State audit finds millions shifted from largest veterans' home

MADISON — The Wisconsin Department of Veterans Affairs transferred millions of dollars from the state's largest veterans' home despite growing concerns about the conditions there, according to an audit released Friday.

A report from the nonpartisan Legislative Audit Bureau found that between 2003 and 2016, the agency shifted $55 million from the Wisconsin Veterans Home at King to accounts that don't directly benefit the home.

"I readily acknowledge a need for improvement," Veterans Affairs Secretary Dan Zimmerman wrote in his initial response to the audit, adding that the agency is already working on a long-term plan that addresses many of the report's concerns.

The state Legislature's Joint Legislative Audit Committee ordered the audit last year after a Capital Times investigation raised questions about substandard care, medical errors and significant staffing shortages at King.

The majority of the money went to a smaller veterans' home, the Wisconsin Veterans Home at Union Grove, and to a trust fund that helps provide services for veterans and their families, according to the audit. Department of Veterans Affairs spokeswoman Carla Vigue said in a statement that all Wisconsin funds generated from serving veterans do support veterans in some way.

"Let's not even think about diverting any money away (from King) until we've got all of these issues squared away," said Republican Sen. Robert Cowles, a co-chair of the audit committee.

The report also noted that the Department of Veterans Affairs has not created a plan for capital improvements at its veterans homes. According to the report, 19 of 29 capital projects King requested were started but not always promptly. One project to replace soiled carpeting took more than seven years to start.

The audit also noted that the agency hasn't formalized a plan for using King's cash balance, which exceeded $35 million at the end of fiscal year 2015-16.

"Why aren't we completing these projects?" asked Cowles. "If they didn't have the money, that would be a reason. But they have the money."

Zimmerman noted in his response that the agency began forming a long-term strategic plan in February and will consider how to use King's cash reserves. He also noted that it allocated more than $118 million to capital projects at King from 2005 and 2016 and, in the case of the carpeting, staff took other measures to mitigate the damage. He has to submit a full response to the audit by September.

Zimmerman, an appointee of Gov. Scott Walker, took the helm after former Department of Veterans Affairs Secretary John Scocos resigned in January. Scocos had welcomed the audit, saying it will show the King facility is one of the best in the country.

Around 700 residents receive care at King, which provides them with nursing, counseling and social activities.

This audit, which focuses on the facility's finances, is the first of two. The second audit, expected to be released in the coming months, will address the quality of care.

Democratic Sen. Jon Erpenbach earlier this session introduced a bill that would require the Legislature's joint finance committee to approve of transfers from veterans homes to other funds, but it hasn't gotten any support from Republicans, who hold record Legislative majorities.

"The $55 million taken out is a lot of money," Erpenbach said. "Had most of it stayed there, we wouldn't even be having this conversation today."