Earlier this month, Wisconsin’s Legislative Audit Bureau (LAB) released a report criticizing the state’s Public Service Commission (PSC) for what it claimed were bad oversight and a lack of transparency in the management of the disbursement of federal funds for expanding broadband internet access across the state.
But the chair of the PSC, Rebecca Valcq, says the audit bureau came to its conclusions despite being presented evidence to the contrary. She says that the bureau — historically a well-respected nonpartisan arm of the Legislature — has allowed itself to be manipulated by Republicans seeking to attack the Democrats in charge of the executive branch of state government.
“I think when you are living in a situation, like we’re living in here in Wisconsin, and you have a Legislature that has been reluctant to work with a governor of the opposite party, you have an opportunity to use what has historically been an apolitical and nonpartisan body to go out and generate reports that you can then pick passages out of and use them as political fodder,” Valcq tells the Wisconsin Examiner. “So I don’t think it’s the bureau itself; I do think that the bureau is neutral, and I think that they’re state employees like the rest of us. But I think when you have divided government, I think that the ability to point to a nonpartisan body of government and take sentences that fit your narrative — I think that we will continue to see more of that.”
The PSC’s criticism of the LAB is the second time in as many years that one of the bureau’s audit reports has been called into question for errors and what employees at the agency being audited claim are faulty conclusions. Last year, the Wisconsin Elections Commission vehemently objected to some claims made in an LAB report about the administration of the 2020 election.
The LAB did not respond to a request for comment sent Thursday afternoon.
In the elections report, the LAB did not follow the standard practice of giving the agency being audited a chance to read and respond to the report prior to its publication — a decision that commission staff and its six commissioners said led to mistakes.
“This one was the most egregious example of sloppy work, inaccuracy and unprofessionalism on the part of the Audit Bureau,” former WEC member Dean Knudson said about the report’s errors pertaining to how the WEC receives data from a multi-state group called ERIC, which allows for state election administrators to track when its voters move to or die in another state.
“It’s really uncharacteristic for them, but I think they fell into the trap of succumbing to political pressure that they would not allow a review. And a simple review, like they always do, helps prevent this kind of inaccuracy seeping into the final report,” Knudson continued. “What you’ve got here, if I were to use an analogy, it’s about like somebody came from France who was a soccer fan and wanted to see their first football game. They got to go to the Packers. And by halftime, they had decided that they knew better than Aaron Rodgers did about how to drop back and throw a pass.”
In the PSC report, the audit bureau stated that the staff in charge of managing the broadband expansion grant program didn’t properly track how internet service providers were using that grant money to actually construct broadband infrastructure.
“We disagree with the portion of the audit report that states the documents submitted by grant recipients to request reimbursement did not show the actual costs the recipients paid,” Valcq said in her written response to the audit report. “In total, the auditors reviewed over 400 documents in support of reimbursement requests. It is worth noting that upon review of the over 400 supporting documents, the audit did not find any errors, unallowable expenses, or items purchased outside of the performance period. Each of the reimbursement requests was supported and accurate per the federal guidance and the grant agreement between the Commission and the grant recipient.”
Valcq says that the report’s section headlines paint a negative picture of the PSC as an agency that didn’t care how federal and state money meant for broadband expansion was spent once sent out the door — a contention she says couldn’t be further from the truth. Valcq adds that she doesn’t believe the LAB’s staff or the bureau itself are acting politically, but that it’s being used for partisan means.
“They had a story written in their head that they wanted to tell, and in my mind, it does a disservice because it completely ignores all of the robust controls that we have in place and it makes it sound like we’re just out there willy nilly handing out bags of of money, and that couldn’t be further from the truth,” she says. “And it came as a shock to the broadband office itself. You know, these are people who literally comb through reimbursement requests and they fight providers to the penny because they take their job of being stewards of federal dollars and state dollars really, really seriously.”
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In recent years, the federal government has sent billions of dollars to Wisconsin to be used for, among other things, broadband expansion as part of packages in two COVID-19 relief bills and an infrastructure bill. Several times over the last legislative session, Republicans have attempted to wrest control of that money from Democratic Gov. Tony Evers and the state’s executive agencies. Valcq says she believes Republicans commissioned the audit to find an excuse for another attempt to take over control of those dollars.
“When we were made aware that there was going to be an audit of how we handled the federal funds, it was apparent that it was being done because attempts to take control over the federal funding and how the federal funds get allocated, that those attempts had failed,” she says. “And so we knew going into it that was going to be the angle, that any ability to try to poke holes in the allocation of federal dollars was going to be propped up as a reason to pass legislation that would require those federal dollars to go through the Legislature rather than rather than being allocated by the governor.”
The LAB is controlled by the Republican-led Joint Audit Committee of the Legislature. The body has the power to direct the LAB to conduct an audit of a government agency or program. Sens. Melissa Agard (D-Madison) and Tim Carpenter (D-Milwaukee), two of the Democrats on the committee, say they have similar concerns as Valcq — that the audit bureau is being sent off to answer questions with a partisan bent, which alters the answers they come back with.
“I’ve felt over the last couple sessions that the audit committee and the work that is being approved to be done has had more of a tinge of partisanship and that is concerning,” Agard says. “I do very much appreciate the importance of having nonpartisan agencies supporting the legislature. I think it is really important for our government to be able to run well.”
The issue doesn’t just apply to the reports the LAB does release, according to Carpenter, but also the questions the committee doesn’t ask the bureau to look into. He pointed to issues surrounding the financing of the Milwaukee Brewers’ American Family Field as an area where Republicans should have, but didn’t, approve an audit.
Agard says Republicans using their iron grip of control on the Legislature to damage the nonpartisan reputation of a group such as the LAB will harm the people of Wisconsin’s view of their government.
“The whole point of having nonpartisan agencies and also the audit bureau is being able to get past the political points and distill down to what’s working and what’s not working within our communities,” she says. “Whether it’s the numbers [the Legislative] Fiscal Bureau is providing about our state’s finances or the audit bureau, it’s important the people of Wisconsin trust the government is working on their behalf. Having those nonpartisan agencies out there, people can trust them. If those agencies start to lean into or are steered into partisanship, it’s harder for people to trust. One of the things we need is more trust. The partisan rhetoric and political point making, it gets exhausting and harder to know what’s working and not working, peeling that onion away.”