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What happens when a Wisconsin government spokesperson is asked a tough question about her boss
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Dennis Smith
Dennis Smith

I called the Wisconsin Department of Health Services on Feb. 18 to confirm a tip I'd received that Dennis Smith, secretary of the department, was leaving Madison to return to Washington, D.C.

The timing was interesting, given that Smith would soon be faced with overseeing proposed massive changes to BadgerCare because of Gov. Scott Walker's rejection of billions of dollars in Medicaid funding. There were also swirling allegations that Smith had had an extramarital affair with Mary Spear, the former counsel for the department - allegations that Smith denies.

When asked about Smith's imminent departure, Claire Smith, a spokeswoman for the department, said she hadn't heard that but would check. In a subsequent voice mail message, she told me she didn't "have anything in regards" to my question. "I don't know anything about that," she added.

I asked her to double-check but didn't hear back.

Three days later it was announced that Dennis Smith was departing for D.C. and that Deputy Secretary Kitty Rhoades was taking his place.

When I called Claire Smith for an explanation, she said she had asked her boss, communications director Stephanie Smiley, whether Smith was leaving. Smiley told her "no."

When queried, Smiley acknowledged that she never actually asked Dennis Smith if he was leaving.

"Since I hadn't been told anything I didn't ask anything," Smiley said.

A public relations version of "Don't ask, don't tell"?

This less-than-forthright response to a media query made me wonder if someone in Smiley's job - paid by the taxpayers to dispense information about their government - should be more interested in her boss' needs or in the public's right to know.

Smiley's position, along with about three dozen other top agency and communications jobs in the state, were turned from civil service into appointed positions in Gov. Scott Walker's collective bargaining bill, passed in 2011. Assembly Minority Leader Peter Barca bemoaned the move at the time, telling the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, "We have always previously had civil servants that were working for the public interest instead of any political interest."

But Robert Schwoch, an instructor at the University of Wisconsin School of Journalism and Mass Communications who has also worked for elected officials, says it is not that simple.

"I saw myself as working for the public, for sure, but the public elected my representative," he says. "I was there to protect the person they elected."

Noting Dennis Smith's troubles, Schwoch allows that Smiley was in a tough spot.

"Of course there is no good answer," he says. "If she says 'no comment,' it's as good as a 'yes.' If she says 'no' it's not truthful."

But Smiley did fall short in not consulting Smith, says Schwoch.

"That person's job is to go ask the official what to communicate and then to communicate that in the best possible way. Their job is to give out information.

"The person's duty was to communicate on behalf of the official," he adds. "Not to not communicate on behalf of the official."

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