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State comes clean on alleged scandal

Bill Lueders is the Money and Politics Project director at the Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism.

Every scandal needs a name. This one is Dispensergate.

In late June, employees at the state Department of Revenue’s Madison headquarters were told through email that new hands-free paper towel and soap dispensers would be installed to replace existing devices in bathrooms and kitchenettes throughout the building. No reason was given.

An employee was intrigued. The name on the new dispensers was enMotion, a brand of Georgia-Pacific, owned by Koch Industries, headed by the Koch brothers, backers of conservative causes and Gov. Scott Walker.

The employee, who said the old dispensers worked fine, found enMotion paper towel dispensers online for $499 each. And that’s not even to buy them. According to the fine print, the devices must be subleased and “only Georgia-Pacific enMotion® product be used in these dispensers.”

The enMotion soap dispensers are priced online at $128.75 each and also are said to require a sublease mandating the use of Georgia-Pacific refills.

“This looks like a cash cow for Georgia-Pacific,” the employee told the Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism.

The center investigated. Its findings may come as a shock.

The Department of Revenue, fielding an open-records request, initially claimed it had no relevant records, deferring to the state Department of Administration. But some persistence led to the DOR coughing up a handful of emails about the new units.

“I think this is (a) very green approach with much less maintenance needed,” according to one email from an employee. Another asked why the soap dispensers were being replaced if those in the building were “already hands-free.”

The employee who contacted the center wondered the same: “If there are improprieties or waste, I hope you will report on them.”

DOA officials took more than seven weeks, from July 21 to Sept. 10, to fulfill the center’s dispenser-related records request.

The released records reveal that a Georgia-Pacific account executive in March urged the state to install the new soap dispensers. He noted that Schilling Supply, which keeps state buildings stocked with hand soap and paper towels, had decided to switch to enMotion towel dispensers. Both could be done at the same time.

In June, the account executive asked the state to send “the confidentiality agreement” that needed to be signed before work could begin.

Other records showed that the paper towels for the new dispensers cost three times as much, about $50 for six rolls, up from $16.58.

But invoices from Schilling confirm that the 36 new soap dispensers were free, and the 55 new towels dispensers cost just $25 each, discounted from the usual bulk price of $125. There was no charge for installation.

Other records show recurring service problems with the old towel dispensers.

Furthermore, the new soap refills cost about the same as the old ones, and the new units can dispense 45 percent less soap. And while the state paid Schilling $5,468 for two batches of triple-cost paper towels, DOA officials said the machines have been modified to use “any universal towel.”

How can that be? DOA spokeswoman Stephanie Marquis said the state never signed a sublease agreement and was able to modify the units. The cheaper rolls the state went back to also are made by Georgia-Pacific.

And what about the confidentiality agreement? Turns out that was for the installers, who like other outsiders granted access to the DOR building, must pledge not to snoop.

So, to sum up Dispensergate: Rather than being taken to the cleaners, the state appears to have gotten an excellent deal and committed no improprieties.

For some, that may come as a shock.

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