MADISON (WKOW) -- New interviews and public documents suggest the state's consumer watchdog agency promises taxpayers something it can't possibly deliver.
Our tax dollars pay the Dept. of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection, or DATCP, to investigate fraud complaints and crack down on con-artists and scammers.
But a WKOW investigation that started back in the fall of 2009 reveals the department is so short-staffed, it sometimes ignores fraud victims and closes cases with little to no investigation at all.
"We're paying their way and they're not doing anything to help us," said Evelyn Dorn, a fraud victim from Oshkosh who filed a complaint two years ago. The department told her it would investigate; it never contacted her again.
DATCP's own records show the department closes 8,400 cases out of 15,000 to 20,000 after simply sending a form letter to the suspect or business in question.
"If they get a response back from the business saying 'I did nothing wrong,' more often than not, the complaint gets closed," said Tom Stoebig, who is a Dane County supervisor.
And Stoebig would know. He worked at DATCP as a regulatory specialist for 16 years. He came forward to tell consumers the truth about what happens after they file complaints.
"Some of the managers over in DATCP would not give permission for an investigator to go outside of the city of Madison," said Stoebig. He stressed the department staffers he knew meant well, but can't deliver the results they seemed to promise consumers.
DATCP Secretary Rod Nilsestuen sat down for an interview with WKOW after months of ignoring our emails and phone calls.
"I think you're overreaching here," said Nilsestuen. "We've surveyed for years and years. Regularly over 90% of the people who use this agency have said that they'd do it again, that they're satisfied."
But that so-called "satisfaction rate" may be totally wrong.
Secretary Nilsestuen promoted the "90 percent" figure twice during the first two minutes of our interview, but he admitted he had no idea how his staff arrived at that figure.
"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," said Nilsestuen.
The reality is, even the government statistician who designed the survey doesn't like the way the secretary promotes the results.
DATCP sends glossy brochures to consumers and lawmakers touting its so-called "satisfaction rate," based on a survey of 3,000 consumers. Only one out of every four consumers who got the survey took the time to respond, so survey experts say the results are suspect at best and wrong at worst.
"The issue is, are we seeing unrealistic positive results?" asked Charles Franklin, a polling expert at the UW. "They should be very uncertain if these results are right or not."
After WKOW advised Sec. Nilsestuen of the survey process and subsequent criticism, he seemed to get irritated that we kept asking questions about why he promotes the results in the manner he does.
"I think that's the fifth time you've asked me the same question and I think I've responded to it," said Nilsestuen.
After WKOW's investigation, state lawmakers are now coming forward to call on the department to change.
"It seemed to me the agency is committing consumer fraud in and of itself," said State Rep. Robin Vos (R-Racine). "I think that's really ironic because if you tell people, reporting to me means something is going to happen, how is that different from buying a product and never actually getting it?"
Rep. Vos also commented on DATCP's handling of WKOW's public information requests and internal emails we obtained suggesting department staffers discussed ways to avoid locating and turning over certain files.
"They were trying to figure out how they could sweep this under the rug, hoping maybe you'd go away," said Vos. "I think it's really troubling. It cries out for some kind of change that hopefully will happen sometime soon."
The question is, how seriously does the entire department even view consumer protection?
DATCP has 582 employees, but only 20 or 30 actually work for the Bureau of Consumer Protection.
Only three are actually consumer protection investigators -- that's right, three people.
The vast majority of everyone else works for agriculture.
The legislature requires DATCP's board of directors to have seven agricultural representatives and two consumer representatives.
WKOW's reporting revealed even the consumer representatives readily admit they're most interested in agriculture.
"I would describe my background and area of interest in sustainable agriculture, and particularly, sustainable agriculture policy," said Margaret Krome, who was appointed to the DATCP board in 2003 and serves as one of its consumer representatives. "I think [my experience] deals with consumer issues, because a lot of people are concerned about access to food."
Brian Rude, a former state lawmaker, is the other consumer representative, but he did not return WKOW's phone calls.
All of the other board members come from agricultural backgrounds. In fact, even Secretary Nilsestuen comes from an agricultural background.
The legislature created a Consumer Protection Advisory Council. DATCP posts the council member list on its website. But WKOW found the online list was so old and full of errors, it hadn't been updated since at least 2006.
The department provided us with what it called a current membership list. We called all of the members, who said they hadn't been to a meeting in two years.
It turns out, DATCP dissolved the Consumer Protection Advisory Council two years ago.
WKOW wanted to ask Secretary Nilsestuen about the board members and the council, but he only agreed to an interview with a strict 30-minute time limit.
After exactly 30 minutes, Mr. Nilsestuen's staff ended the interview.
But it seems he rushed off to nowhere.
WKOW obtained his schedule through an open records request.
He had no scheduled events or meetings after our 3:00pm interview. In fact, his schedule had actually allowed for 60 minutes.
Earlier in the day, Mr. Nilsestuen spent a total of two hours celebrating Earth Day, participating in an environmental ceremony, and posing for pictures with elementary school students and Smoky the Bear.
Meanwhile, his department has still not responded to fraud victims like Evelyn Dorn.
"This is ridiculous," said Dorn. "There are a whole lot of complaints in the State of Wisconsin that are not being taken care of."
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