Republican lawmakers OK 4 settlements under lame-duck laws

MADISON — The Wisconsin Legislature's Republican-controlled budget committee signed off on four more legal settlements under the state's lame-duck laws in a whirlwind meeting Tuesday.

Democratic Attorney General Josh Kaul presented deals to the Joint Finance Committee to resolve cases involving agricultural pollution, landfill violations, a petroleum spill and deceptive housing practices. The settlements will generate a combined $635,000 for the state.

The finance committee met in person in a state Capitol hearing room but members who attended in person were seated 6 feet apart in accordance with guidelines to curb the spread of the coronavirus. Rep. Chris Taylor and Sen. Jon Erpenbach, both Democrats, appeared via video conference. The panel raced through the settlements, approving all four unanimously with no debate and adjourning in less than 30 minutes.

Rep. Evan Goyke, a Milwaukee Democrat, was the only member who spoke out on the settlements, complaining after they were approved that the lame-duck laws have only added more bureaucracy and delay the resolution of cases.

“It's unfortunate,” Goyke said. “These cases matter.”

The GOP-controlled Legislature passed laws during a lame-duck session in December 2018, designed to weaken the powers of Kaul and Democratic Gov. Tony Evers just before they took office. The laws require Kaul to get permission from the finance committee before settling lawsuits.

The restrictions have been a bone of contention between the attorney general and committee Republicans. For months, Kaul refused to share any information on settlements with the panel, citing litigants' confidentiality.

The impasse broke last year when Kaul began presenting case details to the committee with litigants' consent. The committee approved the first settlement under the lame-duck laws in October, a deal that resolved a case against a Milwaukee mini-mart accused of selling synthetic cannabinoids.

Kaul and Republicans have yet to devise a protocol for discussing confidential litigation. State Department of Justice spokeswoman Gillian Drummond said the litigants in the four cases up for consideration Tuesday agreed to release settlement terms publicly.

The first case involves Valley Beau Farms in Chippewa County. The DOJ sued the farm in May 2019, accusing it of allowing manure runoffs on three occasions and operating unsafe manure storage facilities. The farm and its owner have agreed to pay $15,000 to settle.

The second case involves violations at an Iron County landfill, including failure to close the landfill after waste disposal ended, operating the landfill without a certified operator, failure to conduct groundwater monitoring three times between 2016 and 2018 and failure to pay inspect fees since 2014. United Landfills of America Inc. and landfill operator Marko Ruppe have agreed to pay $20,000 to settle.

In the third case, property owner Frank Gribble has agreed to pay $100,000 to settle a 2015 lawsuit accusing him of failing to clean up a petroleum spill in Dane County. He also has agreed to clean up contamination. DOJ officials say the settlement must be reached as soon as possible to minimize environmental damage.

The last case centers on a 2017 lawsuit the state filed in Milwaukee County against Vision Property Management alleging false and deceptive business practices designed to induce people to rent or buy uninhabitable properties. The company has agreed to pay $500,000 to resolve the matter.