Lawmakers rack up $1.7 million in “legislative business” expenses

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MADISON (WITI) -- You elect them. You pay their salaries. But you're also paying for a whole lot more.

Not only do Wisconsin lawmakers get $50,000 a year in base salary, they're also reimbursed for expenses related to conducting their legislative business. They're paid a "per diem"- a daily stipend meant to cover meals and lodging when they're on state business in Madison - as well as mileage to drive to and from the Capitol. In addition, some lawmakers submit claims for driving around their districts and for traveling to committee meetings.

Our investigation finds some lawmakers are racking up tens of thousands of dollars in expenses. And there is one state lawmaker who is billing you so he can fly to Madison.


  •  Click here to see your State Representative's expenses in 2013
  • Click here to see your State Senator's expenses in 2013

EmptyHalls

Capitol halls are mostly empty on Mondays and Fridays.

In fact, you're five times as likely to find your elected official in his or her state office in the middle of the week than on Monday or Friday. But even with just two or three days a week of Capitol business, members of the Wisconsin Legislature managed to rack up more than $1.7-million dollars in expenses last year.

That includes an $88 per day per diem, plus 51-cents per mile for driving to and from Madison. They're not required to provide any receipts.

'That's unheard of in the private sector," said Chris Kliesmet, director of Citizens for Responsible Government, a taxpayer watchdog group that keeps a close eye on government expenses.

Our in-depth analysis on per diems involved turning thousands of pages of paper calendars into a database of daily expenses. Every "x" in the database represents an $88 payment to a state lawmaker to cover the cost of meals and lodging for the day. Lawmakers get the full amount, even if they're only the office for a couple of hours.

Last Thursday, we were too late to catch a couple of senators.

FOX 6 Investigator Bryan Polcyn: "Wondering if Senator Erpenbach's around?"

Sen. Erpenbach staff member: "He's already been in today."

It was 1:30 in the afternoon.

FOX 6 Investigator Bryan Polcyn: "Is Senator Fitzgerald around today?"

Sen. Fitzgerald staffer: "Actually, he just left for the district."

We won't know until next month if those senators claimed a per diem on those days, but under the rules, they're allowed to. There is no requirement that lawmakers work a certain number of hours to claim a per diem. All they have to do is put a check mark on the calendar.

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Chris Kliesmet, Citizens for Responsible Government

"What you have here is an unsupervised situation where a legislator can take advantage of lax rules," Kliesmet said.

According to the records reviewed by FOX 6 News, nobody spent more time working at the Capitol last year than Madison Senator Jon Erpenbach -- 243 days.

But Dane County Lawmakers get just $44.00 per day, so his $10,000 in total expenses was way down the list.

At the top of the Senate list was Democrat Bob Jauch, who racked up more than $34,000 in total expenses, including daily per diems, mileage reimbursements and other travel expenses in 2013.

Jauch wasn't in Madison when we stopped at his office last week. He was back in his home town of Poplar, more than 300 miles away. Jauch says it's a 6.5 hour drive to Madison from where he lives.

"It's a long, long haul." Jauch said.

So sometimes he flies instead.

plane

Senator Bob Jauch flew to Madison 21 times in 2013, at a cost to taxpayers of more than $13,000.

"I try not to do it if I don't have to."

Last year, Senator Jauch flew round trip to the Dane County airport 21 times at a cost to taxpayers of more than $13,000. That's nearly twice the cost of traveling by car.

"I don't travel by air all the time," Jauch explains. "I do it most of the time in the winter, when the roads aren't very good. Or in the fall, when there are deer on the roads."

"That's great," Kliesmet said, "if you're spending your own money."

Kliesmet acknowledges that most of the top spenders are going to live a long way from Madison, like Assemblywoman Janet Bewley of Ashland. She totaled more than $23,000 in mileage and per diems. Her weekly commute is 305 miles -- each way. But even with that distance, one of her staffers told me, she never flies.

"It's more expensive to fly," the Bewley staff member said. "It doesn't save any money."

Bewley tells Fox 6 she's too far from an airport for flying to make sense, while Jauch lives much closer to the Duluth airport. That leaves Jauch as the only one of 132 state lawmakers to commute to Madison by air.

"One would think that when only one person is behaving in that manner, it's an unusual and suspicious outlier," Kliesmet said.

Speaking of outliers, Republican Senator Scott Fitzgerald claimed the most daily per diems last year -- more than $15,000.

He lives just 49 miles from the Capitol, meaning he often drive home at night and doesn't need any lodging. He declined our request for an interview.

At the other extreme is Milwaukee Democrat Lena Taylor, who claimed reimbursement for just 36 days in Madison last year. So it was little surprise to find she wasn't in her state office the day we stopped by.

FOX 6 Investigator Bryan Polcyn: "Is Senator Taylor around today?"

Sen. Taylor staff member: "She's not, she's in Milwaukee."

36 days is among the fewest claimed by any lawmaker in 2013.  Does that mean she was frugal with taxpayer's money? Or just didn't work very hard? Republican Assemblyman Scott Krug says the answer is a double-edged sword.

In 2010, Krug made a campaign pledge not to claim any per diem reimbursements.

"Some of the perception out there was that I wasn't doing anything," Krug said.

For two years, he stuck to his promise. But, now in his second term, Krug claimed more than $16,000 in per diems and mileage expenses last year. He says he's married now with a blended family of six kids.

"So it didn't become just Scott's choice," Krug said. "It became a family choice."

"I don't think anybody has a problem with covering legitimate expenses," Kliesmet said.

But it's what we found in November that might make you wonder if some lawmakers are gaming the system. On Thursday, November 14th, the state assembly held a marathon session that lasted well past midnight. 91 member of the Assembly were present for the session. 41 of them claimed to work the following day, too -- Friday, November 15th -- even though there was nothing on the calendar. That's more than three times the number of lawmakers present on a typical Friday.

"Trust me, there's nothing happening here, after you have a busy session day," said a staff member for State Rep. Dewey Stroebel.

Does that mean they were abusing the system? Hard to say.

"I think your report here says,'You know what? Perhaps this does bear greater scrutiny.'" Kliesmet said.

Afterall, the money they're spending is yours.

Five members of the state assembly voluntarily take less than the maximum daily per diem rate of $88.00 dollars per day.

Four of them are republicans, one a democrat.

The rate is set by state statute. And it's been $88.00 in Wisconsin since 2001 and has not been raised since.

The real concern seems to be whether or not the lack of oversight allows for abuses.

There are rumors all around Madison of lawmakers who stop in the office, check a few emails and claim a per diem. But there is no easy way to prove that.

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