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Emails: Evers and his team silent on license crisis

By M.D. Kittle

MADISON — As professionals faced months of delays in Wisconsin’s license crisis, Gov. Tony Evers had nothing to say about the dysfunction at his Department of Safety and Professional Services (DSPS) — at least according to emails obtained by Empower Wisconsin.

In more than 100 pages of communications between DSPS Secretary-designee Dawn Crim, Evers and his chief of staff Maggie Gau, there is no mention of the nightmarish delays that have trapped untold numbers of professionals in bureaucratic limbo waiting for their license applications and renewals to be processed.

Such disconnection from workforce crises is nothing new for Evers. The “absentee governor,” as state Rep. Shae Sortwell has described him, had very little contact with his disgraced Department of Workforce Development secretary as tens of thousands of displaced workers were forced to wait months for their unemployment checks.

Sortwell (R-Two Rivers), who co-chairs a task force looking into a massive license backlog at the agency, sought the documents through a state open records request. Sortwell’s office asked for — and apparently received — all email communications between Crim and Evers and Crim and Gau from Jan. 7, 2019 to April 28, 2022. Evers’ office finally filled Sortwell’s request on July 18.

Sortwell’s office, upon request, sent Empower Wisconsin a copy of the records.

Other priorities

Evers, like DSPS, appears disconnected from the crisis. There is not one email from the governor on the subject of the license backlog or the myriad complaints sent to public officials over the period. Nor are there any emails from Gau or Crim discussing the mess at DSPS.

Crim, who recently announced she is leaving the post amid growing public criticism of her handling of the agency, did have time to ask Gau if she could attend Vice President Kamala Harris’ May 2021 visit to Milwaukee. That’s about the time the wheels really started to come off the DSPS credential processing bus, professional organizations have testified.

“If the Evers administration is involved in the Ice (Sic) President’s visit, I’d like to participate if appropriate,” Crim wrote to Gau on April 30, 2021. “If not this time please keep me in mind for future visits.”

Gau responded the next day saying she was still waiting for details from Team Biden.

There are several emails talking up the Evers administration’s equity, diversity and inclusion agenda, including a letter from Crim to her staff following the death of George Floyd at the hands of a Minneapolis police officer.

“I want to ensure you that one thing remains the same: I am committed to ensuring that the Department of Safety and Professional Services is an equitable, diverse and inclusive workforce … It remains essential for our agency to reflect this commitment to diversity and inclusivity,” Crim wrote to her staff on June 1, 2020.

What didn’t apparently remain essential was processing professional licenses in anywhere near a timely fashion.

‘Marie Antoinette moment’

Empower Wisconsin has obtained complaints from dozens of professionals — from psychologists and social workers to security professionals — who have experienced the same kinds of bureaucratic nightmares as the tens of thousands of jobless Wisconsinites stuck in Evers’ incompetent Department of Workforce Development. Many say DSPS left them on hold for hours, lost their paperwork, and failed to update their files. The story is the same over and over again: DSPS is quick to cash their checks, very slow to process their license applications.

At a public hearing earlier this year, agency officials complained that the Republican-led Legislature had failed to come through on funding to update DSPS technology. But the agency waited more than a year before requesting the $5 million the Joint Finance Committee had set aside for that very purpose.

Meanwhile, a reported 70% of DSPS employees were still working remotely in late March. Its Madison office routinely closed to the public by early afternoon, according to sources at the building.

Of the emails turned over to Sortwell’s office, only a few come from the governor — and those are general communications sent to all of his departments. They include kudos from the boss on State Employee Recognition Week and details on his proposed government worker compensation plan.

“Because of you, the residents of Wisconsin benefit from the multitude of services and benefits we provide,” Evers wrote.

“Maybe they’ll argue that the governor was delegating responsibilities to his chief of staff, but there’s nothing about dealing with this from Maggie Gau (in the emails),” Sortwell said. “I do not understand how they could possibly be completely ignoring this. It’s bizarre.”

Sortwell said he’s come to the conclusion that Team Evers simply doesn’t care about the hurt they’re causing Wisconsinites.

“It’s a Marie Antoinette, ‘Let them eat cake’ moment,” the lawmaker said. “I can’t come up with any other rationalization other than they are completely ignoring it.”

More of the same

Ignored is how a lot of unemployed Wisconsinites felt in the latter half of 2020, when Evers and his incompetent Department of Workforce Development failed to prepare for the flood of jobless claims that followed the governor’s decision to lock down much of the state. Tens of thousands of claimants waited several months or more for DWD to pay out unemployment benefits.

Evers was as disconnected then.

The governor met with his Workforce Development chief just one time between March 1 and Sept. 18 — and that was to fire him, according to documents obtained by Empower Wisconsin through an open records request. Calendars and emails show Evers called Department of Workforce Development Secretary Caleb Frostman on Sept. 18 — when he asked for Frostman’s resignation — and had scheduled briefings with other DWD and Unemployment Insurance Division staff on just two other occasions during the six-month period.

Sortwell, co-chair of a legislative task force investigating the problems at DSPS, said he and his colleagues will have a lot of questions for agency officials at a public hearing, beginning at 10 a.m. Tuesday at the Capitol. Crim conveniently will close out her tenure with DSPS before Tuesday’s hearing.

Sortwell said Evers has a record of putting his bureaucrats first. He pointed to Evers vetoing a bill calling on the governor to bring back state employees to taxpayer-funded state offices.

“The group Gov. Evers is serving is the bureaucracy, not the people of Wisconsin,” Sortwell said. “If the bureaucrats are happy, Evers doesn’t care about what’s happening to Wisconsin — until it becomes a political albatross and he looks for a scapegoat.”

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