By M.D. Kittle
MADISON — The Evers administration has taken in nearly $5 billion in federal COVID relief over the past two years. It’s an unprecedented amount of money subject to unprecedented waste, fraud and abuse.
A state audit recently ordered by the Joint Legislative Audit Committee aims to track the mountain of taxpayer cash at Gov. Tony Evers’ disposal, and whether the administration has been good stewards of the federal funds.
The Evers administration has a record of fraud problems in distributing COVID aid. A report last year found the troubled Department of Workforce Development had failed to check fraudulent activity. And it appears the Department of Health Services has stopped trying to track fraud — or at least issue timely reports on its findings.
As The Washington Post reported last week, nearly $6 trillion in federal loans, grants, direct checks and other emergency assistance has flooded the U.S economy, including hundreds of billions of dollars to state and local governments. That amounts to more than the entire federal budget in the fiscal year prior to the arrival of the pandemic, “creating a unique and long-term strain on the nation’s policymakers to ensure the funds have been put to good use.”
In too many cases, government watchdogs have found, the money has not been put to good use.
Wisconsin’s state share represents a sliver of the total aid, but the approximately $4.9 billion the Badger state has received through the ARPA and CARES acts and other sources is a record windfall.
We know that, despite Democrat Evers’ demands that he could handle the money better and faster than the Republican-controlled Legislature, we know the governor has been glacially slow in distributing the relief. As Empower Wisconsin first reported, a state auditor’s review found Evers, as of January, had only spent $541.7 million of the approximately $1.47 billion in the first installment of American Rescue Plan Act funds released last May. That amounts to just about a third of the total funds. Evers had yet to spend about $930.7 million as of Jan. 9, the most recent data available.
It’s a recurring theme.
Wisconsin was one of 10 states that severely lagged in spending aid from the American Rescue Plan legislation in August, according to a Bloomberg report. While the Evers administration has done all kinds of allocating, it has been very slow to actually spend.
When it finally gets around to spending, the administration has found itself facing fraud problems. A report last year from University of Wisconsin-Madison’s Center for Research on the Wisconsin Economy (CROWE) found Evers’ incompetent Department of Workforce Development has failed on two critical fronts: Getting unemployment checks to eligible claimants and protecting the state’s Unemployment Insurance system from fraud and waste.
“Wisconsin was one of the worst performing states across many different metrics,” the study states.
CROWE’s report found the Evers administration had failed to check fraudulent activity. Amid growing reports of rampant fraud, the fraud detection rate has plummeted to near zero, with detected fraud cases down 41 percent as claims have exploded.
“While payments have been slower, they have not been more accurate,” the report notes. “Further, although the payment rate in Wisconsin has fallen, overpayments have increased.”
It’s still a problem. A quick check of Wisconsin’s Office of the Inspector General’s Fraud-fighting efforts shows the watchdog inside Evers’ Department of Health Services hasn’t issued an update since September 2019. The OIG was created by former Republican Gov. Scott Walker. It had been extremely active in tracking fraud and incompetence in the state’s public benefits programs. Evers seemingly has pulled the plug on “fraud fighting.”
Wisconsin’s Republican congressional delegation sent the governor a letter in late June calling on Evers to publicize how many fraudulent claims were made by the state of Wisconsin, what detection services he put into place, and whether he’s found that those detection services reduced fraud.
That hasn’t been a top priority for a governor who has used the billions in federal COVID aid as a re-election slush fund, handing out oversized checks to organizations at photo-ops around the state.
“Given multiple federal agencies issued warnings to states about ongoing efforts to steal these benefits, Governor Evers needs to immediately clarify how many payments may have been fraudulently made and what steps his administration took to ensure these dollars got into the right hands,” U.S. Rep. Mike Gallagher (R-Allouez) said in a press release. “Wisconsin taxpayers deserve full transparency on whether their hard-earned income went to criminals.”
State lawmakers say the state audit is all the more critical because Evers has done such a lousy job of accounting for the funds and tracking fraud and overpayments. Sources tell Empower Wisconsin a single audit on the actual cash taken in and spent should be released sometime next month, with more comprehensive reports on different state agencies released periodically in the year ahead.