Well, a week has now passed since my Trip down to Madison to speak out against Rep. Schneider’s newest proposal to limit CCAP, AB 340. It meant being out of the office on the 1st day of the month, a very busy day for landlords. So, I have spent the rest of the week playing catch-up.
For those not familiar with CCAP, it is Wisconsin’s online Circuit Court record keeping system, the website (http://wcca.wicourts.gov/index.xsl) allows people to type in the name of a person or organization and get any history they have with the circuit court system. It includes civil cases, criminal cases, family law, probate, etc. This information is publicly available at the courthouses throughout the state, however the CCAP system has automated this information and made it easier to access. It has become a valuable tool for landlords and employers, it has become a tool for parents, it has made a Wisconsin a leader in ensuring maximum accessibility to records that are public.
However, with any new technology, there are issues; and Rep. Schneider has been a strong and vocal opponent of the CCAP system almost since it’s creation. His arguments center around mis-use of these records and people being denied housing or employment because information on CCAP is mis-understood. However, those may be his arguments, his true motivation for fighting CCAP is the concern that this violates peoples’ privacy.
His newest proposal that went to Public Hearing last week (with 1 current amendment) would make the following changes:
1) Free use of the CCAP system in its current form would only be available to court officials, law enforcement, attorneys, accredited journalists, and debt collectors.
2) Any other user of the CCAP system would have to set up a CCAP “account” where they would log into the system and a record would be kept of the searches that were done.
3) There would be a $10 annual fee for these other users to set up this “account”.
4) These other users would not have available to them the entire CCAP records, but only those records that had cases that came to a conclusion of guilt (criminal matters) or liability (civil matters). Pending actions would not be available, neither would actions that resulted in any kind of dismissal or settlement.
5) Finally, if a person denies housing or employment to someone after doing a CCAP search, they would be required to tell the person who was denied the reason of the denial, or be subject to a $1,000 fine.
If you remember from my last blog entry, the organization that assists the Wisconsin Apartment Association with lobbying had emailed me that there was no need for me (the Vice President of the Association) to come to Madison and testify. When it was clear that email did not dissuade me, I was called and had a long conversation about all of the reasons where not only did I not need to come, but should not come, and if I did come, should not testify. However, I take my civic duties very seriously. And if they didn’t want me to testify against this bill on behalf of the Rental Housing industry, that’s fine. However, I still have not only a civic right, but a civic DUTY to testify on my own behalf – which I did.
One of the reasons I was told I did not need to testify is that this bill “had no legs” and was not going anywhere, that too many were opposed. After attending the hearing, and sitting through almost all of the hours of testimony, I respectfully disagree. I of course submitted testimony against. Others who testified against included the Dept. of Justice, a newspaper publisher, the WI Housing Alliance (mobile home park association), WI Freedom of Information Council, WI Manufacturer’s Association, WI Broadcasters Association, WI Land Title Association, landlords representing associations out of Madison, Milwaukee and Stevens Point (I testified on behalf of myself, so the WAA had no testimony on the record), and a representative from a public housing authority.
However, there was a fair amount of people who testified in favor of these new limitations, and to be completely honest, some of this testimony did have valid points that demonstrated some minor flaws in the CCAP system. In addition to Rep. Schneider and his Legislative Assistant both speaking in favor, there was testimony from Legal Action of WI, a couple of lawyers from the Wisconsin Innocence Project, a number of people who had been convicted of crimes and later had those convictions overturned who are still victims of being treated differently because of that incorrect finding of guilt, and an attorney from a public defender’s office.
Because I decided as I walked into the room that yes, I would testify, I had no prepared statement and would be speaking “off the cuff”. Because I was speaking fairly late in the hearing (at least 2-3 hours of testimony before me), I could hear what was said and change my comments to not repeat what everyone else said. Early on, one of the members of the committee presented a challenge to those who were going to testify against this bill – his challenge: how would we fix the problems. A different committee member (a co-sponsor of the bill) would often ask of people testifying against if they personally felt that dismissed actions should remain on CCAP. Neither of those two members were in the room when my time came to speak.
I had to choose my statements wisely, as we were each only allowed 3 minutes of testimony. The committee would often let people go on for up to 5 minutes if it looked like they were coming close to a conclusion after 3, but at least 4 different people were told to cut it short when they had used more than their allotted time. So, I needed to make my points quickly and clearly.
I took that first challenge seriously. So, I began my testimony by reminding the committee of that challenge, how would we fix the problem. And that is why I am here, to speak against this proposal but offer my solution.
I indicated that I was actually in favor of the requirement to notify people who are denied housing/employment because of a CCAP search. I pointed out that federal law (the FCRA) already requires this when you turn someone down for credit after running a credit report. Depending on how you interpret the FCRA, the CCAP system may arguably fall under that requirement. I agreed that it is possible to make an honest mistake using my own name (John Fischer) as an example. If you heard the name but didn’t see it, you don’t know if I am Jon or John, or if I am Fischer or Fisher. So, if you looked up all 4 names, over 400 CCAP listings. People reading this know the correct spelling, that will narrow it down to well over 200 listings. If you know my middle initial (H), there are still over 77 CCAP listings. If I were turned down for employment or housing because of those 77 listings (only 2 of which are mine from nearly 10 years ago), I would want the ability to appeal that decision by showing that an error had been made. This notification requirement is something already done for credit reports.
In the testimony for the bill, one of the biggest issues was being denied employment because of information found on CCAP. The examples given by the people testifying are examples where employers did use illegal discrimination. I said we solve that problem by putting more teeth in our penalties for wrongful discrimination. There was concern that people wouldn’t know that CCAP was the reason they were turned down for housing or employment. However, the notice requirement would help with that issue. And I did point out that in every person’s testimony that was for this bill, they indicated they knew that the employer turned them down based on CCAP information because the employer TOLD THEM.
I testified that it was important that pending actions were still available on CCAP. As a landlord, I find myself being the potential victim of a “Vandelay Industry” scam at last a few times a month. Someone wants to rent from me because they are in the process of being evicted from someone else. Often, people are honest about their situation and often, through co-signers or other methods, we can find a way to work with them. But about 1 out of 3 people being evicted will lie on their application about their current landlord. The rental reference will actually be a friend of theirs who has been told what to say (as Jerry was to do for George in the “Vandelay Industry” episode of Seinfeld). It is not until a CCAP report is done where one sees there is a pending eviction that you know you are being lied to. People who lie on their application are not a protected class and the committee seemed to acknowledge that.
*NOTE – after the hearing, one committee member told me that I won his personal award for the best testimony because of the Seinfeld reference.
After all of the testimony, I don’t think that AB 340 will advance in its present form, but I do think that it will be the catalyst for some changes in how records are maintained in the CCAP system, so this needs to be monitored closely.
Oh, as for our the reaction of the person who strongly suggested that I not testify, what was their reaction to my making the trip and, against their advice, putting in my two cents before the committee? Here is part of their summary: “I registered against the bill on behalf of WRHLC. Thanks to all who came to the hearing, including Eileen Bruskewitz and especially John Fischer. John drove down 2 hours, testified late in the hearing and stayed for the whole thing! There were many other landlords who testified against – let me know if I missed anyone so I can recognize you in a later report. For those who would like to see or listen to the public hearing, it is in the WisconsinEye “Video on Demand” archive at http://www.wiseye.org; look for Assembly Committee on Criminal Justice of October 1, 2009.”
I did miss last week’s radio show because of this hearing, and unfortunately for fans of the radio show, I will be missing tonight’s as well. This weekend is the Wisconsin Apartment Association’s annual conference and trade show which this year is being held in Neenah. I am leaving right after work to head down there as things start for me bright and early at 9 AM tomorrow. My room is supposed to have wi-fi access, so I will make an effort to blog periodically to update readers on what is going on there, including the 2010 election of officers to be held late in the morning on Saturday, where I have been nominated for President.
So, until that next blog entry.. HAPPY RENTING!