Ry Carpenter of Madison just wanted to earn a few bucks this summer to take back to the UW-Eau Claire, where he's now a sophomore. He landed a job at Gemini Landscape Services, 134 S. Fair Oaks Ave.
'It was there,' says Carpenter, 19. 'It was money. I needed it.'
The work was hard, manual labor. The pay was $9 an hour. But Carpenter liked his co-workers and his boss, Pam Blair. He liked her even after his first paycheck, for $702, was returned due to insufficient funds. Blair paid him this amount in cash and said it wouldn't happen again. He trusted her.
But his second check also bounced, without remedy, and Carpenter wasn't paid at all for his final days on the job, according to a complaint filed against Gemini with the state Department of Workforce Development. Carpenter and his parents say he's still owed about $1,000. Recently, the DWD notified Carpenter that Gemini had failed to respond to two letters, and suggested he file an action in small claims court.
The DWD's letter advised that, in Dane County, 'the district attorney [has said] his office will only be able to process a limited number of wage claims....'
This emerged as an issue in the 2004 race for district attorney, when challenger Sally Stix accused the office of turning a blind eye to employers who rip workers off. But DA Brian Blanchard has said resources are tight and that small claims court is often an appropriate venue.
The only problem is that it doesn't always work. As Isthmus reported ('16 Tons, and Whadda Ya Get?' 5/27/05), former Gemini employee David Irving took Blair to court and won a $4,190 judgment for uncompensated work. But that judgment was never satisfied.
This summer, Michael Chusid of Madison won a small claims judgment against Blair for $880, twice what the DWD found he was owed in unpaid wages. Blair, who had sent the DWD a letter claiming she 'never agreed to pay his wages,' failed to appear in court. This and several other default judgments against Blair have not been paid. And the state Department of Revenue has filed a $21,196 delinquent tax warrant against her.
Since 2002, the DWD has received 13 wage-claim complaints against Gemini. Five were 'paid in full' and one was settled; in other cases, it seems, money is still owed. The agency last Friday asked the state Justice Department to prosecute Gemini for failing to pay most of a $7,500 promissory note she signed to a former worker in 2005. With interest and penalties, the bill is now $10,216.
The most recent DWD complaint is from Marco Perna, who worked alongside Carpenter this summer. He says Gemini owes him about $2,500 for four bad checks, and that he incurred significant penalties when the checks bounced and his checking and savings accounts were overdrawn as a result.
Blair, in a phone interview, says she is 'trying to rebuild my life after a traumatic brain injury' and that 'cash doesn't come in because people don't pay me.' She says she does not inform new hires that, because of these problems, they might not get paid: 'No, I don't tell them that. Why would I tell them that?' (Blair asked for a faxed list of questions, saying she would provide answers and the names of satisfied employees, then failed to do so.)
Blanchard says he's not been asked to prosecute Gemini, but notes that his office has in the last two years criminally charged four individuals for failing to pay workers and/or issuing worthless checks. Three were convicted; one case is pending.
And Blanchard hopes to soon begin using a new paralegal to help with 'assisting with these referrals and communications with complainants and the DWD.' That could spell added trouble for employers like Blair.
For Ry Carpenter, it's been a valuable lesson. 'I haven't had experience with anything like this before,' he says. 'I'm young. Maybe I'm too trusting.'
Yes, we have no express advocacy
The Family Research Institute of Wisconsin says it's exempt from financial disclosure requirements because it does not engage in express advocacy regarding the proposed amendment to ban gay marriage and civil unions. And yet, as Isthmus reported last week, group head Julaine Appling recently told one gathering, 'If you want marriage to be defined by a judge, vote no,' and warned that a 'No' vote would open the door to legal polygamy.
Josh Freker of Fair Wisconsin, the anti-amendment group, says Appling also told an audience, 'This is an opportunity to say 'Yes' or 'No' to God's plan for marriage,' according to one person present.
Perhaps this is all hunky-dory. Appling is not telling folks how to vote, only that if they don't vote a certain way they will offend God, unleash activist judges and give Joseph Smith's fundamentalist followers carte blanche to stock up on child brides. 'It's pretty clear they're trying to get away with as much as they can,' says Freker.
Fair Wisconsin, in contrast, makes its finances public and reveals that it's now raised more than $2 million, up from $1.3 million as of last reporting. Vote Yes for Marriage, Appling's pro-amendment arm, says it spent just $547 during this reporting period, ending June 30.
Vote Yes has apparently been more active since then, but its next filing, which covers the period though Oct. 23, is not due until Oct. 30, eight days before the election. (Another pro-amendment group, Focus on the Family, waited until after June 30 to register.)
'They might just wait until the last two weeks and then hit every radio and television market in the state,' speculates Mike Buelow of Wisconsin Democracy Campaign. He invites citizens to report issue ads and other independent spending at www.wisdc.org, under Hijack Hotlink.
It's been more than a month since Marge Passman filed registration papers for CAST, a citizen group formed in support of the Nov. 7 school-spending referendum, with the Madison city clerk's office. But as of this week, she was still waiting to be told whether the filing is in order.
In fact, Passman says Madison's new clerk, Maribeth Witzel-Behl, initially refused to accept CAST's papers, saying this was the school district's job. (That's true, but her office has performed this function for decades.) The next day, Witzel-Behl accepted the filing, but said she was too busy to look it over. Passman asked if CAST was legally registered, so she could accept contributions and write checks, and was told only, 'I have your application.'
Passman wants to be sure her paperwork is in order ('This is the first time I've been a treasurer, and I don't want to mess it up for my cause') and for people to be able to see that her group and potentially others have registered on this issue.
Witzel-Behl, who earlier said she had other priorities ('Overworked Clerk,' 10/29/06), was in the office on Monday when Isthmus called, but asked a staffer to take a message. She never called back. On Wednesday, the clerk's Web page finally posted CAST's two-page registration filing.
Dane County Sheriff's Det. Dane Mahoney, a candidate for sheriff, has endorsed Democrat Kathleen Falk for attorney general, after declining last week to state a preference (Madison.gov, 'Sheriff Rivals Won't Endorse' 10/6/06).
Mahoney cites Falk's addition of 85 deputies and $11 million in proposed new spending for his 'personal support.' But he's eager to not be seen as 'breaking ranks' with the Wisconsin Professional Police Association and others in law enforcement who are backing Republican J.B. Van Hollen.
Actually, he's in good company. Early this week, the Dane County Deputy Sheriff's Association, which Mahoney once headed, threw its support behind Falk. 'She does have an 'in' with us,' admits association president Jim Brigham. 'We have a working relation. She has a proven record with us.'
Big, bad and not going back
Madison Mayor Dave Cieslewicz takes Isthmus to task on the letters page of this week's paper for framing a recent debate in a way that cast aspersions on Milwaukee. In an e-mail, he elaborated his point.
'[I] guess it touched a nerve with me because it drives me crazy when my fellow Madisonians wax on about how they don't want to be a big city. Guess what? We're getting there and we're not going back and that is a good thing. On balance I'll take the good stuff that comes with being bigger and accept the fact that there's a certain amount of bad that comes with it.'