Cool & Unusual Punishment

Luginbilled - Episode 4

Episode Summary

On this episode of Luginbilled, peace begins with a smile. Cool & Unusual Punishment is a member of the Nerd & Tie Network! Find more shows from N&T at their website in the show notes.

Episode Notes

Episode 4 Documents

Nerd & Tie Network

Episode Transcription

Joe [recorded]: “I've just tried to fill in where I feel that I'm needed. People haven't least given me the benefit of the doubt, usually, which I appreciate.”

Tyler: Welcome to cool and unusual punishment. This is episode four of Luginbilled, our series on Joe Luginbill.

Jodie:  We're going to start the story with January 22nd, which is the day the State Theater lost power after bills totaled over $20,000 on account of Joe Luginbill’s nonpayment. This was the catalyst for our podcast, and this was the catalyst for the LGBTQ+ Community Center losing their space, as they were one of the groups that had signed a lease. The State Theater was supposed to become a nonprofit hub. The LGBTQ+ Community Center wasn't the only tenant in the building.

Tyler: The day that the power went off, there was one other office being used. And so we're going to be talking about that person's story.

Jodie: That person is Sarah Strunk. She came to our place this past week and talked to us. She brought along all of her documentation that supported her story.

Tyler: It should be mentioned that it was a full manila folder stuffed with documents.

Jodie: Yeah, she preferred that we tell her story versus her telling it. So we're appreciative of her trusting us to do that. Sarah Strunk was the project lead for the Smile House. We'll talk about what the Smile House is in a little bit here, if you're not familiar. Her work with Joe on that project was funded through a government funded employment program where they will give 14 weeks paid work experience to employers. But it's for people who have, perhaps, records of some kind, just don't have job experiences for one reason or another. And this is a way for employers to kind of take a chance on a person with really no risk to them, because they're not paying the wages.

Tyler: Right.

So Sarah became the project lead, and we'll find out how. It was paid through this company. But we need to rewind back a little bit in 2019.

We've changed the names of a few people in this story. The first person, for the purposes of this story, is named Jake. At some point in 2019 Sara meets Jake. They're at a meeting together, and he expresses his interest and using a house that he owns to provide housing for people with shared living experiences that he's had, and she thinks that's pretty cool, and she carries that information in her head, and they become friends, and at that point didn't know how that was going to come to fruition. But that was kind of the dream for the property. And that’s at 435 Pine Street.

Tyler: In Eau Claire?

Jodie: In Eau Claire. Sarah then attends a construction academy through the government funded employment program, that was in August or September. She does some painting at the State Theater as part of this work experience, and that's where she first meets Joe Luginbill. If you recall, she talks about how the people attending the academy thought they would be doing more than painting.

Tyler:  Joe had come to be managing the State Theater earlier in 2019-

Jodie:  maybe in April.

Tyler:  And so they were there to do this renovation project to make it reopenable.

Jodie:  This was also labor that was not at his expense, right, but the materials and such would be at his expense.

Tyler:  And why, why would you say that's an important distinction to make?

Jodie:  Because all they did was paint. As Sarah, who is very well versed in the world of construction and rehabilitation, and she certainly knows her stuff, you can clearly see that's where her passion is, is doing that kind of stuff. She identified a lot of things that needed to be done to the State Theater that were more than just painting it. But it was like, well, we're here to do this thing, if this is what we're going to do, okay. So there's like, iit's painted purple. If you've been in the State Theater, I have not since all of this happened, but there's kind of an elaborate painting job. That's what their group did.

Let's go then to Halloween. Sarah is with her daughter in downtown Eau Claire trick or treating, and she runs into Joe on the street and says to him, “Hey, I have got a project for you. I know a guy with a house and he has this plan for it, and I know that you have some sort of plan.” I'm sure, I don't know if they ever talked about this Smile House at the academy, or if she just knew about Joe Luginbill.

Tyler:  Yeah, going as far back as 2017, there's interviews of him discussing that he has plans for this project called The Smile House.

Joe [recorded]: “The name Smile House came from a quote from Mother Teresa. Peace begins with a smile.”

Tyler: He’s open about this desire to open a house for-

Jodie: -Kids who transition out of foster care that have no other place to go once they turn 18.

Tyler:  It’s been a plan of his for some time. So when she brushes into him on Halloween, she thinks, “Oh, I know this guy who wants to do something very similar and owns a house. And that's Joe Luginbill, who has the means to make something like that happen.”

Jodie: Yes. Well, they exchange information. Probably the next day, November 1st November 2nd, there's a meeting that happens between Joe, Sarah, Jake the homeowner, and somebody we’re changing the name of again, named Luke, who worked at the construction academy. Luke is somebody who would be a good resource to have being involved in this project, and he's part of the government funded employment program, so maybe they can get a workforce built.

Joe claims at the first meeting that he has $175,000 to put towards this project, which is a lot of money. So if you're sitting in a meeting with somebody like Joe Luginbill and they say they have $175, I believe there was some references-

Tyler:  $175,000.

Jodie: Sorry, yeah, $175,000.

Tyler: “I’ve got $175 dollars to put towards this.”

Jodie: That is probably more accurate. Through grants, things like this, I believe he references generically, that probably isn't farfetched. Somebody who's had this foundation, is running the State Theater, president of the school board, although I believe at that time he had just stepped down from the school board. But at the very least, a very active civic person, you know. To the meeting, we have a photo of this that I found-

Tyler:  The Facebook page, The URL name was official Joe Luginbill, I'm guessing it was Joe Luginbill's Facebook. A more professional public facing, like it would have been, uh, that's where this photo came from.

Jodie: He brings this napkin to the meeting that he's saved, and his plans were to frame it and put it in the Smile House. I don't know where he was, but somewhere out, and what it is, is the word smile, and then, for every word, its support system, mentoring, independence, living, and education.

Tyler:  So they're in this meeting. He brings his napkin and his mother Teresa quote.

Jodie: And his dollar amount and his dream. All of those things sound great. He then goes on to say that he has Presto onboard. Most people around here just know them for cookware and kind of novelty, interesting things like air fryers and things like that. But they certainly do things much more significant, government contracts and stuff like that. He indicates that they have promised commercial kitchens to both the Smile House and the State Theater.

Now I did reach out to Mary Joe Cohen, who heads up presto. Asked if that was accurate, if they indeed had pledged to sponsor both of these projects in such a pretty expensive way, and I didn't hear back. But at the very least, that's just like another thing, you know, you say I've got Presto onboard. I've got Menards I've reached out to, and you know, he hasn't heard back, but if Menards doesn't come through with donations, he's going to have available for them a Menards big card, which is their credit card.

Tyler: To supply the materials for this renovation.

Jodie:  Yeah. Well, you must remember that Joe runs into Sarah on October 31st. No more than one or two days later, depending on how soon that this meeting happened in the timeline from October 31st, he has a one page contract that he presents to Jake. It almost mirrors the agreement with the State Theater in that Jake retains ownership of the home in the same way that the State Theater was not Joe's. He did not own it, but he managed it and was responsible for the utilities of it. You know, Joe was responsible for paying essentially the mortgage at the State Theater.

Tyler:  Yeah, it seemed very much like he was renting the place, but also with more authority to be reworking and re building these places.

Jodie:  Yeah, it's kind of like “I have this space. You make it great.”

Tyler: Yes.

Jodie: Well, this contract gets done.

Tyler: How many pages was that contract?

Jodie: One.

Tyler: Okay.

Jodie: In the course of five days, he goes from not having a smile house to having a smile house.

Tyler: Right.

Jodie: The work is going to be done by a crew provided by the government funded employment program, including Luke, including Sarah, who becomes the project lead. She's had a really good long history with this program, and she assumes that responsibility, puts together the crew, and they're going to do the demolition work to start.

On November 5th, is when Joe starts to blitz the media.

Tyler:  And that's five days after Sarah talks to him.

Jodie: Yeah, there are stories on the TV stations. WEAU. WQOW. Those were the two TV stations around here.

Tyler:  They're getting ready to start doing this demolition and stuff. And so she meets him there at the house. And there's news crews there, cameras and reporters there. In response to all this media attention that has suddenly shown up at the house, Joe says to Sarah, “What can I say? I'm a media whore.”

Jodie: Which becomes kind of a running joke I saw in a few of the emails. You know, that sort of media spirit.

There's an email that Joe sends out to Sarah and the homeowner Jake. The media coverage also included Wisconsin Public Radio, Hot Country B95, WWIB radio. The email he sends with all of these exciting updates are literally all fluff. It's not so much about the intentions, the concrete plan of-

Tyler: What beams have to come out, etcetera-

Jodie: Or even just like a timeline or anything like that. It's all about the media coverage, a Google drive where people have offered to donate time and service and materials. “The Facebook Post announcement about the Smile House has received over 6700 likes. 3000 shares and 600,000 views. As of tonight, we have had over 1000 email subscriptions since Monday, and our website even crashed for an hour due to traffic. It has been quite a week.”

Well you get all this and, you know, Sarah responds and she's super enthusiastic, and thinks it's all great, because why shouldn't she?

Just a reminder. While this is all going on with the Smile House, okay, we are now into November. The grand reopening for the State Theater had just happened, and that was another, you know, media blitz for Joe Luginbill. There was wonderful coverage of it in local media talking about this big grand opening. There was lots of people of note there, politicians. On October 9th, just two days before that, Joe had gotten a $10,000 bill for the State Theater for Excel Energy costs. He not only proceeds with a grand reopening of the State Theater with a $10,000 debt, but he then proceeds to have a meeting and go ahead with a Smile House project, claiming he has $175,000 for it. All the while, on the back burner, is the reality that he cannot pay the Excel energy bill.

So now we're into November. The crew starts doing their demo work. She gets, as a result of being the project lead here, office space in the state theater. That's maybe you know the first-

Tyler: Joe moves his project manager into an office in the State Theater that, not only is he managing, but she was the one who did the painting and notably nothing else. And then he moved her into an office with intermittent lights, no heat, she said she had to use the WiFi from the LGBTQ+ group because the charter bill hadn't been paid.

Jodie:  Yep.

November 19th, there was a demo work day. There was a photographer there. There were volunteers from Starbucks, quite a few employees, like for two hour shifts. Maybe there was eight or ten on that list. Joe shows up at the work site with this box, and he opens it quite ceremoniously, and inside of it is a statue of Mother Teresa, along with a laminated card that has a quote on it, and a piece of her habit cloth. Like you have a little tiny bit of one of Mother Teresa's robes. Something like this.

Tyler:  Like the way I got a piece of the rock from Crazy Horse, you get a little souvenir. You get a little piece of Mother Teresa for yourself. He presents this along with-

Jodie: -The good news, which is-

Tyler: -That he has secured a generous amount of funding from the Mother Teresa Foundation.

Jodie:  It was their biggest donor. The Smile House’s biggest donor was the Mother Teresa Foundation. So what is the Mother Teresa Foundation?

Tyler: This is from the Mother Teresa Foundation's website. Mother Teresa foundation dot org. “The Mother Teresa Foundation embarks on the noble mission to spread love among the poor and bring them to mainstream of life to embrace universal brotherhood. The foundation is dedicated to achieving extraordinary improvements in human life. It strives to quote, ‘promote the well being of humanity in all the aspects.’ Hence, our breadth of support includes the Mother Teresa Medical Foundation, the Mother Teresa Educational program, the mother Teresa Anbu Ilham, which is an orphanage. The Mother Teresa Joy Home is essentially a retirement home that is their upcoming project. The Mother Teresa Foundation is a part of the Mother Teresa Charitable Trust, registered under the Indian Trust Act 1961 with the district registrar of Fan Javur under registration number 2 72 2002.” The Mother Teresa Foundation contact, their address from the website, is in Tamil Nadu in India. The Medical Foundation, Educational Program, the sponsors, the orphanage and the upcoming retirement home are all in towns in India.

Jodie:  How lucky that Joe Luginbill had this dream for the Smile House inspired by a Mother Teresa quote and then the biggest donor to the Smile house is the Mother Teresa Foundation.

Tyler:  Fantastic news. I would put that in a small ornate box.

Jodie:  I would have probably put that in the media.

But Sarah tells us the story. And I'm like, well, you know, what I've got to do is send an email to the Mother Teresa Foundation.

“Hello. I'd like to verify if your organization ever donated a large amount of money to the Luginbill Children's Foundation in Eau Claire, Wisconsin.”

On the 12th, Thursday: “Dear Jodie, Warm greetings from the Mother Teresa Foundation. With reference to your mail of the 11th, please be advised that we have not made any donation to the Luginbill Children's Foundation in Eau Claire, Wisconsin. This is for your kind information. Regards, yours in the service of St. Mother Teresa, A R Savar Yudu, Chairman, Mother Teresa Foundation.”

So there was no donation from the Mother Teresa Foundation. I have no idea where the notion to bring a box, and the statue and the card. I don't know where he got it from. All I know-

Tyler:  you know iit didn't come alongside the check from the Mother Teresa Foundation.

Jodie: Right? Yeah.

On December 5th, there is a Google drive that is shared between Sarah, the homeowner Jake, Joe, and it's a list of receipts, what's been purchased so far and who's responsible for those costs. The things on that list are construction materials reimbursement. That was $618.3. The spreadsheet states that the Luginbill Children's Foundation is responsible for that bill. The homeowner paid for those materials, and he was never reimbursed for it. There was an email from November 15th that Sarah shared with us that indicated they could either do corporate billing with Menards on his behalf, sign him up for corporate billing.

Tyler: But right now, at least when this Google drive is being shared, we did get to see, Joe drew up a list of, like, costs, and it's pretty general. And the only real like number on it was this material cost of 680-some dollars.

Jodie:  Yeah. And the November 15th email I bring up, he said that they could either do corporate building through Menard's, or he could have the homeowner pay, and he would reimburse him. Well, they can't do corporate billing. They can't sign somebody up. This isn't like the fifties, where you could have a tab at the drug store, you know. You have to pay for stuff when you go in Menards.

It's just important to note that he acknowledges that they were supposed to-- He had agreed to pay for these charges one way or another. Not only is it on the receipt spreadsheet, but in this email from November November 15th, he indicates that he is going to pay for those charges.

Tyler: Yeah. And that, worst case scenario, if the homeowner pays for it, I will reimburse them. 

Jodie:  The dumpster is also something that Luginbill Children's Foundation is responsible for, on the receipts Google Drive.

Tyler:  Which they are using, probably from the first day, because they’re demoing and they're throwing stuff in a dumpster.

Jodie:  It was $500 a dump, like filled, and they did it three times, so it was at $1500. Joe had requested that the company, Johnson Rohloff, invoice him at the State Theater. Now, after the third time, Sarah told us that they couldn't do it again. They couldn't dump it again because they hadn't gotten paid for the other times.

Tyler:  And that cost, along with materials--By the way, the materials costs that are being accrued, like, do you get a sense of what those were for?

Jodie:  Yeah, that was for the stuff, like for when the Starbucks workers needed hats and, like, they gave water bottles that said Smile House on it and stuff like that, you know, like for people who helped promotional materials.

Tyler:  But these material costs, and the dumpster, which is in the driveway, are thus far the only thing that Joe Luginbill is financially responsible for currently.

Jodie:  And snow removal. Sarah's friend had agreed to do snow removal when it became necessary with the seasons here in the state, for both the State Theater and the Smile house. He was never paid for those services and still hasn't been paid. At one point, Joe had indicated that maybe the workers at the Smile House location could just shovel and offset those costs.

Tyler: In any case, like these relatively small charges compared to a $175,000 budget. The only things he's responsible for are not getting paid, and everyone's kind of still giving him the benefit of the doubt throughout this month of November into December. Also, he's hard to get a hold of during this time. The homeowner, Sarah, they're trying to get hold of him and he's in D.C. a lot throughout a lot of this, and I assume a lot of it is chalked up to “Hey, I'm out of town. like I'll take care of it. But-”

Jodie:  Teah, that was also why she said that she wasn't as panicked because it was like, “Well, he's out of town a lot. He'll get to this stuff when he gets to it.”

The demo is getting near done, and the only way they can move forward with this crew that's paid through the government funded employment program-- not paid by Joe-- is to get materials. They need stuff to do more than just demo.

Tyler:  They're waiting for materials and money to take the next steps.

Jodie: Around the same time, Jake, the homeowner, is getting nervous. He's been told that Joe was two months behind on rent at the State Theater, and that's $2500 a month. Joe’s starting to become more unavailable. Again, Sarah reasons with Jake and says, “Well, he's been out of town for two months. That's probably why he's behind on this stuff.” because she wants to believe this guy's heart is in a good place.

Tyler:  Yeah, “It's a frustrating setback that-”

Jodie:  Yeah. “Give this guy a break. Don't be nervous. It's all gonna work out.” At the same time, though, on top of doing this project lead at the Smile House, Sarah is also trying to save the state in her own way. She starts asking Joe in emails she showed us, “Hey, I want to get a bunch of really nice photos taken of these spaces. I want to get more aggressive with renting these out.”

Tyler:  I don't think this was ever like an official job duty of hers except in so far as she had an interest in the State Theater succeeding. And Joe probably needed the help. And so she was offering to do her part to turn this other property around as well.

Jodie: She invested $700 of her own money into a dance studio space. She had secured things like yoga and other activities like that to go on in the space.

Tyler: Yeah, she spent the money and built like a studio. The dance studio got built, right? Because they took photos of it.

Jodie:  Yes, and she, it was her money. She spent her own money to do this because she just wanted, she thought it would be a really great space. And also we must remember, the success of the State Theater was dependent upon nonprofits in such being in the space and paying rent. This is not her primary job, but she has an office in the space.

Tyler:  In addition to, like, the money she spent and the work she did, like, building the dance studio she mentioned, while she was there working, she would just be cleaning up because the interior still had to be turned around. And so she was doing that in her spare time.

Jodie: Yeah. There were a few groups that Joe had mentioned, in regards to the State Theater, moving in. And one of them was like a drop in center of some kind. I don't want to name the groups, but she listed them and she reached out to them to just find out what the arrangement was, or when that was gonna happen. Well, they said that he had offered the space for free, which on its surface is like, well, bless his heart. He's so benevolent, he's offering the space for free. Except for that, he can't afford that. The whole idea is not to give free space here, unfortunately. There's $2500 a month that he is responsible for at the least.

I wonder if some of that has to do with him just feeling the need to keep up the appearance of “Oh, I'll just give it to you, you know?”

Tyler:  Yeah. I wonder how much of it is, he needs them in there, but he probably can't expect them to pay rent in his condition. So maybe he never got that far. But like, get them to agree to come in. Hey, you do it for free. It's coming together. Money will be is somewhere kind of in the near future where all this exists.

Jodie: Yeah. She also had more time to do this sort of stuff because they were running out of stuff to do at the Smile House. The demo was done. They didn't have money to go forward. They didn't have the Menards big card. They didn't have any sort of promise as to how they could have money to move forward. So she has time to start investing in this other stuff, right?

And this is a 14 week paid job experience, that this program does, with the hope that the people who do the project are successful and the employer goes, “Hey, you did great. I'd like to hire you on” which I'm sure these people involved at some point, we're hoping like, “Hey, there's clearly a lot of work to do here beyond 14 weeks at the Smile House. This could be a paid job opportunity beyond our paid work experience.” Well, that's coming to an end.

Sarah starts doing everything she can to make sure that her crew gets the full work experience. She gets them certified in OSHA 10, which takes like a week. So they do this certification while they're waiting around, hoping that all of this is going to come together and that, you know, there's something for them to do.

Tyler:  Yeah, the pinch of all this time and the lack of time and money is all coming to like, a head. And she's trying to keep these guys around long enough for Joe to answer an enail.

Jodie: Meanwhile, we've got a homeowner wondering what's going on with this house right now. We're circling back to where we started this story. We're back at January 22nd, 10:01 AM. This is an email that Sarah read to us verbatim, to Joe. “We are at a complete standstill with the Smile House. There's a dumpster on the property that's costing us $10 a day.” The company has come looking for Joe at the State Theater. The Smile House was gutted fully the week before. It's now been winterized because there's no insulation in the house. There's no need to have electricity if there's no work going on there. So the homeowner winterized it so that the pipes won't burst or anything like that. But it's just standing there, completely empty. Waiting for something happened. Her estimated costs that you had mentioned on that spreadsheet were $90,000. At the beginning of all of this, Joe said he had $175,000 to put towards that.

Tyler: And the donations.

Jodie: Yeah the Mother Teresa Foundation donation. She references again the Menards big card, wants to know what the status of that is, because at this point, what they need to go forward is a credit card.

Tyler:  This big card by the way, because Joe is insisting that it should show up soon. At some point, she goes ahead and calls Menards to ask what the status is of this card, and is told by Menard's that it doesn't exist. It's never been applied for. It's not, it's not in transit, it doesn't--He's never applied for it. And it's not a thing. It doesn't exist.

Jodie:  All of this promised money. And they're now in a place where she simply is just wondering about the credit card, because there's no actual cash or checks being given.

Tyler:  It's pretty stunning. The project would have never gotten this far had it not been for a crew that was paid for by somebody other than the Children's foundation. Everything else is waiting on a credit card, or a check, or any indication that there is money, and they've made it three months or whatever this is January 22nd. This is the day the State theater is gonna get its electricity cut, and she's finally asking for, like, we need money.

Jodie:  This Smile House would have never been gutted. There would be it would have stood as it was, maybe for the better because now it's gutted. None of that would have happened without that crew from the government funded employment program. If he can't pay, what is it? $618.03 for materials to give more volunteer labor hard hats, then there's no way he could have paid a crew.

Tyler:  and out the other side of his mouth is encouraging Sarah to build this dance studio with her money, offering space in the State Theater for free, but also, yeah, when any time she gets a hold of him, he is confident that in his statements it's really clear that the money's here. “It seems like there's been, Oh, this is inconvenient. Let's just put that over here, like, put that on like on the corporate, like, to the big card Did the big card show up yet?” He speaks with confidence of somebody who knows this money is here. It's like a oversight, that like, “Oh, oh, that's weird that you didn't--”

Jodie: I mean, he's speaking to her like he's literally spoken to everybody else about every single project.

Tyler: That’s a more succinct way to put it, yes.

And at the same time, offering space in the State Theater for free. The one sort of measurable thing, by her perspective, that he might be doing to make money. He's doing the exact opposite.

Jodie:  Yeah, she tells them that the subcontractors need money and supplies, and then she points out specifically, “We've done 500 hours of labor at no cost to you.” That's a lot of labor. She indicates she's starting to wonder where the project is at. “This is the first time I've asked about financials.” Her email is very pointed. Pretty much immediately following this email she sends, she gets a call from her friend who does the snow removal for the properties and, he says, “Excel’s going to shut off the power today.”

Do you remember when she was talking about how she called Excel? And, of course, because the account is in Joe Luginbill’s name and not hers. They couldn't give her any information about it, but she was like, “Can you at least give me some indicator of where this dollar amount is, like hot or cold, like 5000, cold. 10,000? You're getting kind of warm.”

This was the first that she knew about this being a problem, and she knows that she has to find a way to reach Joe immediately.

She knows that his dad works at a local middle school, Delong, and she goes there to find him.

Tyler:  Joe is in D.C. at the time?

Jodie: Yeah, well, Dennis, his dad, is at lunch. She's told that his dad takes his lunch at home. She knows where they live. She goes to their home. Dennis isn't there, but Joe's mom is there. Theresa. And she says to Theresa, “There's at least a $10,000 Excel energy bill that's not been paid by Joe for the State Theater. They are shutting off the power today. Joe needs to know about this.” And his mom's response to this is “I can't bail him out this time.”

Well, Sarah then emails Joe again with a picture of the disconnect notice and says “They are disconnecting the power today.” Her email earlier in the day had been about the Smile House. It had been what's going on with that then, all of a sudden, because she has office space at the State Theater, she has thrown into this situation as being the person that's trying to reach him to get this figured out. He writes her back in an email and says that he's in a meeting and he'll call her back as soon as he can. Which he does, he tells her, “My biggest donor at the State Theater dropped out,” unclear who that is and then says, “Yeah, I just can't be part of the state anymore.”

Tyler: Oh! Okay.

Jodie: Yeah, to have all of this stress and anxiety, Sarah's a very smart woman, and you realize that if they're shutting off the power at the State Theater, well, what's to become of the Smile House? She had been promised a job after this experience that was paid for through the government program. She was getting like, 27 hours a week, $14 an hour, and there was a promise that after that ended, she would have a full time job working for Joe. He had also told her what--

Tyler: He had told her that, because while she's working this project manager hours, she has her child in daycare--

Jodie: For the hours that her child's not a head start. He tells her that after the work experience, to just not worry about the daycare, because the hours could be flexible, that she could bring her daughter to work with her on the days, like, when she would just be working out of her office at the State Theater. This would be the kind of job where it would be flexible. Just drop those costs if you're worried about, you know, if it's more hours, or if you're gonna lose certain benefits or something, that the cost of dropping the daycare would offset maybe some of those other costs. I know she had a paper I saw where she was kind of doing a comparison of, you know, how she could make this all work. If I don't have to pay the daycare, then I can, you know, this will be able to work for me this way.

Tyler:  But in essence, Joe ensures her that it won't be a problem once she's working for him. Because the hours will be flexible and there's no need for her to be paying daycare costs. She can just take her daughter out of daycare, that it will work out better this way.

Jodie:  Yep. So she does that. She had taken her daughter out of daycare. Well now, not that her project was the state theater, right? So him saying he doesn't want to be part of the state Theater doesn't--She's not working at the State Theater, but she's already had to send emails saying the project’s at a standstill. Then suddenly she's watching this crumble.

Tyler: I imagine that's the moment when you realize how much money you haven't seen all at once.

Jodie: Yeah, and the realization that none of these things are going to come to fruition.

So now, shortly after this, she has no job out of nowhere. No daycare. When we spoke to her, she had just started a new job. She talked about how, after this experience, the job she is doing now is an independent job. And after this experience, she was really hesitant to trust an employer again because of what happened.

Tyler:  And also worried that this, the Smile House is now a stain, instead of what should have been an incredible career boost. Now it's a black mark on anything she does going forward.

Jodie: Yep.

Tyler: Joe deciding to be like “you know what, I think I'd like to step away,” is, you know, true to form for him. But to have such a measurable impact on the people who were helping him the most as he's walking out the door is-

Jodie: The really rough part about this story is, as I'm sure everyone listening has probably already thought, and we've touched on it, is the fact that he picked up this project when the State Theater was already crumbling under the surface. So it's making more promises to, first, a crew of people that were hoping to get a great work experience, and again using the promise of helping a vulnerable population to get you in the news. But then never following through with it. So all of these people who were enthusiastically, we could see, offering their time and their talents--all of these things because they so wanted to see this project come to fruition.

On top of all of this, what we did not talk about, is the fact that this homeowner now has a fully gutted house that you cannot just sell to anybody.

Tyler:  Yeah, and it will come as no surprise that Joe's one page contract did not protect the homeowner from financial fallout if something like this happened.

Jodie:  Yeah, you know the description when the house was briefly for sale, said “Home has been gutted out. Come and finish it up. No lights in the property. Please do not show at night.”

And certainly we’re telling this story because this is Sarah's story. But this homeowner is suffering greatly. And is struggling as a result of this, just the sheer recklessness of taking people's lives and having no regard for what his lies, what the long term impact is, is really, really rough. To have her sit here, and she gave up her daycare, and was hoping to have this great job opportunity. And he promises these things to her, knowing that he's never going to be able to deliver on that.

Tyler: This was made possible by, like, he didn't just grift people because, yeah, like you said, nobody would sign on to work with someone who had this much baggage. Like the reason he got away with it is because of, like, what she fell for: everybody was buying into the blanket lie that follows Joe Luginbill’s name. The first to do all these incredible progressive things in Eau Claire, everyone was happy to be associated with him.

Jodie: Yeah, and again, this was going to be the first of its kind, which is also something that you see a lot in his endeavors. Is the first, “I’m the first of this. I'm the youngest, you know, elected official in the city.”

Tyler: It drove this so much farther than it would any with anybody else, because people gave him the benefit of the doubt for so long, no one would ever think there's actually no money behind any of this.

Jodie: Right.

And what's remarkable is that people who have been impacted by him--Sarah will be okay. She started a new job. But you're just different, and this is like a traumatic event that has happened.

Tyler: Which is, I think, something she told us. Like the idea of-- beyond the financial and job stuff, the idea of the person that you thought you knew was this plastic cover over something very different.

Jodie: Yeah, so that's the story of the Smile House.

Luginbilled is presented by cool and unusual punishment. Research and interviewing by me, Jodie Arnold. This episode was edited and mixed by Tyler Haas. Music by Rick Deckert, AG music, and Xavly. Interview clips from the “Spirit in Action Podcast.” Special thanks this week to Sarah Strunk for speaking with us. Our website, where you can listen to past episodes and find links to the material and documents we referenced is cool and unusual punishment dot com.