Dan Cassuto of WKOW Channel 27 had another eye-opening report last week on the state Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection. He finally got to the bottom of DATCP's claims, made in a brochure, that callers to its consumer hotline report an "average savings" of $968.
Turns out the agency, charged with protecting state consumers against those who would deceive them, came up with this number by engaging in deliberate deception - what state Rep. Robin Vos accurately calls "consumer fraud."
Cassuto, who in recent months has been all over DATCP like stink on a sheep (see Watchdog, 3/25/10), filed an open records request for the underlying documentation. He learned that the agency, which annually fields 40,000 hotline calls and 15,000 written complaints, derived this "average" from a mere 66 survey respondents. These included one person who wrote in "potentially $19,000" as an "expected/possible" amount.
Moreover, the agency did not get just 66 responses from hotline users. According to numbers Cassuto shared with me, it got 306. More than half - 173 - did not answer the query about recovered money. Another 67 wrote that they had in fact gotten $0 back. All these other responses were discounted by DATCP in contriving its "average savings."
That's like saying a group of third-graders raised an average of $200 each for charity if one child raised $350, another $50, and 28 others nothing at all.
But, on some level, I find DATCP's duplicity strangely comforting. The agency crafted this misrepresentation because it knows state consumers need and want effective regulators, even as it largely fails to be one.
Given the constraints under which they operate, regulatory agencies of all stripes commonly do a better job protecting shady operators than the folks who get hurt.
That's not to say no consumer who complains ever gets a positive result. But this typically happens only in situations that do not require aggressive intervention.
Most businesses have an aversion to pissing people off, and most businesspeople are ethical. When a customer is unhappy enough to file a complaint, reputable businesses take steps to make things right. It happens all the time.
But some operators are not so conscientious. They need a swift kick in the butt, a role regulatory agencies like DATCP seldom play. When push comes to shove, they neither push nor shove.
Instead, these regulators politely ask a company that's ripping people off for its side of the story, before throwing up their hands and saying there's nothing more they can do.
Consider what Isthmus found last fall in its look at the Office of the Commissioner of Insurance ("Unable to Resolve Your Complaint," 10/22/09). The industry-funded overseer annually gets hundreds of complaints against insurance companies and almost always glibly accepts whatever explanation the companies provide.
Erwin Knoll, the late editor of The Progressive, used to say that regulators are "invariably corrupted by the interests they are supposed to regulate." As usual, he was right.
Consider the recent scandals involving Toyota and British Petroleum, both members of industries that claim to be tightly regulated. This did nothing to keep them from making reckless choices that killed people and defiled the environment, nor will it lead to government penalties that come anywhere close to matching the damage they've done.
Everyone, it seems, understands the need to protect the public against predators. That's why DATCP strives to present an image of effectiveness, however trumped-up it may be.
But in fact, the real heavy lifters in this area - the true protectors of the people - are not regulators but public interest and liability lawyers.
A Wisconsin appellate court recognized as much in a May 25 ruling that payday lenders cannot force customers to give up their right to sue as a condition of getting loans. The court called such lawsuits "often the only effective means of vindicating consumer rights."
Take that, Wisconsin Department of Financial Institutions!
Think about it: Why would any corporation focused on maximizing profits - which is to say, just about any corporation - make an effort to ensure that its products are safe, its processes sound, its conduct defensible?
It's not because the CEOs are worried about regulators; they're worried about being sued. Liability lawyers - the target of endless attacks by Republicans and now tea partiers demanding "tort reform" - are the real heroes of the little guy in America.
On Monday, Cassuto capped off his reporting on DATCP with a triumphantly good half-hour WKOW special. It touched on the case of an elderly couple unable to sell their New Glarus home because of a dispute over a roofing company's substandard job. Turns out 121 other people have filed complaints against this same company over the last five years.
DATCP ignored the couple's complaint until their daughter began writing legislators. Then it sent a letter, carelessly addressed to the wrong name, saying it lacks the money or staff to act.
Is there a lawyer in the house?
Bill Lueders (email@example.com is news editor of Isthmus.