New Probe is Big Trouble for Walker
Both the first and second John Doe have focused on his campaigns, suggesting a disturbing pattern.
Back in March, retired Appeals Court Judge Neal Nettesheim announced the John Doe probe that focused on the former staff of County Executive Scott Walker had shut down. Supporters of Walker declared he had been “vindicated” and the probe’s completion proved he did nothing wrong.
In fact, it would appear the investigation had simply veered into a new direction, beginning in February 2012, a month before the first John Doe ended. But it was still aimed at the campaign operations of Walker. Last month we learned from Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reporter Dan Bice that Milwaukee County Assistant District Attorney Bruce Landgraf, who started the first probe, has been investigating “all over the place.” Langraf apparently appointed Francis Schmitz — who spent nearly 30 years as a federal prosecutor — to lead the new John Doe probe and Kenosha County Circuit Judge Barbara A. Kluka to oversee the case.
We’ve since learned from a Wall Street Journal editorial that Schmitz has subpoened 29 different conservative groups, including state and national organizations, and appears to be focused on campaign contributions to the 2011 and 2012 campaigns to recall Gov. Walker and state legislative leaders. Mike McCabe, executive director of the Wisconsin Democracy Campaign, told the Wisconsin State Journal the investigation appears to be zeroing in on whether so-called issue ads by outside groups illegally coordinated with political campaigns to help boost candidates.
Radio talker Charlie Sykes, the Pavlov’s dog of Republican talking points, immediately called the probe “a witch hunt.”
In short, the probe has frightened Sykes and conservatives, and with good reason. Schmitz is a highly regarded prosecutor who was once considered for the job of U.S. Attorney. And there appears to be a pattern here of Walker merging his government and political work.
Remember, the first John Doe charged six people with crimes, all of whom took plea deals rather than fight it in court. Three of the six were staff of Walker, all charged with doing campaign work on government time.
Tim Russell, a former deputy chief of staff to Walker, pleaded guilty to stealing more than $21,000 from a veterans fund, but in a sentencing memo, Landgraf said Russell had spent large amounts of time while at his county jobs doing political work. Russell had regular phone contact with campaign operatives, helped publish a pro-Walker campaign blog called “ScottForGov” and helped conduct opposition political research for Walker’s bid for governor, all while on the county clock, according to Landgraf.
Kelly Rindfleisch, another aide to County Executive Walker, was sentenced to six months in jail for campaign fundraising at the courthouse using a secret email system installed there.
Darlene Wink, Walker’s constituent services coordinator at the county, pleaded guilty to two misdemeanors for doing campaign work while on county time.
At the very least, these convictions call into question Walker’s judgment in hiring staff. Some Republicans have suggested to me that Russell was ethically challenged. He had been fired in 1993 from a job with the Wisconsin Housing and Economic Development Authority for improperly charging the agency for his stay at a hotel. It was Russell who set up secret email system in his office which was less than 25 feet from Walker’s office and “had to be set up with the express purpose of getting around open records requests and doing illegal campaign activity from the county executive’s offices,” as conservative blogger James Wigderson once wrote.
As for Rindfleisch, she had been threatened with prosecution and granted immunity in the legislative caucus scandal a decade ago. This is a person with long experience illegally working on political campaigns while being paid by government. Yet she gets hired by the Walker administration and is apparently never told not to campaign; instead it looks like she was hired for that purpose. She went to work for Walker at the county at the beginning of his run for governor and left the county less than two weeks after he was elected governor. Although employed full time by the county, Rindfleisch told people she was working half time on political campaigns.
As for Wink, she officially worked for Walker as his constituent services coordinator, but was actually working on his gubernatorial campaign. After her campaign activities were found out, she resigned
All of which suggests Walker at the very least tolerated staff who campaigned on government time, which is illegal. Throughout the first John Doe, Walker insisted he was not a target of the investigation, but he hired two top-level criminal defense lawyers – Michael Steinle of Milwaukee and John Gallo of Chicago – to represent him and paid them nearly $200,000 from a defense fund he created.
So yes, one could imagine investigators continuing to look for evidence that Walker was breaking campaign laws. Just as Walker had an overlap between his county staff and his gubernatorial campaign, in the recall election for governor he had an overlap between his campaign and an independent third party group: R.J. Johnson was an adviser to both Walker’s campaign and the Wisconsin Club for Growth. (Johnson declined to comment to the State Journal about the probe.)
The new probe seems to concern potential coordination — which could be illegal if it occurred — between the Walker campaign and third party groups.
According to the Wall Street Journal story, special prosecutor Schmitz “has hit dozens of conservative groups with subpoenas demanding documents related to the 2011 and 2012 campaigns to recall Governor Walker and state legislative leaders.” The subpoenas demand “all memoranda, email . . . correspondence, and communications” related to the campaigns from such groups as the League of American Voters, Wisconsin Family Action, Wisconsin Manufacturers & Commerce, Americans for Prosperity—Wisconsin, American Crossroads, the Republican Governors Association, Friends of Scott Walker and the Republican Party of Wisconsin.
One target of the subpoena is Eric O’Keefe, director of the Wisconsin Club for Growth, which advocates lower taxes and limited government. He told the Wall Street Journal that “at least three of the targets had their homes raided at dawn, with law-enforcement officers turning over belongings to seize computers and files.”
The publication also speculated that there might be involvement by the Government Accountability Board, which oversees elections in Wisconsin. “A person who has seen one of the Wisconsin search warrants tells us that the warrants were executed based on the request of Dean Nickel, who filed an affidavit for probable cause. Mr. Nickel is a former head of the Wisconsin Department of Justice Public Integrity Unit and has worked as an investigator for the GAB. Mr. Nickel told us he is a contractor for the GAB but wouldn’t discuss the John Doe probe. GAB Director and General Counsel Kevin Kennedy declined to comment.”
That might help explain why Walker and the Republicans threw longtime Republican and retired Court of Appeals judge David Deininger off the Government Accountability Board. Though the majority of board members are Republicans, GOP lawmakers have still been complaining that the board is too hard on Republican politicians.
The last time I checked, the duty of prosecutors was to investigate when they suspect crimes are occurring. The first probe successfully nabbed six wrongdoers. That is not an attack on free speech, but a criminal investigation.
Nonetheless you can expect the attack dogs on the right to try to pressure the investigators to quit. Sykes told his listeners the John Doe was “an assault on free speech” but also admitted “we don’t know what they’re looking for.” That, in a nutshell, exposes the hole in their argument.
The right wing is also trying to scare the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel and columnist Dan Bice away from covering the probe. The Wall Street Journal piece declared that “Mr. Bice is well known for his Democratic sources.” True, but he’s just as well known for his Republican sources. For some reason they left that out of the story.
In a piece that also called the probe a witchhunt, conservative blogger George Mitchell offered a piece that more or less predicts the JS and Bice will back down from covering the new probe. I doubt it.
Update November 20, 9:30 a.m.: As the Journal Sentinel reported today, Judge Kluka has recused herself from the case and it is now being overseen by retired Appeals Court Judge Gregory Peterson.