Democrat Julie Lassa says she wants to go to Congress to "clean up Washington" and argues she has a record of fighting wasteful government spending from her 12 years in the state Legislature. Lassa’s website invites visitors to save taxpayer dollars by calling the state fraud hotline with reports of abuse -- and touts her role in its creation.
Lassa, a Stevens Point Democrat, is running to succeed Democratic U.S. Rep. Dave Obey, elected to the northwest Wisconsin district in 1969. Lassa has been criticized by Republicans as a "Madison insider." Lassa brags about the hotline to tout her legislative accomplishments and underscore her claim that she saves taxpayers money.
On the website, Lassa states: "Julie’s Hotline has saved Wisconsin taxpayers hundreds of thousands of dollars."
So, do her claims ring true?
Lassa can claim considerable credit for the hotline. She’s listed as an author of Senate Bill 86 -- along with nine other senators and 11 sponsors in the Assembly. Lassa’s name is first on the list of senators, which indicates she took the lead role in that chamber.
The other sponsors (and anyone else who voted for the bill) might have opinions about whether it is "Julie’s hotline." We’ll chalk that up to political puffery but note she’s not the one answering the phone.
Now what about the money-saving claim?
The campaign said it could not provide a dollar breakdown on the hotline savings and referred us to a Legislative Audit Bureau report on the hotline issued in June.
The Fraud, Waste and Mismanagement Hotline (877-372-8317) was created in 2007 and began ringing in the office of the Legislative Audit Bureau in April 2008. A secure e-mail system was added a year later. In 2009, the hotline received 79 reports -- 53 of which came over the phone. In all, the hotline fielded 154 calls between the time it was established and the end of 2009, according to the audit bureau.
Some of those calls prompted responses from state bureaucrats and lawmakers.
A June 24, 2010 report issued by State Auditor Janice Mueller’s office discusses the 79 reports made during 2009. Some didn’t pan out, many couldn’t be quantified.
The one that stirred the most action was about the thickness of concrete used in state road projects. That complaint said a contractor had falsified pavement thickness and smoothness measurements. A similar complaint had been filed in 2004 and investigated by the Department of Justice. That probe was closed in 2008 after the department found "insufficient evidence to pursue criminal charges," the audit bureau said. After the report came into the hotline, the audit bureau looked at whether the highway construction program had adequate monitoring safeguards. That led to two legislative hearings and further review from the auditor’s office.
Among the findings from the further review: The DOT hired consultants for work that could have been done for $1.2 million less by state workers. The consultants were hired because of a lack of staff.
Mueller said in an interview that the call to the hotline "led to significant changes to the concrete program" that will ensure roads last longer. But she said it wasn’t possible to put a dollar figure on the matter.
In any case, any savings from the changes will be in the future.
Another hotline call identified problems with overtime payments to state workers. One had his overtime cut from 500 to 60 hours after his bosses took a closer look at his work. Such scrutiny appears to have stemmed a trend of increasing overtime payments, Mueller said.
Again, however, it wasn’t possible to put a dollar figure on any savings.
So we have a two-part claim. One part is clear, the other part is less so.
Julie Lassa did lead the effort to create the hotline, which has generated calls that led to changes. For Lassa’s second statement to be accurate, the hotline needs to have saved taxpayers at least $200,000. There’s no accounting of the actual savings, so we’re left to connect the dots.
It seems plausible that the changes in the highway concrete program could one day reach -- or exceed -- that level. The savings in overtime seem likely to be smaller, although still possibly substantial. Regardless, any savings from the calls to the hotline will come down the road. We rate Lassa’s statement Half True.