Bruce Murphy
Murphy’s Law

How Three Legislators Committed Highway Robbery

By - Aug 24th, 2001 01:09 pm

Anyone who’s driven to Madison is aware the trip takes about 75 miles from downtown Milwaukee. “The state estimate is 72 miles or so, going by the highway signs,” says Rep. Johnnie Morris-Tatum (D-Milwaukee).

But Morris-Tatum actually claims she travels 100 miles to Madison, and taxpayers reimburse her 32.5 cents per mile for that travel. According to MapQuest, the true distance from Morris Tatum’s home at 3711 W. Douglas Ave to the state Capitol building is 83.5 miles. How does she manage to stretch it to 100 miles?

In the last two years, Morris-Tatum bilked taxpayers of nearly $1,000 through fraudulent mileage claims.

“It depends on if you go directly,” she says, adding that she sometimes takes Capitol Dr. to Pewaukee and goes from there to I-94. Aside from the question of why someone would take such a slow route, this way to Madison, according to MapQuest, would actually reduce Morris-Tatum’s mileage to Madison to just 80.2 miles.

These kinds of highway games, moreover, run afoul of the state statute regulating mileage claims for state officials, which says the “most usual route” must be claimed. “Milwaukee to Madison is 76 miles,” says Assembly Chief Clerk John Scocos. “It should be the most direct route. You can’t take an indirect route and claim more mileage.”

Compared to the “most usual” route of 83.5 miles, Morris-Tatum is overcharging taxpayers by $10.72 for each round trip. By law, legislators can claim up to one round trip per week for attending legislative sessions or on other state business. Though the legislature was only in session for 36 days in 2000, Morris-Tatum claimed she made round trips to the Capitol in 51 of 52 weeks. Apparently, she takes very few holidays. This earned her $2,958 for mileage, an overcharge of $488 because of her inflated mileage claim.

In 1999, she earned $2,784, overcharging taxpayers $459. Records were not immediately available for earlier years, but on the “Certificate of Mileage” forms Morris-Tatum has filed with the state since her election in 1992, she has always claimed her home was located 100 miles from the Capitol. Assuming she claimed about 50 round trips in those prior years, her total overcharge could be more than $3,000.

As recent stories in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel revealed, Morris-Tatum was reimbursed for some $6,000 in long distance phone calls to Senegal. But her fraudulent mileage claims, though smaller in magnitude financially, could be of more importance legally.

The Certificate of Mileage form that legislators sign must be notarized to assure it’s a sworn statement, according to John Scocos, Assembly Chief Clerk. “It someone violates it, it could be a violation of state law. It’s fraud.”

“It doesn’t sound right, does it?” says Roth Judd, executive director of the state Ethics Board. By law he notes, paraphrasing State Statute 19.45, “a state official may not use his position to obtain anything of private value.”

Judd, who emphasizes that the law always depends on the particulars of a case, also pointed to S.S. 946.12, which declares it is a class E felony if a state official “makes an entry into an account or…certificate, report or statement which in a material respect the officer or employer intentionally falsifies.”

The same statute later says it is a felony if a state official “intentionally solicits or accepts for the performance of any service or duty anything of value which the officer or employer knows is greater or less than is fixed by law.”

If Morris-Tatum were to argue that her mistake was not intentional, then it would behoove her to repay taxpayers the money she overcharged them.

Ironically, Morris-Tatum’s most recent Certificate of Mileage form was notarized by Rep. Leon Young, another Milwaukee Democrat, who must have wondered at Morris Tatum’s claim she was traveling 100 miles from their home city. Young himself is much more modest, claiming his trip from his home at 2224 N. 17th St. takes 85 miles. Actually, according to MapQuest, the trip is just less than 79 miles.

That’s a modest overcharge compared to Rep. Steve Nass, (R-Whitewater), who claims his home at W8948 Willis Ray Rd. is 52 miles from the Capitol. MapQuest says it’s actually a trip of 43 miles. Nass, who’s been in the legislature since 1990, claimed a distance of 46 miles in his first term, but since then has consistently bumped it up to 52 miles.

Nass was a little more inventive than Morris-Tatum, claiming he took Highway 59 to get to Madison rather than the more direct route of Highway 12. Nass says the Highway 59 route saves him ten minutes time because he avoids some stop lights and the tractors and farm equipment you run into on Highway 12.

I called the American Automobile Association to discuss these two routes. Mark, at the North Shore office, said, “there’s pretty much one way that makes the most sense. Highway 12 is the most direct route.”

But what about Highway 59? “You wouldn’t go that route. That takes you down toward Janesville.”

Yes, but isn’t it faster, avoiding all that infuriating farm equipment on Highway 12? By this time, Mark was beginning to get an odd tone in his voice, as though he was dealing with one crazy customer. He couldn’t even get the computer to go to Madison via 59, Mark said.

I insisted. So Mark reluctantly put in the name of some other cities along Highway 59 going toward Madison, and got the mileage to the Capitol in this piecemeal fashion.
The results: Highway 59 takes you 98 minutes travel time, versus 53 minutes on Highway 12. The direct route is 45 minutes faster, even with all those damned farmers clogging the roads.

As for the mileage via Highway 59, it adds up to 82 miles, not the 52 miles Naas claims. We were never able to find a route with that amount of mileage.

Nass is apparently just as adverse to holidays as Morris-Tatum. Last year, he claimed 51 round trips and earned $1,538 for mileage, or $266 more than he would have if he certified the “most usual route” to Madison. In 1999, he claimed 51 round trips again and bilked taxpayers of another $266.

Once again, complete records were not immediately available, but Naas has claimed the 52-mile trip since January 1992, on his Certificate of Mileage forms, suggesting he may have overcharged taxpayers by $2,000 or so. That’s not quite up to the standard set by Morris-Tatum, but the cost of living is higher in Milwaukee, after all.

Short Take

There may be some who feel I didn’t give Major General James G. Blaney enough credit for his fascinating idea of creating a state naval militia. At left, you can click on the report his office prepared to explain why Wisconsin needs to arm itself against possible terrorists and weapons of mass destruction. I believe the document speaks for itself.

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