While Maryland is recovering from the aftershock of Gov. Marvin Mandel's conviction and Congress is squirming with the Korean gift exposes, Wisconsin has been caught up in a scandal of its own that touches the governor, the attorney general and a host of state legislators.
By national standards, the scandal is peanuts. In Wisconsin, however, which prides itself on clean government, "the great telephone ripoff scandal" has become one of the hottest political stories going.
In short, the scandal is this: state officials have made personal calls on reduced-rate state telephone and let the taxpayers pick up the tab.
Two small newspapers, the La Crosse Tribune and the Racine Journal-Times, kicked off the scandal in mid-July with a series of articles detailing telephone abuses by legislators and other state officials. Soon the state's major newspapers jumped into the fray and every few days a new article appears about the scandal.
Attorney General Bronson La Follette began investigating to see if any laws had been violated, but then the Milwaukee Sentinel revealed that he had made 93 calls on state phones to a housing firm in Columbus, Ohio, with which he had had business dealings. The cost to the taxpayers was $38.34.
La Follette promptly sent the investigation over to the Dane County district attorney, who has jurisdiction in cases involving state matters.
Acting Gov. Martin J. Schreiber admitted that he had made personal calls while he was lieutenant governor from a state phone installed at his house. He had failed to reimburse the state for $8.58.
The Milwaukee Journal nailed a former legislator, Harout Sanasarian , for making more than 160 calls on behalf of Jimmy Carter's presidential campaign in 1976 while Sanasarian was in the legislature and active in the Carter campaign. The cost: $52.21.
The vice chairman of the state Democratic Party, Sue Albrecht, volunteered that she had made $582 in personal and political calls from her state phone, including several calls on behalf of Rep. Morris Udall's 1976 presidential bid. She is the secretary to the state treasurer.
Most of the state officials involved have rushed to repay the state for their indiscretions. A few have gone out of their way to criticize the media for being so absorbed in what they view as a small matter.
Editorials, in turn, say the telephone abuses are symptomatic of the officials' arrogant attitude toward taxpayers. They frequently note that legislators, who earn $17,843 a year, are among the highest-paid state lawmakers in the country.
What long-term political effects this turbulence will have is unclear, but it is giving the state's newspaper subscribers some interesting August read.
One state senator, David Berger of Milwaukee, ran up a state bill of $815 making calls of friends and relatives in Scotland. He said he had not repaid the state because no one had asked him to and that he had not charged the calls to his home phone because his mother, with whom he lives, would not put up with it.
Another legislator, Esther Luckhardt of Horicon, known for her fiscal conservatism, called relatives in India several times at state expense, then told reporters, "I have never made a junket. I think I'm entitled to call my family. A happy legislator is a productive legislator."
Several legislators have run up state telephone bills by calling their girl friends, which has provided some interesting grist for the local gossip mills. One Senate aide quit after news articles reported that he had made 28 calls at state expense to his girlfriend in Minneapolis.
Not all of the legislators have sworn off making personal calls from state phones. Walter Ward of Milwaukee said the calls helped him be a better legislator and that he would not repay the state. "One of the ways of trying to find out what happens in other states is to use the [credit] cards to talk to friends and relatives in other states," he said.