mr. Secretary.

20:25 DAN: What's your reaction to that?

SEC: Well in Robbins' case, Representative Voss' case I would guess it would depend on how much information he had and how it was presented to him. And again as your questions and our interview indicated, it depends on the focus of what that was.  I think if Rep. Voss had a whole picture he might have a different conclusion on that.  

21:00 DAN: What about the former employee. Let me ask you about the former employee.

SEC: I know Tom.  I've known Tom for 20 years. He used to lobby for this place.

DAN: He knows this place well?

SEC: Yeah he knows this place well. He has a variety of opinions and others would of Tom as well. I would like to hear the whole conversation as he characterizes it. I think that one of the cases he was making was the same as I was here, is again, you're not going to have a total investigation of every single complaint that comes in.  And in some cases a response letter, a you're on notice letter to a business, is an appropriate one given that triage.  On the other hand, I don't think that I would agree at all with Tom's characterization that is haphazard that. If he was sitting here with some of our current people and former colleagues, that there would be a good and interesting discussion about the processes used.

DAN: Are there times when you will close a complaint without any real serious investigation at all?

SEC: It depends on what the complaint is. Again, if you're dealing with 15,000 written complaints and many more on the phone it depends on what you as an experienced specialist would judge as the merits of that.  Not every single complaint that comes in has total merit. The store isn't always wrong.  The business isn't always wrong. And what the tough job of those consumer protection specialists is to try to make their best human judgment and sorting that through. And also to again, in all honesty, to do so given all the pressure of their jobs and the limit of resources.

DAN: Mr. Secretary, I've emailed you for months trying to get an interview with you. You haven't responded to a single email. Can I just ask why not?

SEC: I get lots of, many many requests for interviews. And this may or may not surprise you, as a cabinet secretary, we're busy with a lot of things. I'm here today as you know for a half hour. I think that's a rather generous amount of time given things. You know we focus, Dan, on consumer protection  but the name of the agency is agriculture, trade and consumer protection. We license 30,000 businesses. Agriculture is a $59 million industry in this state. Ag and food mean one in every ten jobs in the state. So we get involved in everything deeply from everything from international trade to having a farm center that's working overtime as we speak right now dealing with farm families that are near the brink of losing the family farm and trying to either help them mediate loans to get loans for the spring or to provide food.  Or we're the EAB agency. There's 420 million ash trees in the state that are at risk of harm. Our $26 billion dollar dairy industry has  bovine TV in states on both sides of it. Yeah, there are dozens and dozens of things. So again, I appreciate your question, but I don't make any apologies to you in terms of saying, we're here and you got your interview.

DAN: I have another question for you about what you were just talking about the agriculture versus consumer protection. According to the latest blue book, you have 582 employees. Only 20 or 30 or so work in the bureau of consumer protection.  A lot of people see that and think, consumer protection is just an after thought for that department.

SEC: Again you have to look at trade and consumer protection as a whole unit because as we stated earlier, that's seamless. You know in facing consumer protection and trying to provide good service, the state has taken a number of approaches over the years to dealing with it. And as with other state services you can organize and reorganize state agencies anyway that you might.  But you know we've been at this for a very long time. In fact, before Wisconsin was a state one of the very first laws that were passed at the territorial legislature was a snake law and a traveling salesman law and not too long after that was a markets law.  26:00 And so we've had a very long history over a century of that, of handling those kinds of issues.  In general Wisconsin is viewed nationally as having one of the best consumer protection programs around. If you ask me, would you like to have more people, would you like to have more budget to be able to do that, would you like to be able to dig deeper into some of the areas of investigation? Absolutely, certainly. But again, we have what we have. And to underline and repeat, we do have something called a major deficit and a major recession. And that produces lots of tough and hard decisions.

DAN: Ok Mr. Secretary, your staff has been very defensive during the whole time we've been investigating. Have you had conversations with Lee Sensenbrenner and Janet Jenkins about some of the emails that they sent to each other?

SEC: They've advised me from time to time on that.

DAN: Have you had conversations with them?

SEC: Yeah, sure. Of course I've talked to them.  

DAN: What do you think about the light they shed on this department?

SEC: Well I think they were doing emails like other human beings do between each other about a work topic. And I don't really think it goes any further than that. If you took great personal umbrage at that, I'm sorry about that. But I would guess that we're both adults and big people here and I wouldn't personally spend a lot of time worry about having my pride punched too much.  I mean in your business and mine this sort of thing happens in much stronger ways many many times over and so if your pride was wounded or if you think you were professionally harmed, I'm sorry about that.

28:05 DAN:  This is not about me personally, sir. It's about public information officers in the state and other agents saying, my god, that's the way they treat reporters over there?

SEC: Dan, that's your characterization. I would like to hear them say that directly. And again, if were drinking a sarsaparilla after hours sometimes, I think we could trade characterizations both ways here. But I don't think that serves a constructive purpose.

DAN: It sounds to me like, sir, that's an appropriate way to deal with reporters?

SEC: I didn't say that. And I think that the way our communications people and CP people have responded by doing hours and hours of responsiveness to open records requests, most of which you only paid scant attention to. And if you want to talk about that on there, I would urge you to run your whole clip of the amount of time you spent with those open records and the amount of hours that were taken by public employees to do that.

29:10 DAN: Sir, we looked at those open records together.

SEC: And you looked at them thoroughly? Every one of those stacks?

DAN: To get contact information of some victims about what happened to them and how your agency did not help them. In some cases didn't even respond to them.

SEC: Well again, I think you're overreaching here, Dan. But thank you.

DAN: Anything else, sir, you want to add?   

SEC: No I think we've covered the ground.


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