Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism

John Doe Probe is Not About Good vs. Bad

It's really a legal issue that courts must settle: can campaigns coordinate with outside advocacy groups?

A recent column on the stalled John Doe probe into allegedly illegal campaign activities drew an impassioned email from a reader in Appleton.

“I read yet another column of yours criticizing Republicans for ‘coordinating’ during campaign season,” she wrote. “It seems this witch hunt by the Democratic Milwaukee DA has been one-sided. And media outlets such as yours feed into that one-sided witch hunt by encouraging it.”

First of all, the column did not criticize Republicans or anyone else for coordinating. It simply noted that Gov. Scott Walker and his supporters have declared that coordination between campaigns and outside groups engaged in issue advocacy is perfectly OK, a view two judges have endorsed, and asked if this was still occurring.

As for whether the investigation is a partisan witch-hunt, that’s an assertion Walker and others have made repeatedly. It’s no surprise people expect journalists to embrace this view as fact.

Milwaukee County District Attorney John Chisholm

Milwaukee County District Attorney John Chisholm

Journalists are not supposed to do that, without proof. Yes, the probe was launched by a Democrat, Milwaukee County District Attorney John Chisholm. But the special prosecutor who heads it is a Republican who voted for Walker.

Moreover, the columnist has never encouraged the John Doe prosecutors. Neither has he disparaged them. The columnist believes, based on his three decades as a reporter, that most public officials are honorable and entitled to the presumption that they are acting in good faith. That’s an unpopular view, but he’s sticking to it.

At the center of this issue is not a cosmic battle between good and evil but a dispute over what is and isn’t legal. This is a question the courts will have to sort out. And the decisions they reach will affect members of both parties.

As for why the probe focuses just on Republicans and their supporters, that’s a good question. The woman in Appleton, in further exchanges with the columnist, said this “is something that I don’t think any reporter has asked.”

She added that she did not want her name associated with its asking, saying she “wouldn’t want my home raided” by Chisholm, whom she believes “will use strong-arm tactics against those whose ideology he does not agree with.”

And so the columnist, keeping the Appleton woman’s name out of it, put her question to Chisholm and his attorney, Douglas Knott. Neither responded.

But the state Government Accountability Board, which green-lighted the probe, asserted in a court filing that “an individual’s or an entity’s affiliation with a political party or cause plays no role in the GAB’s analysis” of whether laws may have been broken. It included extensive documentation of investigation and enforcement actions against Democrats as well as Republicans.

Former Wisconsin Supreme Court Justice Jon Wilcox is uniquely qualified to comment on this area. His campaign paid $10,000 toward a $60,000 settlement over alleged coordination with an outside group that sent an issue-oriented mailing during his 1997 bid for reelection.

The state determined that Wilcox was not personally involved in these activities and, he says in an interview, “I was disappointed (it happened) because it wasn’t needed.” He won with 62 percent of the vote.

Wilcox agrees the coordination was illegal at the time but wonders, based on recent court rulings, if the rules have changed. Similarly, he doesn’t think the investigation into his campaign was politically motivated but isn’t sure the same can be said of the current John Doe probe.

“I think it’s much different,” Wilcox says, citing the probe’s length and the prosecution’s “high-handed” tactics, allegedly including early morning raids on people’s homes.

“I can understand the concern that people have,” Wilcox says.

In other words, Wilcox does not share the columnist’s view that there is no reason to suspect partisan motives. But his take on the issue is fair-minded and measured. We could use more of that.

Bill Lueders is the Money and Politics Project director at the Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism (www.WisconsinWatch.org). The Center produces the project in partnership with MapLight.

The Center collaborates with Wisconsin Public Radio, Wisconsin Public Television, other news media and the UW-Madison School of Journalism and Mass Communication. All works created, published, posted or disseminated by the Center do not necessarily reflect the views or opinions of UW-Madison or any of its affiliates.

4 thoughts on “John Doe Probe is Not About Good vs. Bad”

  1. David J. Hirn says:

    Thank you Bill for clarifying for all that this is an issue about coordinating campaigns with special interest groups and then calling the advertisement ‘issue advocacy.’ We have seen hundreds and hundreds of these ‘issue advocay’ adds. They are not transparent and it is easy to discern that this is really a “vote for or against” advertisement. Only the lowest information voter would not discern the difference. What I find most distasteful in any issue advocacy ad is the ad is run as if the information they were providing has anything to do with the truth. It is the disinformation that I find most offensive. This is not an (R) or a (D) issue. Candidates then get to extricate themselves from the smear while their opponent gets smeared. That is what they call ‘issue advocacy.’ Who thinks this is a good idea, either (R) or (D). Remember, “We will divide and conquer.”

  2. Glenn Rhode says:

    ” High Handed Tactics”. I guess predawn raids wouldn’t have been needed, if the GOP, and their lawyers, wouldn’t have smashed the hard drives, and used wiping software, in the redistricting of our state. “An Ounce of Prevention….”

  3. David says:

    Corporate television media loves the many issue ads that they carry as commercials. It fills their coffers with lots of money. They do not care how ridiculous and loathsome the messaging is and how many lies are built in. Even print media like MJS that owns radio and TV stations benefits from these many so-called advocacy ads that flood the public’s air waves without any offering of a dissenting viewpoint on all the built in lies.

    Like many of us that have access to a DVR, we hit the fast forward button.

    What if all this corporate loot that funds all the lying ads was used instead on jobs and infrastructure. Start taxing it all at a 50% rate. Tax them for the lies, propaganda, lobbying, and purchasing of politicians.

  4. Jake formerly of the LP says:

    Well, some of us find the idea of unlimited amounts of money going to politicians obscene and an evil, especially when it involves dark money that hides and launders the identity of the people exercising their “free speech.” The fact that these people use these donations to gain access, favorable legislation, AND WRITE THE DONATIONS OFF ON THEIR TAXES is something that many of us find obscene and evil.

    So while on a bland, court level it may simply be one legal argument vs another, in reality, it really is a good vs evil situation. If the Club for Greed and other right-wing oligarchs weren’t on the fringe in this issue, you’d see Scott Walker and other rightie politicians blaring loud and wide “I think dark money’s great, and that the people have no right at all to find out who’s buying their politicians!”

    Disclosure is something even the nutjobs on the Supreme Court have been in favor of, so I’m just waiting for the Court of Appeals to laugh Randa’s decision out of legality.

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