Eau Claire County Courthouse

What started seven months ago as an inquiry into DHS financial practices has progressed into a criminal investigation that includes a forensic audit.

EAU CLAIRE — A day after Sheriff Ron Cramer provided his perspective regarding his office’s investigation into the county Department of Human Services, the outside attorney representing Eau Claire County shared with the County Board what he has gathered over the past few months.

On Monday, Cramer told the county Finance and Budget Committee that his office has been “stonewalled” and not received any DHS financial information since it initiated an investigation into DHS financial practices in May. Cramer also said the Sheriff’s Office hired the accounting firm Wipfli in October to conduct a forensic audit of DHS, which specifically searches for illegal activity.

During the County Board meeting Tuesday, Rich White, a Weld Riley attorney hired in September to provide outside counsel for the county, provided “information which provides a little bit of a different perspective on that particular point,” White said.

Overall, White characterized the investigation into DHS as highly unusual and an example of government dysfunction.

White said in his nearly four decades as an attorney, he has “never, ever, ever seen anything like this, not even remotely … In my view, pursuing what has been pursued in the way that it has been pursued is the epitome of bad government. It is the antithesis of good government.”

White said he doesn’t know all the information involved in the investigation but said the search for information has improperly occurred.

“I honestly don’t know whether there has been something happening that shouldn’t happen,” White said. “All I know is the way to get at it is not the way that has been transpiring.”

White said one problem is that the Sheriff’s Office repeatedly asked for massive amounts of documents from DHS. According to White, requests form the Sheriff’s Office included all business records over a three-year period and every email between DHS management or fiscal staff with other county staff, vendors or contractors. White said fulfilling those types of requests would require the work of several people for at least a month.

“We had to decline to provide some information because the request was just overwhelming in scope,” White said. “This request for information, without legal basis, just simply could not be honored.”

In October, White said he contacted Cramer on behalf of DHS saying that open records requests should not be used by one county agency to obtain information from another county agency.

“It is not consistent, in my view, with the open records law to be utilized by one county agency to fish for information from another,” White said.

White said the investigation has created negative public perceptions of DHS, which is a department that employees over 200 people and provides vital community services. If the Sheriff’s Office believes something criminal has occurred, those potential crimes should be pursued through the judicial system rather than records requests, White said.

“We ought not to be spending our time tearing down Human Services,” White said. “If there is something criminal afoot, what the Sheriff’s Department ought to do is obtain what it needs through subpoenas or search warrants. It is not sufficient for Sheriff Cramer to tell me, ‘I have probable cause but I won’t tell you what it is.’”

Indeed, Cramer said Monday that he recently notified County Administrator Kathryn Schauf, Eau Claire County District Attorney Gary King and White that the Sheriff’s Office has “what we believe to be probable cause of criminal activity” as part of his office’s investigation into DHS financial practices.

Supervisor Steve Chilson asked who hired White and why. White said he was retained by the county to assist the county in matters connected to the sheriff’s investigation of DHS.

“In a nutshell, my purpose has been to assist Eau Claire County in connection with the Sheriff’s Department’s intended investigation and request for information,” White said. “...I’d like to think that my job is to assist the county, but of course it is in connection with the Sheriff’s Department and Human Services situation. I don’t represent the Sheriff’s Department, I don’t represent Human Services. I represent the county.”

Because of questions regarding who hired White, Supervisor Colleen Bates, DHS Board chair, clarified that neither she nor the DHS board was involved.

“I had nothing to do, and am not interested in, the procedures of hiring legal counsel, and I want that to be absolutely clear,” Bates said.

White also said he spoke to Cramer on Sept. 24 and advised him “that forced interviews of any employees at Human Services would be a bad idea” because if employees did potentially commit criminal activity, their statements to the Sheriff’s Office would likely be legally inadmissible.

White said an alternative to the sheriff’s investigation is for the County Board to approve a program audit of DHS that could reveal poor department practices or criminal activity. The County Board in October tabled a resolution to conduct a forensic audit of DHS. Shortly after, the Sheriff’s Office set aside up to $100,000 to fund a forensic audit, which does not require County Board approval.

“If there is criminal activity that’s uncovered, it will be prosecuted," White said. "If there is not, an unfortunate cloud will be removed from what otherwise is an agency that has done laudable work since I’ve worked with them to protect members of our community.”

Rail Commission

The County Board approved a resolution supporting the creation of the Chippewa-St. Croix Rail Commission. The commission would include four counties and eight municipalities in western Wisconsin: Eau Claire County, Chippewa County, Dunn County, St. Croix County, and the municipalities of Eau Claire, Chippewa Falls, Altoona, Menomonie, Baldwin, New Richmond, River Falls and Hudson.

For the commission to form, at least eight of the 12 counties and municipalities must approve similar resolutions to the one passed by Eau Claire County. The commission’s ultimate goal would be to oversee the creation of passenger train lines between Eau Claire and the Twin Cities.

Other business

The board approved a resolution authorizing the county to move forward with a rural broadband pilot project. The $85,000 project would be operated by the company SpaceX and provide high-speed internet for one year to 50 rural households in southeast Eau Claire County near Augusta. County Information Systems Director Dave Hayden said his best guess for a project start date is between mid-January and late February 2021.

The board approved a resolution to create a Building Committee to oversee the new Highway Department building estimated to cost $24 million. The oversight committee will have seven members and end on June 30, 2023. Those members will include Smiar, who is County Board chair; Bates, who is County Board vice chair; Wilkie, who is County Board second vice chair; a Highway Committee member; a Finance and Budget Committee member; and two other County Board supervisors.

The next County Board meeting is scheduled for Jan. 19.