State of Wisconsin Fails to Document Billions in Federal Funds

The public is unlikely to ever know how the state Department of Administration came to decide how to allocate and spend nearly $4 billion from three federal pandemic emergency spending bills.

Questioned by a sometimes frustrated Joint Legislative Audit Committee Tuesday at the Capitol, DOA leaders acknowledged that many of the decisions about how to allocate money to state agencies and local governments were made in phone conversations and emails with Gov. Tony Evers and his staff that were not documented.

There is no documented rationale for how much agencies would be granted or why they were granted those amounts. How the money has been spent is also often impossible to decipher given the lack of tracking or records.

The absence of recordkeeping was first discovered in early June during an audit by the Legislative Audit Bureau. In itsreport, issued in December, the bureau said DOA and the Evers administration provided to them anecdotal and undocumented information about how the state and its agencies intended to spend the emergency funds provided through the CARES Act, American Rescue Plan Act and the Investment and Jobs Act.

Kathy Blumenfeld, DOA’s secretary designee, told the committee the department intended to comply with the audit’s recommendation to document the decision-making for the additional roughly $1.8 billion the state has yet to allocate or spend.

State Sen. Devin LeMahieu, R-Oostburg, has filed open records requests with DOA for any documentation not already provided to auditors pertaining to emergency spending decisions, she said.

But it was clear during an exchange with committee co-chair Rep. Robert Wittke, R-Racine, that the department had nothing more to provide state auditors before the department was to have reported back on Feb. 17.

“We can’t produce — we wouldn’t want to, it wouldn’t be right — something that doesn’t exist,” Blumenfeld told Wittke.

Chris Patton, DOA deputy secretary, told the committee that in hindsight the kind of documentation requested by auditors was in order but that in the chaotic first months of the pandemic the goal was to allocate money as quickly as possible.

Several committee members, however, pointed out that DOA was unable to document any spending rationale for the American Rescue Plan Act, the third of the spending bills, passed nearly two years ago.

“The Department of Administration failed to provide the Audit Bureau with even the most basic documents and information used to make federal funding decisions,” co-chair Sen. Eric Wimberger, R-Green Bay said in a statement issued after the meeting. “The public has a right to know how priorities for this funding were determined and why.”