MADISON — Calling it a “highly mobile crime” that poses unique challenges to policing and prosecution, Wisconsin Attorney General Brad Schimel asked for the public’s help Tuesday in dismantling “insidious” rings of human trafficking that he said have gained footholds in every corner of the state.
The first hurdle, he added, is convincing people who haven’t experienced it that the problem is real.
“Human trafficking is happening here in Wisconsin, in urban and suburban areas, small and large cities, and towns and villages,” Schimel said at a news conference Tuesday in Madison, where he and other officials also highlighted recent state and local efforts to try to prevent trafficking and serve teens and adults exploited for sex.
Male or female, of all races and socioeconomic backgrounds, victims of human trafficking fit no easy stereotype, and the crimes committed against aren’t easily prevented or solved, Schimel said.
“This is a troubling topic,” he said, more difficult to combat than traditional prostitution because it operates more “deeply underground,” despite a veneer of normalcy and public meet-up sites at truck stops, malls and hotels.
“It’s still right in front of us, but it’s harder to see,” Schimel said, owing to online business dealings and victims’ reluctance to seek help from police or service providers. “The crime is often taking place in plain sight.”
Exploited youth, often homeless and drug-dependent, also may strongly resist giving up their traffickers when they get arrested. Often that’s due to intense psychological and emotional programming of victims by perpetrators, frequently reinforced by physical abuse, officials said.
“These are horrible people doing horrible things to our kids,” said Eloise Anderson, secretary of the state Department of Children and Families, at the news conference held at Hotel Red on Monroe Street.
The Wisconsin Hotel and Lodging Association has partnered in state efforts to recognize and report human trafficking, along with the trucking industry and other partners.
A task force headed by Anderson and Schimel was formed two years ago to develop a coordinated, statewide plan to combat human trafficking. Its work now done, the task force developed new tools including a resource guide and web-based training for hospitality industry employees that’s launching now in English, Spanish and Hmong.
The task force also developed training for child welfare and youth justice workers to better spot the signs of trafficking, and it opened the first of seven regional hubs that will coordinate support and technical assistance for local agencies to help combat the crime statewide. The first hub is in Outagamie County, serving 17 counties and three Native American tribes in northeastern Wisconsin.
Schimel, who is up for reelection in November, also created a human trafficking bureau in September within the Department of Justice to target traffickers and help survivors. In the past three months, Schimel said, the bureau completed 23 child and adult sex trafficking investigations, resulting in 15 trafficker arrests, six arrests of people seeking to buy sex from trafficking victims, and 34 adult and child sex trafficking victims who were helped.
In 2018, DCF plans to increase public awareness efforts and set up a new Anti-Human Trafficking Advisory Council to implement the state’s response plan. Steps will include completing an educational video featuring families from around the state damaged by human trafficking, and working with the state Department of Public Instruction on curriculum to help inform students of trafficking dangers.
Efforts in 2018 by DOJ are to include the development of tools to better recognize and report human trafficking for Wisconsin’s shopping mall workforce and for its transportation and busing industries. In addition, pending state legislation supported by DOJ includes one measure that would introduce tougher, graduated penalties for soliciting a prostitute and another that would hold children engaged in acts of prostitution immune from prosecution.
State officials on Tuesday could not provide data on how many more traffickers and trafficking victims remain.
“It’s hard to say,” Schimel said, while estimating that much work remains. “When we look for it, we find it.”
MADISON — The chairman of the Wisconsin Elections Commission called Republican Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald a bully and a coward Tuesday for blocking confirmation of the agency’s administrator.
Elections Commission chairman Mark Thomsen called on senators to stand up to Fitzgerald and vote to confirm Michael Haas as administrator of the agency. And even if they don’t, Thomsen asserted Haas would remain in the position unless a majority of the bipartisan commission voted to remove him.
Preferably, the fight will end in the Senate with confirmation of Haas, said Thomsen, a Democratic attorney who leads the commission equally composed of Republicans and Democrats. It voted unanimously Tuesday to call on Fitzgerald to hold a public hearing on the confirmation where testimony could be taken in support of Haas.
“I would like to see the state Senate stand up to Mr. Fitzgerald, who is a bully, and say enough of this witch hunt,” Thomsen said. “Independent Republicans and Democrats are tired of this game playing.”
Fitzgerald’s spokesman Dan Romportl said Fitzgerald was aware of Thomsen’s comments but he wasn’t going to respond. Romportl did say that Fitzgerald would not hold a hearing and planned to move ahead with a Jan. 23 vote to reject confirmation of both Haas and Ethics Commission administrator Brian Bell.
Fitzgerald and other Republicans argue lawmakers have lost confidence in their ability to lead the agencies because of what they say are partisan influences leftover from when Haas and Bell worked for the former Government Accountability Board.
The Republican-controlled Legislature disbanded the nonpartisan GAB in 2015 and created the separate bipartisan commissions to run elections and oversee the state’s ethics laws for politicians, lobbyists and others.
Attorney General Brad Schimel in December released a report that faulted the GAB’s handling of secret John Doe investigations into alleged wrongdoing by Gov. Scott Walker and other Republicans.
While Schimel recommended disciplinary action against five former GAB employees related to the leaking of secret information, he did not single out Haas or Bell. But Fitzgerald and Assembly Speaker Robin Vos called for their resignations.
Both Haas and Bell have been serving as interim administrators of the respective agencies, awaiting Senate confirmation. Fitzgerald has said a vote to reject confirmation would force Bell and Haas to resign. But Thomsen said the law is clear that only the commission can hire and fire Haas.
David Halbrooks, a Democratic attorney who chairs the Ethics Commission, said that board was focused on convincing the Senate to confirm Bell and not exploring its legal options.
“We’re not considering the legal options and I don’t anticipate we will consider the legal options because we are hoping to convince the Senate to change their mind,” Halbrooks said.
Thomsen said he hopes the Senate has the “courage to do what is right” and confirm Haas. He called on Republican state senators to oppose Fitzgerald, saying he wants to see “if they have the guts to stand up to the bully.”
Fitzgerald joined with two other Republican senators last month in voting to approve the state Justice Department launch a broader investigation into the former GAB for possible criminal conduct. Haas has accused both Fitzgerald and Vos of slander for suggesting he may have acted criminally. Haas called for them to “stop trashing my name and reputation.”
Republicans hold an 18-13 majority in the Senate, with two vacancies.
The La Crosse Task Force to End Modern Slavery, founded by the Franciscan Sisters of Perpetual Adoration, is co-sponsoring an online video series titled “The Faces of Human Trafficking.”
The FSPAs partnered with Minnesota’s Breaking Free, one of the nation’s leading organizations for working with victims and survivors of sex trafficking to create the series, which is being launched this month in connection with Human Trafficking Awareness Month.
“Our goal was to create an online resource to educate human trafficking support workers and the general public and give voice to the survivors,” said FSPA Sister Corrina Thomas, who serves in the human trafficking field.
The series features stories of survivors, pimps and johns, she said.
For example, Jenny, a survivor who was featured in the series debut Friday, said in her video, “It’s a brainwashing that happens. There’s a reason traffickers go after children.
“I want people to know that women don’t choose this. This is something that happens to them — they’re victims,” said Jenny, who, like other survivors in the series, talk about their childhoods, their time in “the life,” how they survived and what they would like everyone to know about the billion-dollar industry.
Introducing each video is FSPA Sister Marlene Weisenbeck, who founded the task force.
The FSPAs will release the videos at noon on the following dates, with specified ones followed by Twitter Chat via @fspatweets using the hashtag #HumanTraffickingFaces:
All videos and additional resources will be available at the FSPA web site.
Also this month and into early February, near the feast of St. Josephine Bakhita, patron saint of human trafficking, the series also will feature “Flora,” “Mr. J” and “Mr. P.”
Bakhita, who was born in the Darfur region of southern Sudan in the 19th century, was kidnapped at the age of 7, sold into slavery and given the name Bakhita, which means “fortunate.” She was resold five times, and her owners brutalized her, including branding, beating and cutting her. In one incident, one of her owners rubbed salt into the 114 cuts he had made on her body.
Freed through a series of unusual circumstances, she became attracted to the Catholic faith and became a Canossian nun, assisting her religious community through cooking, sewing, embroidery and welcoming visitors. Her canonization as a saint in 2000 resulted in part from the affection of children attending the sisters’ school and local citizens.
The FSPAs also will host a public human trafficking awareness prayer service on at 4 p.m. Feb. 6 in Mary of the Angels Chapel at 901 Franciscan Way in La Crosse.
Next Tuesday’s special Senate election in northwestern Wisconsin will be the first indicator of whether a surge in Democratic electoral success last year around the country is coming to Wisconsin in 2018.
In the wake of President Donald Trump’s victory in 2016, and a tumultuous first year in office in which his job approval rating plummeted, Democrats received more votes than expected in state and federal special elections last year, even in races they lost, according to multiple reports.
There were 98 special legislative elections last year across the country, with Democrats picking up 11 seats held by Republicans, according to election-tracking website ballotpedia.com. That was the biggest gain for Democrats in at least seven years.
The political number-crunchers at fivethirtyeight.com reviewed the 2017 results and previous voting history in each district and found the Democratic vote total in special elections was 12 points higher than in previous elections.
Pollsters at ALG Research, a Washington-based research company that works with Democrats including Barack Obama’s campaign, drew a similar conclusion. They found Democrats in legislative special elections last year improved upon Barack Obama’s 2012 vote percentage difference versus Mitt Romney in those same districts by 6 points and Hillary Clinton’s 2016 vote percentage difference versus Donald Trump in those districts by 12.1 points.
It’s unclear whether that Democratic voter enthusiasm will translate to a win in Wisconsin’s 10th Senate District. Obama lost the district by 6 points in 2012 and Clinton lost it by 17 points in 2016.
Next week’s special election pits Rep. Adam Jarchow, R-Balsam Lake, against St. Croix County medical examiner and Somerset School Board member Patty Schachtner, a Democrat from the town of Star Prairie who appeared on a 2006 episode of the reality TV show “Wife Swap.” Libertarian candidate Brian Corriea is also on the ballot.
The winner on Tuesday will fill the seat vacated by Sheila Harsdorf, whom Gov. Scott Walker recently appointed secretary of the Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection.
Harsdorf had held the seat since 2000, including successfully beating back a recall attempt in 2011. She won the seat by 18.5 points in 2012 and 26.4 points in 2016.
Senate Minority Leader Jennifer Shilling, D-La Crosse, said the race is competitive for Democrats based on internal polling conducted last year. The State Senate Democratic Committee declined to release the poll, but executive director Jenni Dye said it showed Democrats were much more likely to vote than in a typical off-cycle election.
Shilling said an increase in activism, particularly among women, in the wake of the Trump election is improving Democrats’ chances.
“The electorate is churning right now because of the policies and failed leadership of President Trump and the bullying kind of message that he sends out when he attacks people and critics,” Shilling said. “Wisconsin is next on our special election calendar here in this country, and we want to build on that momentum and enthusiasm.”
Republican Party of Wisconsin spokesman Alec Zimmerman said “while Democrats can talk about out-of-state energy all they want, the only voters who matter in this race are in Wisconsin.
“Wisconsin Republicans have a proven record of success in turning out voters, and Adam Jarchow’s record of helping create jobs and cut taxes will be the right message for them on Election Day,” Zimmerman said.
The candidates have raised and spent a lot of money so far, almost on par with what was spent on the 2016 race, according to campaign finance reports filed this week. Jarchow has reported raising about $240,000, plus loaning himself $50,000, and Schachtner has reported raising about $180,000.
The race is drawing a noticeable amount of outside spending with a barrage of radio and digital ads and mailers targeting district voters.
Conservative group Americans for Prosperity Wisconsin is taking the unusual step of buying $50,000 in radio and digital ads backing Jarchow and could spend another $5,000 to $10,000 on mailers and canvassing, executive director Eric Bott said. It’s the first time the group has engaged in express advocacy — meaning they are advocating for the election or defeat of a candidate with advertising that must be disclosed to the Wisconsin Ethics Commission — in a state legislative race, he said.
Bott said the group has already spent about $50,000 on so-called “issue ads,” which don’t explicitly advocate for the election or defeat of candidates and don’t have to be disclosed.
“We have an opportunity to make a difference,” Bott said. “Jarchow is the foremost champion of constitutional rights in the Legislature today. … Those are things we think are really important. We want to see more legislators take on those issues.”
The Greater Wisconsin Political Independent Expenditure Fund, which backs Democrats, has spent $30,000 on online advertising supporting Schachtner and opposing Jarchow, according to a campaign filing with the state. Postcardstovoters.org, a new national Democratic group that mobilizes volunteers around the country to send personalized get-out-the-vote postcards to Democratic voters in the district, is also active in the race.
And at least two other groups, the Republican State Leadership Committee and Wisconsin Manufacturers & Commerce have combined for $78,000 in issue ads, according to One Wisconsin Now, a liberal group that tracks spending on paid election media.
Neil Kraus, chairman of the political science department at UW-River Falls, said at this point every race for state or national office will be some kind of referendum on Trump. He said the district has become increasingly conservative over time with more upper-middle-income white voters moving into the St. Croix County suburbs of Minneapolis.
“If the Democrats are even in the ballpark, it’s not a great sign for the Republican Party,” Kraus said.