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By James B. Nelson September 6, 2011

Wisconsin Democratic Party says Republican Representatives Paul Ryan, Sean Duffy and Reid Ribble are making people pay for access to them

For members of Congress, the "town hall" meeting with constituents has taken on a new dynamic. The once-routine chats with the folks back home have, at times, become highly charged sessions with large crowds. They’ve become a barometer of sorts of public sentiment -- or the ability of opponents to organize.

Democrats faced hostile crowds during the summer of 2009 when the hot topic was the federal health care reform bill. Some of the meetings drew hundreds and saw shouting, pushing and shoving. President Barack Obama decried what he called "scare tactics" from opponents. And one left leaning blog ran a list of dozens of town hall meetings believed to be targeted for disruption.

Congressional Republicans got a similar reception in the spring and summer of 2011.

The frequent topic: Proposals by House Budget Committee Chairman Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) to alter Medicare. Tempers flared and meetings were disrupted, including one in April in Racine where Ryan asked police to remove a protester.

So as Congress settled into its August break, the Wisconsin Democratic Party took a shot at some of the state’s GOP members of Congress -- Ryan, and freshmen Sean Duffy and Reid Ribble.

In an Aug. 17, 2011 email to supporters, state Democratic Party chairman Mike Tate said: "Paul Ryan, Sean Duffy and Reid Ribble are so ashamed to own up to their disastrous records that they are shutting down town hall meetings, or making their constituents pay to attend them."

Buried amid the heated, and opinionated, rhetoric -- "so ashamed to own up to their disastrous records" -- there’s a powerful factual claim: Are the three "shutting down" town hall meetings or "making constituents pay" to see them?

A Democratic Party spokesman did not respond to an email request for evidence backing up the statement. So we were left to search the public record and to make our own calls.

The genesis of the claim appears to be a Politico article from the day before the party’s release that began this way: "The House Budget Committee chairman isn’t holding any face-to-face open-to-the-public town hall meetings during the recess, but like several of his colleagues he will speak only for residents willing to open their wallets."

Now, what about the party’s claim?

The claim starts off on a wrong track: Ribble participated in a forum in Appleton on Aug. 8, 2011, and Duffy held a town hall meeting in Wausau on Aug. 15, 2011. Ryan, meanwhile, held an Aug. 8, 2011 "telephone town hall meeting" with residents of Rock County.

So, all three had meetings of some variety -- in person or the newfangled phone-in approach -- before the party’s claim was even made.

Indeed, members of Congress don’t always have town hall meetings during a recess. And by at least one measure, Republicans were more likely to do so this time than Democrats.

A nonpartisan group called No Labels released a survey Aug. 22, 2011 that found "67.9% of Democrats and 50.8% of Republicans stating they had no town hall meetings scheduled for the recess period."

So what about the second thrust of the Democratic claim: Are the Republicans hiding behind a pay wall?

We found three events where money was involved. The events were not fund-raisers for the congressmen, but lunch meetings open to the public that carried a cost.

The most highly publicized -- and politicized -- one is an appearance by Ryan on Sept. 6, 2011 sponsored by the Whitnall Park Rotary Club.

The club’s website says: "This is NOT a town hall meeting format, and the $15 fee covers only the lunch and other costs incurred in enabling an open public invitation."

Club officer Gilbert Freen told us the group routinely charges guests to cover the cost of the lunch served at its meetings.

The Democrats, some union groups and others view this as outrageous. Citizen Action of Wisconsin says it is organizing buses to bring people to protest Ryan’s appearance.

But politicians of all stripes regularly appear at such luncheons.

For instance, on Aug. 23, 2011, U.S. Rep. Gwen Moore (D-Wis) spoke to the Rotary Club of Milwaukee. That event was not open to the public -- just to members and their guests, who paid $17.50 each. Numerous other politicians (including Ryan and Moore together in 2009) have appeared at Newsmaker Luncheons sponsored by the Milwaukee Press Club. At those events, which are open to the public, a fee is charged -- for the lunch.

Ryan’s office said the Whitnall club meeting was the only event the congressman had scheduled during the August break that involved a charge.

We found two other paid events, one each from Ribble and Duffy.

Ribble’s office said he participated in the Aug. 8 forum addressing regulation with two other local civic groups. "I believe it was at lunchtime and there was a cost for the lunch," said Ribble spokeswoman Ashley Olson.

Duffy participated in one event -- an Aug. 18, 2011 small business forum at the University of Wisconsin-Superior -- where participants were charged $15 for lunch and materials.

So, each of the three GOP congressmen singled out had at least one event where a fee was charged. But such appearances are routine tor politicians of both parties, the fee covered lunch and did not go to the congressman.  

The thrust of the statement, though, was broader still -- that the three were "shutting down" town hall meetings and thus the ability to talk to the elected official.

Here’s what we found about the summer recess schedule for each when we asked aides, checked public schedules and looked at news accounts:

Ryan:  Toured various local businesses, held "multiple hour-long meetings" with small business owners, Realtors and home builders. In addition to the "telephone town hall meeting," attended the Walworth County Fair, a Boy Scout lunch and a 75th anniversary lunch for Kenosha Beef. Constituents could contact Ryan’s office for an appointment to meet with him in his office, said spokesman Conor Sweeney. Ryan was on vacation in Colorado for part of the month.

Ribble: Held a three-hour "Conversations with your Congressman" on Aug. 13, 2011 -- 10 minute one-on-one meetings; attended an Aug. 12, 2011 forum on transportation; an Alzheimers Association public input session, and a forum with seniors about Medicare.

Duffy: Like many House members with large districts, Duffy maintains a mobile office, and its schedule is listed prominently on the congressman’s web page. Duffy himself is on the bus some, but not all, of the time, said Brandon Moody, chief of staff. Moody said Duffy has spent the entire August break in his northern Wisconsin district. Including the town meeting in Wausau, he held a half dozen coffees and, yes, community town hall meetings. He also visited county fairs and toured area businesses.

No fee was charged for any of these events, or for access to the congressman.

Our conclusion:

The state Democrats say that three Republican congressmen from Wisconsin are shutting down town hall meetings or making constituents pay to attend them. Yet all three had town hall meetings or participated in a forum -- in person, or by phone -- before the statement was made. And one, Duffy, participated in several town hall meetings.

In fact, one review showed many members of Congress did not have any town hall meetings -- and Democrats were less likely than Republicans to hold them. What’s more, the party provided no evidence Ryan or the others were not available to constituents during the break.

Finally, the assertion that appearing at a Rotary lunch that is open to the public is "charging constituents" for access is far off the mark.

The party’s claim is not only false, but ridiculously so. It’s Pants on Fire.

Featured Fact-check

Our Sources

The Washington Post, "Obama faces ‘scare tactics’ head on," Aug. 12, 2009

CNN, "Town hall meeting on health care turns ugly," Aug. 7, 2009, Aug. 4, 2009

No Labels blog post, Aug. 22, 2011

Politico, "Talk to Paul Ryan? It’ll cost you," Aug. 16, 2011

Interview/emails, Ashley Olson, Rep. Reid Ribble’s office, Aug. 25, 2011

Interview/emails, Conor Sweeney, Rep. Paul Ryan’s office, Aug. 25, 2011

Interviews/emails, Brandon Moody, Rep. Sean Duffy’s office, Aug. 30, 2011

Wisconsin Democratic Party email, Aug. 17, 2011

Rotary Club of Milwaukee website

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Wisconsin Democratic Party says Republican Representatives Paul Ryan, Sean Duffy and Reid Ribble are making people pay for access to them

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