Mining Bill Hearing in the Northwoods – how public and who benefits?

The Assembly Committee on Jobs will be holding a public hearing in the district where a proposed Gogebic Taconite Mine would operate. Yielding to public pressure after holding a hearing at State Fair Park in West Allis, Rep Mary Williams (R – Medford) scheduled a hearing on Wednesday, January 11, 10:00am at the Hurley Inn. While Rep Janet Bewley (D-Ashland, whose District would be the location of the mine, and includes Hurley) applauds the committee holding a hearing in the proposed mine district, she expressed concern in a phone interview on Thursday. Bewley was concerned that she and State Senator Bob Jauch (D-Poplar, mine and hearing in his Senate District) had been put in a position to schedule an “unofficial hearing” on their own in December for January 7, due to a lack of committment from Williams to schedule one in their district. Bewley expressed concern with the time (a weekday morning) and location (a relatively moderate capacity private hotel) being able to give the public at large sufficient access to the hearing. Inquiries into the site selection and the site itself by Badger Democracy raises serious question and concern as to the hearing location.

On December 16, 2011, Bewley and Jauch sent a Letter to the Committee on Jobs offering a site and time they had already reserved for their “informal hearing.” They offered the Ashland High School Auditorium from 10am-6pm on Saturday, January 7 to be used as the venue for the official public hearing. Not only did Williams not accept the offer, she made no response to her colleagues at all.

When asked about the Hearing schedule, a spokesperson for Rep Williams told Badger Democracy on Thursday that the Hurley Inn was selected by the Committee for being “close to the mine site,” being one of the few venues in the area having a “large seating area” to accommodate the hearing, and available on short notice. The spokesman also stated that public testimony would be taken “at the Chair’s (Williams) discretion.” When a follow-up was asked regarding the offer letter from Bewley and Jauch, the Williams staff stated that they had no knowledge of such a letter, and Saturday was unacceptable, as page staff would “have to be paid overtime if we hold the hearing on a Saturday.” It is notable that Rep Kapenga’s office recalled receiving the letter, as had Rep Pasch’s staff (one Democrat, one Republican – both on the Committee). According to Rep Bewley’s office, the letters were hand-delivered by pages to all committee members.

While the Williams staffer explained the Hurley Inn was chosen because someone “recommended it” to the Committee, there are no Representatives on the Committee who could recall the identity of the person making the suggestion. According to both Jauch and Bewley, hearings in the area are generally held at one of the area school auditoriums for capacity and access purposes. Williams’ office explained they had first contacted schools, but they were not willing to host a hearing during a school day, and would not “arrange for early release.”

According to state records, the registered agent for the Hurley Inn is Frederick Schellgell, an attorney from Mercer, WI. Schellgell is the attorney of record for Peter Giovanoni of Hurley, WI, according to the Schellgell law office. While the General Manager of the Inn refused to disclose the owner of the hotel, Hurley Chamber of Commerce records name Giovanoni as the owner (the Inn even has a bar named “Pete’s Place”). When confronted with this information, the Inn Manager claimed she “really doesn’t know who the owners are, or what the ownership structure is.” A Hurley Chamber contact confirmed this ownership information for Badger Democracy.

Peter Giovanoni is also owner of Superior Excavation of Hurley, and has an extensive record of Civil Judgements against him in multiple Wisconsin counties. One of the most recent occurred in Marathon County in 2011. A Marathon County representative in a phone interview told Badger Democracy that Mr. Giovanoni had arranged a line of credit with the County for solid waste disposal from his excavating business. Mr. Giovanoni failed to pay, and after avoiding summons service the county was forced to seek a default judgement against him. Default Judgement in the amount of $27,922.38 was entered on August 30, 2011. Mr. Giovanoni never appeared.  The court records search indicates a pattern of this type of activity, along with tax and revenue judgements. This raises several questions surrounding the Hearing and the Inn.

The Inn Manager told Badger Democracy the Inn is for sale. Is Giovanoni liquidating his assets before they are found out by Marathon County and other creditors?

How was this locale REALLY chosen? Who recommended this location to the committee, and do they have any ties to Giovanoni or his family (small but frequent GOP contributors – most recently JB VanHollen)?

Will Mr. Giovanoni benefit from this arrangement? A regional excavation company owner also owns the private location, hosting a partisan hearing on pending mining legislation, that his company could potentially profit from. Or is a lucrative state contract in the works for Superior Mining? A contract that could easily pay off thousands of dollars in civil forfeiture.

Finally, who will fill the hall at the Hurley Inn for this hearing? Will the privately-owned hotel be filled with those friendly to the bill, only to have the room full before the public at large arrives at the hotel?

Nothing is surprising anymore in Fitzwalkerstan. Arrive early, and stay vigilant. A note to all legislators – any state contract for Superior Excavation should be red flagged.