Bruce Murphy
Murphy’s Law

John Doe II Is Anything But Partisan

Scott Walker’s defenders call the probe a partisan witch hunt. But newly released court documents say otherwise.

By - Feb 4th, 2014 01:17 pm
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Gov. Scott Walker

Gov. Scott Walker

Over and over, supporters of Gov. Scott Walker have contended that the second John Doe probe is just a partisan “witch hunt.” But newly released court documents, made public with the consent of all parties to the investigation, provide information showing this is a bipartisan effort. They also offer a fascinating look at the role of Attorney General J.B Van Hollen and how he delayed the investigation, which apparently centers on alleged coordination between third party conservative funding groups and Walker’s gubernatorial campaign during the 2012 recall election.

Conservative attack dogs like talk radio’s Charlie Sykes have hammered the idea that this is a partisan investigation led by Democratic Milwaukee County District Attorney John Chisholm. But the court documents show that four other district attorneys are co-investigators in this effort: Jane Kohlwey of Columbia County, a Republican; Kurt Klomberg of Dodge County, a Republican; Larry Nelson of Iowa County, a Democrat; and Ismael Ozanne of Dane County, a Democrat.

Are we supposed to believe that Chisholm is some sort of svengali who was able to hypnotize these Republican DAs into joining a fraudulent investigation against the most powerful politician in the state, not to mention the formidable and well-funded conservative third party groups that are also being investigated? (Groups, it should also be noted, who seem to have the full support of the powerful Wall Street Journal in their efforts to demonize Chisholm and company).

On the contrary, these two Republican DAs would have to know they could kill their careers by signing onto a flimsy case that didn’t look likely to issue any charges. In the current, polarized environment in Wisconsin, it would be political suicide for them to sign on to any investigation that didn’t look very solid indeed.

And if this investigation was so blatantly partisan, why would they try to get a Republican Attorney General — Van Hollen — to lead it?

And if the case was so obviously suspect, why didn’t Van Hollen simply turn it down? Instead he took nearly five months to come to a decision.

And when he did finally decide against taking on the investigation, his reasons for doing so were fascinating. In his letter to Chisholm, Van Hollen indicated he might have a conflict of interest, given “the dynamic nature of a campaign financing investigation that could foreseeably involve individuals with whom I have relationships.” In short, some of the same folks working to help Walker in the recall election may have helped Van Hollen’s campaign in the past.

Van Hollen also suggested that since he was a partisan official, that might make his work suspect. He suggested Chisholm and company consider working with the state Government Accountability Board, which “as a non-partisan entity…may inspire more public confidence than an investigation led by partisan officials.”

But as Van Hollen surely knows, Republicans have for some time been attacking the GAB, accusing it of partisan bias, even though its creation was done through a bipartisan legislative effort and even though its board of retired judges has a majority of one with a Republican background.

The GAB also presented other problems as noted in a letter from the five DAs working on the investigation to Judge Barbara Kluka asking her to appoint a special prosecutor. “The Attorney General,” they write, “does not address the fact that — to the extent  this is a criminal investigation — the GAB is no substitute for a statewide criminal justice authority. Plain and simple the GAB lacks authority to criminally prosecute anyone.”

Moreover, they complain, the attorney general “also does not resolve the problem that caused Milwaukee prosecutors to refer the matter to him in the first instance. That is, the investigation was referred to avoid the fracturing of the investigation and prosecution across the offices of five local prosecutors.”

That has caused inefficiency and slowed down the investigation, they complain.

As a result, the prosecutors asked her to appoint a special prosecutor and suggested Francis Schmitz. Once again, the investigators were doing their best to avoid the appearance of partisanship. Schmitz is a thirty-year federal prosecutor who worked for 20 years as an assistant U.S. Attorney in the Milwaukee office and had been one of President George W. Bush’s final three recommended candidates to become the U.S. Attorney for Milwaukee. Schmitz wouldn’t have been on the list if Republicans believed he leaned Democratic.

The conservative Wisconsin Reporter quotes an unnamed source who claims Schmitz was chosen because they think “his anti-terror experience will intimidate. I don’t think it’s too much to say it is designed to terrify some people.”

That characterization was contradicted by a Republican-leaning observer of the Milwaukee U.S. Attorney’s office, who told me that Schmitz was something of a weakling who was unlikely to lead an aggressive investigation.

But Joe Wall, another assistant U.S. Attorney and colleague of Schmitz for many years, told the Wisconsin Reporter that the two of them worked together on a highly- complicated case putting in 20-hour days, which seems to belie the weakling image. On the other hand, Schmitz has no experience in election law or First Amendment issues, which are likely to be at issue in the John Doe probe.

In short, it’s anyone guess just how good a job Schmitz will do, but he’s clearly anything but a partisan Democrat.

As for Chisholm’s office, it’s worth remembering that the first John Doe probe convicted six people of crimes, including three staff members of Walker, from his time as Milwaukee County Executive, all charged with doing campaign work on government time. Tim Russell, former deputy chief of staff to Walker, pleaded guilty to stealing from a veterans fund, but also had regular phone contact with campaign operatives, helped publish a pro-Walker campaign blog and helped conduct opposition political research for Walker’s bid for governor.

Kelly Rindfleisch, another Walker aide, was sentenced to six months in jail for campaign fundraising at the courthouse and using a secret email system located 25 feet from Walker’s office. The system allowed staff to evade open records requests and leave no trail of their campaigning on county time. Darlene Wink, Walker’s constituent services coordinator, pleaded guilty to two misdemeanors for doing campaign work while on the county clock.

All of which suggests Walker tolerated staff who illegally campaigned on government time. Though Walker insisted he was not a target of the investigation, he hired two top-level criminal defense lawyers to represent him.

So one could imagine prosecutors continuing to look for evidence that Walker was breaking campaign laws. Just as Walker had an overlap between his county staff and gubernatorial campaign, in the recall election 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. One of the five counties included in the second probe is Columbia County, where Johnson lives.

As I’ve written previously, the prosecutions in John Doe I were quite similar to the legislative caucus investigation of 2002, which convicted five legislators and several staff members from both parties for campaigning on government time paid for by the taxpayers.

Conservatives have repeatedly questioned why the investigators haven’t looked at Democratic campaigns, ignoring the fact that the second probe arose out of the first. If prosecutors investigating Walker’s staff saw further evidence of wrong doing, were they supposed to hold off a probe until they found some Democrats to go after?

The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel has fallen for this conservative complaint, noting repeatedly in its stories that the newspaper “has not turned up any Democratic candidates or liberal interest groups involved in the recall elections that have been contacted by John Doe prosecutors.”

Now that the released documents show the investigators include two Republican prosecutors, the newspaper has stopped repeating this statement, for obvious reasons. When you look back at how they investigators have proceeded they have at every turn sought to make this a bipartisan investigation.

As to whether the investigation will succeed, that’s another question. The recent decision by the Wisconsin Court of Appeals refusing to kill the investigation means it will continue. But lawyers for the well-funded conservative groups fighting the investigation are likely to appeal this decision to the conservative-leaning Wisconsin Supreme Court, which could decide otherwise.

Meanwhile, retired Appeals Judge Gregory A. Peterson, who replaced Kluka as the judge overseeing the investigation, issued a ruling on January 10 which quashed subpoenas to conservative groups supporting Walker. Schmitz reportedly intends to appeal Peterson’s decision, which has seriously undercut the investigation.

Schmitz faces a formidable foe in Walker’s attorney, former Milwaukee U.S. Attorney Steven Biskupic, who was very aggressive running that office and oversaw numerous John Doe investigations of politicians. Biskupic knows exactly how these investigations are run, and will probe for every weak point.

As the Journal Sentinel has reported, Walker paid nearly $200,000 to Michael Best & Friedrich back when Biskupic worked for the firm, and has since spent more than $86,000 in 2013, which went to Biskupic’s new firm, headed by him and Michelle Jacobs.

All told, Walker has spent more than $700,000 on lawyers representing him in the two probes. Given the gazillions he is garnering in campaign funds, he will be able to continue paying these retainers. The conservative groups under the microscope are also spending heavily on attorneys.

Meanwhile they will continue to hammer the idea that they are victims of a partisan investigation, while leaking documents to the Wall Street Journal in an attempt to embarrass the investigators. I can’t ever recall the subjects of a John Doe probe so flagrantly defying it. Normally the investigators are the intimidators, but they are increasingly being put on the defensive. In such a climate it would have been difficult for Biskupic to prosecute the many Democratic politicians he did. By the reasoning of Walker’s defenders, Biskupic was simply a Republican partisan pursuing a witch hunt against Democrats.

13 thoughts on “Murphy’s Law: John Doe II Is Anything But Partisan”

  1. Chris Byhre says:

    Typical hyperbole and leftist ranting from Bruce. Conservative talkers on the radio are “attack dogs” Bruce?? While I realize that your sphere of influence is minuscule by comparison to Charlie Sykes, but wouldn’t that make you a frothing Chihuahua for the left? Walker hired good attorneys and is spending a lot of money on this. Isn’t that what a smart person would do? Who would go out of their way to hire a bad, cheap attorney Bruce? You don’t seem nearly as interested in finding out how much tax payer money is being spent on these John Doe probes, why is that?

  2. Leonidas says:

    Informative, well-researched and balanced in terms of the reason for the probe’s request. It elicits a response from Byhre that seems to support the reasoning for the probe. He doesn’t know the meaning of the words he uses. Hyperbole means exaggerated claims, not to be taken literally. The column reports claims made for an investigation by four DA’s and the claims must be taken literally for legal pursuit. Ranting means to speak at length in a loud and wild manner. The column follows and reflects proper journalistic, editorial and writing skills. It is neither wild nor loud, rather it is a reasoned summary. Perhaps it is too long for Byhre but not for most readers. Hiring a good lawyer is what a smart, a dumb, a guilty, or an innocent person would do. John Doe probes are part of the political/legal system, providing a method to maintain fairness and for a fair settling of claims if there is wrongdoing. Byhre implies that money is more important then doing the right thing. Murphy raises questions, provides insight, and surfaces the facts. Thus, allowing the reader to make an informed decision. Sykes tries to influence his audience without a balanced approach to the matter. For those who understand no explanation is necessary, for those like Byhre no explanation is possible.

  3. Wisconsin Conservative Digest says:

    Murphy, you are a riot. Even the village idiot, Dimitirjevic knows that it is a partisan witch hunt. Next you will be telling us that pope has converted to muslim.
    Where is their investigation of the Left during Recall. They were coordinating all over place. Alberta/Pasch? They shared officers with other groups. The Unions have coordinated for years.
    We have made many complaints over years and McCann laughed at us, then went to church and confessions.

  4. JOHN DOE says:

    Typical Pooh Poohing by the rightwing nutbags running scared.

  5. Winston Smith says:

    Ummm, partisan? Who are they investigating, besides “John Doe”? It could be the entire Democratic Party, as far as we know. Perhaps Republicans are reactionary because they’re scared?

  6. Chris Byhre says:

    Leonidas, I am well aware of the meaning of the words I used and used them in their proper context. Your arrogance and staunch defense of Murphy somehow clouded your ability to comprehend what I wrote. I referred to the hyperbole of Murphy and his writings (example “attack dogs) as he often uses it to gin up emotions when he feels his argument is not sufficient. I was not referring to the John Doe. I never implied that money was more important then doing the right thing, I simply stated that the Democrat DA of Milwaukee has refused to disclose how much taxpayer money has been used on these probes. You like to pontificate (go ahead and look it up in your dictionary) about other people that you know nothing about while hiding like a scared child behind a pseudonym.

  7. Andy says:

    Does it really matter if it’s partisan or not? As soon as the information started leaking about the first John Doe investigation it stopped mattering whether it was or not. Whether it was or not, the fact that it was now in the media and being portrayed one way or another it is now being used for partisan reasons.

    I can’t blame Republicans for going on the attack with John Doe 2, considering the beating they took by all the misleading publicity on the first investigation. I think we all know it was only a matter of time before information was leaked once again.

    I think there should be an investigation into who is leaking this information. They are John Doe investigations for a reason. Whether these investigations are looking at Republicans or Democrats, or green party members, the fact that it became public destroyed much of the principle behind this type of investigation.

    Not to mention the court of public opinion. Even innocent bystanders who get caught in the investigation can be permanently harmed in the eyes of the public by having their names associated with these types of investigations.

    Not to mention that we better have a real good reason for following through on these investigations. The original was started by the Walker administration themselves and quickly grew well beyond the original scope. Was there probable cause for this? Or are we wasting tax dollars for political reasons?

  8. Katy says:

    If the groups in question are allowed to coordinate or we risk infringing on their First Amendment rights, than Citizans United is unlawful or perhaps unconstitutional. By using this legislation to avoid disclosure and paying taxes, our “victims” do not generate any pitty or sympathy from me.

  9. Will Pipkin says:

    I would like to see more comments from Chris Bhyre. I find his/her writing entertaining. I want to submit those posts to my sister-in-law, who teaches writing to 8th graders. She is a great arbiter of what is and isn’t hyperbole. She also has little patience for writing that misses the subject. Furthermore she has little tolerance for inflammatory word-smithery.

    It is easy to disparage a secret investigation as a witch hunt, or as a waste of money — or to undermine it by leaking documents. In doing so the accusers and leakers distract the public from the real issue at hand: possible crimes against the public interest being investigated by public servants.

    Bhyre misses the point of Murphy’s piece. The evidence that the John Doe investigation is being fairly handled is pretty overwhelming. No amount of ranting by conservatives changes that fact.

  10. Chris Byhre says:

    Gee Will, having my writing judged by someone as brilliant as yourself and your sister in law is truly an honor. Could you please forward everything I have posted to her? Maybe if I am lucky she could share some of her vast knowledge with me. Although, as a teacher, we know she is over worked and underpaid and would have a hard time fitting it into her very busy schedule. I happen to disagree with your contention that the John Doe is being handled fairly and simply (not simple enough for you apparently) tried to point out in my first post that Murphy does not approach this or any other story from anything but a lefty perspective. He tears down Conservative “attack dogs” but he is simply their counterpart on the far left. The John Doe will go on and eventually, most likely right after Scott Walker’s re-election, I think it will end with a whimper like the last one did.

  11. Justin says:

    Excellent investigative piece (AGAIN) Bruce, but I think you have missed the bigger point.

    Scott Walker and every Republican politician in Wisconsin are ABOVE the law. There are NO laws that apply to him or his rich contributors.

    Wisconsin is the most corrupt state in America. No other state is even close.

    ..And your closing comment about Steve Biskupic. One name: Georgia Thompson. Biskupic’s witch hunt destroyed this innocent woman’s life, threw her in jail….. WHY? To give the Republican money machine the “goods” on Jim Doyle so they could spend over 1 million dollars on attack ads in order to get Republican candidate Mark Green elected in 2006. Georgia Thompson is lucky that the Republicans didn’t have her killed while in jail. Biskupic should have been arrested and prosecuted for what he did to Georgia Thompson.

    Not much of a coincidence that Biskupic now represents Scott Walker. Corrupt to the core should be Wisconsin’s new motto.

  12. Steve says:

    For over a year now the interested public has known RJ Johnson ran both the Walker campaign and Wisconsin Club for Growth. I can’t for the life of me understand how he didn’t violate campaign laws. He can not set up a firewall in his brain so when he purchases 500 points of television for a Walker commercial on jobs and then goes out and has WI CfG do radio ads touting Walker’s pledge to create 250,000 jobs, isn’t that campaign colusion?

  13. Keith says:

    The title of the article seems correct as laid out by the author. Outside of the support for journalistic skills by one reader, I like what Andy had to say; makes the most sense.

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