Questions surround cancellation of courthouse staircase project


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Questions surround cancellation of courthouse staircase project

By Jermont Terry. CREATED Sep 23, 2013 - UPDATED: Sep 23, 2013

MILWAUKEE - The federal government wanted to spend nearly $500,000 to build a single flight of stairs at the U.S. Attorney‘s office. That was until the I-Team got involved and started asking some serious questions about tax dollars. 

Back in July, U.S. Attorney Jim Santelle invited the I-Team into the federal courthouse in downtown Milwaukee. He showed us around, where we walked the hallways as preparations were already underway to build the nearly $500,000 staircase.

The I-Team raised questions about the cost and timing of this expensive project. It’s a project Santelle insisted at the time could not be stopped because the money was already spent. But weeks after the I-Team’s report, the general contractor told us the project was cancelled.

Through open records, we requested and waited months for the federal government to reveal the price for these stairs. When the I-Team pressed about the need, the cost, and benefits, Santelle welcomed our cameras and sat down for an interview to explain his case in July. 

“The principle focus is on security and safety for the staff of the U.S. Attorney offices,” said Santelle. He went on to say building the internal staircase from the 5th to 6th floor would keep staffers from entering into a public hallway with private documents.

“This is not a situation where today Jim Santelle or the U.S. Department of Justice is spending money out of the 2013-2014 budget,” explained Santelle.

He said the project and the money for the project were allocated from the 2010 budget. But the I-Team wanted to know if this was the best use of tax dollars. In the July interview we asked if this project could get stopped and save the nearly $500,000.

Santelle said, “The answer is no. The money is just as expedited today as it was back then. The question is a very, very good one.”

But soon after the I-Team’s report in July, we reached out to sub-contractors. One sub-contractor told us the staircase was officially on hold. That sub-contractor went on to say there was a stop work order issued and the general contractor, KPH Construction, wanted bids to return the space to its original state.

So the I-Team reached out the Santelle’s office by email and then again by telephone. We wanted to know if this project was still on. We got nothing from the office.

“It's troubling when people are so reluctant to provide simple answers to simple questions,” said Chris Kliesmet. Kleismet runs the government watchdog group, Citizens for Responsible Government. So the I-Team called the engineering company working on the project. We didn’t get a response.

Then we finally got someone from KPH, the general contractor, to talk. They informed us the project was indeed cancelled. When we asked when and why they wouldn’t elaborate.

“How is the government spending our money? In this case Jermont, you and the I-Team went and looked. You investigated and looked at what happened, they told you it couldn’t be stopped, and low and behold it stopped,” said Kliesmet.

Still looking for an explanation, we asked the government again what happened to a project we were told could not be stopped. We waited four weeks with no reply. It wasn’t until the I-Team sent an email telling them we found out through sub-contractors the project was on hold that we got a response.

That’s when the federal government gave a brief comment of “No Comment.” For now, nobody will walk on the costly staircase. But it’s unclear what changed, especially if the money was already spent. We want to know how much it cost to rip up the floor and how much will it cost to put it back to the previous condition.

The I-Team waits on that answer. 

Jermont Terry

Jermont Terry

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Jermont Terry joined the TODAY'S TMJ4 team in January 2011. He currently leads the TMJ4 I-Team as the investigative reporter.