Did Gov. Walker Have a Secret Email System?
A Walker administration insider says some staff used private emails and personal laptops in the office.
In an interview Monday, Gov. Scott Walker told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel there is no private email system in the governor’s office. That’s his take on how his office is run now, but it leaves open the question: did he have a secret email system in his early days as governor?
We now know his county executive office had staff members campaigning on government time and a private email system they used to keep these activities secret, protected from any public records requests. Walker has refused to say whether he knew of or personally used the secret email system, but in some of the emails he appears to be aware of it. So why would he and his staff have changed how they operated once he became governor?
I spoke to a source who was a close observer of the governor’s staff in the state Capitol and who attended numerous meetings with staff. The source describes a system that seemed designed, as the county executive’s office was, to enable staff to do work on government time and evade public records request of any such campaigning, by using personal laptops and gmail accounts.
The source saw “probably half a dozen staff members” who had personal laptops at their desk, including Walker’s personal scheduler Dorothy Moore and his trusted lieutenant Keith Gilkes, both of whom had worked for him at the county. This included gubernatorial staff on the second floor of the East Wing and some in the so-called “Policy Pit” on the first floor below this, where policy analysts for the governor worked.
The source also says a number of Walker’s staff had private email accounts — all using gmail addresses — by which they communicated with each other. The staff was told, the source says, to always use the gmail address of staff to discuss anything political.
That would be fine if the discussions were off the state clock, but on a weekly basis, the source says, the staff had campaign meetings — not just meetings about campaign scheduling, which would be legal, but about campaign strategy.
But in September 2011, FBI agents raided the home of Cindy Archer, who had been Walker’s deputy administration secretary and had also been a top aide to Walker when he was Milwaukee County executive. This signaled that the John Doe investigation was expanding and moving from Milwaukee to Madison.
Around that time, the source says, there was a meeting where the governor’s staff were told to avoid using gmail for anything political and instead “pick up the phone and call” — and don’t leave any written record. But even after that time, the source says, the laptops and gmail accounts were still being used, though perhaps more selectively.
The source was certainly well-placed and attended a political meeting at the governor’s mansion attended by Republican U.S. Senator Ron Johnson, and Congressmen F. James Sensenbrenner, Paul Ryan and Sean Duffy.
Ryan and Johnson were angry because they felt Act 10 was hurting all Republicans, the source says. “They were saying, “you need to tell us is there going to be any Republican campaign operation in Wisconsin other than for Gov. Walker?’”
They were concerned that Walker loyalists appointed to run the Republican Party of Wisconsin, including state chair Brad Courtney, weren’t up to the job.
“There was a lot of tension in the room. Ryan didn’t have a lot of respect for Walker, you could tell.” And Johnson told Walker he should drop his campaign promise to create 250,000 jobs, because it was impossible to achieve.
The source had access to the administration of Gov. Walker for more than a year. As for the allegations, while they paint a portrait that resembles what went on in the county executive’s office, it’s unclear exactly how much campaigning was being done on state time.
There is an inevitable overlap between politics and governing and it is impossible to completely separate them. And as a recent JS analysis notes, the issue of private emails has come up in the administration of President Barack Obama and for other politicians.
But Wisconsin has established a bright line regarding campaigning on public time, with harsh consequences for those who cross it. In 2002 prosecutors launched an investigation of ringleaders in the now-outlawed legislative caucus system, which resulted in convictions of five legislators and several staff members from both parties. The case of star Republican and former Assembly Speaker Scott Jensen, who was essentially barred from public office as a result of the charges against him, stands as a frightening example to other politicians that they would be wise to avoid campaigning or overseeing such activities on government time.
Walker himself conceded that the John Doe investigation which brought convictions against several of his county executive staff resulted in “some charges, which in retrospect seem to be pretty legitimate,” as he put it in yesterday’s JS story.
As for the idea that every politician is campaigning on government time, Walker told the newspaper he doesn’t subscribe to the “everybody does it” defense when it comes to mixing campaign and government work, saying, “if that was the case I wouldn’t have a campaign staff… I mean, I have a pretty elaborate campaign staff.”
But Walker, after his 2010 election, brought much of that campaign staff into the governor’s office. That included Gilkes, Ashlee Moore, Michael Brickman, Joe Fadness, Jonathan Wetzel, Patrick Hogan and Stephan Thompson, all of whom got jobs in his office. (Moore, Fadness, Wetzel and Thompson have since moved on to other jobs).
Nonetheless, Walker insists he has actually been more diligent than past governors on separating politics and governing, to the point where he instructs cabinet secretaries to stay away from politics and leave that to the campaign staff.
Not every state has established such a bright line regarding campaigning on public time, or has as strong a tradition of open records as Wisconsin. That may help explain why the national press has been underwhelmed by the revelations in the 27,000 emails from a Walker staffer released last week. The New York Times, which has given extensive coverage of the problems of Gov. Chris Christie, gave the Walker controversy a short article with no prominence. Politico called the whole thing a “snoozer” and Time Magazine suggested Walker’s travails, compared to those of Christie, amount to “little more than a week of bad press and isolated embarrassing stories about aides’ old emails.”
As for Wisconsin voters, I suspect most assume public officials do some campaigning on public time. Depending on how flagrant the examples are, the average voter may not care. So this may have little impact on Walker’s reelection effort. But it does present major issues — whether for Gov. Walker or President Obama — regarding the proper way for government officials and their staff members to conduct themselves.