Newly-unsealed court documents and media leaks add to a growing body of evidence that Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker’s campaign is at the center of a wide-ranging secret probe into campaign finance violations during the state's contentious 2011 and 2012 recall elections.
The John Doe probe began in August of 2012 and is examining possible "illegal campaign coordination between (name redacted), a campaign committee, and certain special interest groups," according to an unsealed filing in the case. Sources told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel the redacted committee is the Walker campaign, Friends of Scott Walker. Campaign filings show that Walker spent $86,000 on legal fees in the second half of 2013.
A John Doe is similar to a grand jury investigation, but in front of a judge rather than a jury, and is conducted under strict secrecy orders. Wisconsin's 4th Circuit Court of Appeals unsealed some documents last week as it rejected a challenge to the probe filed by three of the unnamed "special interest groups" that had received subpoenas in the investigation and issued a ruling allowing the investigation to move forward.
The special interest groups under investigation include Wisconsin Club for Growth, which is led by a top Walker advisor and friend, R.J. Johnson, and which spent at least $9.1 million on "issue ads" supporting Walker and legislative Republicans during the 2011 and 2012 recall elections. Another group is Citizens for a Strong America, which was entirely funded by Wisconsin Club for Growth in 2011 and 2012 and acted as a conduit for funding other groups that spent on election issue ads; CSA's president is John Connors, who previously worked for David Koch's Americans for Prosperity and is part of the leadership at the Franklin Center for Government & Public Integrity (publishers of Watchdog.org and Wisconsin Reporter). Other groups reportedly receiving subpoenas include AFP, Wisconsin Manufacturers and Commerce, and the Republican Governors Association.
In January, the judge recently appointed to oversee the John Doe probe quashed subpoenas to Wisconsin Club for Growth, Citizens for a Strong America, and the Walker campaign, apparently based on a theory that coordination was not illegal because the groups' ads did not expressly tell viewers to "vote for" Walker or "vote against" his opponent. If upheld, the ruling could have major implications for Wisconsin campaign finance law, as the Center for Media and Democracy identified, and could potentially undermine candidate contribution and disclosure limits. Prosecutors plan to appeal that decision.
Probe Led by Bipartisan Group of Prosecutors
The latest probe grew out of an earlier John Doe investigation into illegal campaigning in Walker’s office during his time as Milwaukee County Executive, led by Milwaukee’s Democratic District Attorney John Chisholm, and which resulted in six criminal convictions -- including three Walker aides, one political appointee, and one major campaign contributor -- for a variety of crimes including embezzlement, campaign finance violations and political corruption.
Prior to the court unsealing documents in "John Doe II," individuals subpoenaed in the investigation and subject to its secrecy order had strategically leaked some information to friendly right-wing media sources. Wisconsin Club for Growth director Eric O'Keefe defied a secrecy order to speak with with members of the Wall Street Journal editorial board, and unnamed sources spoke with the Franklin Center for Government & Public Integrity’s Wisconsin Reporter. As CMD has documented, Franklin Center was launched by O'Keefe, and its Director of Special Projects, John Connors, is president of Citizens for a Strong America.
Wisconsin Reporter and the Wall Street Journal editorial board have consistently attacked the probe, characterizing the criminal investigation as a “political speech raid” and citing unnamed sources to portray the investigation as a Democrat-led “taxpayer-funded opposition research campaign" with “one party in this state using prosecutorial powers to conduct a one-sided investigation into conservatives."
The new court documents undermine those portrayals. The documents show that while the probe started in Milwaukee, it quickly spread to four other counties and is now led by Republican and Democratic prosecutors.
The five-county effort is the result of Assembly Republicans pushing changes to Wisconsin law in 2007 to require that individuals accused of campaign finance or ethics violations be charged in their county of residence, rather than where the violation actually occurred. The subjects of this John Doe investigation live across the state, the filings show, in Columbia, Dane, Dodge, Iowa, and Milwaukee counties. The 2007 law was widely seen as an effort to help Republicans avoid trial in Madison, Wisconsin’s capitol, where campaign finance violations would be most likely to occur but whose District Attorney and judges are perceived as liberal.
"Whatever the reason for the enactment of [the statutes], from the standpoint of judicial administration, the results are chaotic in a John Doe investigation where the subjects live far and wide within the state,” wrote Special Prosecutor Francis Schmitz in an unsealed filing with the Court. “The only reasonable approach to the handling of this circumstance is to assign one judge to hear all five John Doe proceedings."
The judiciary in each of the five counties appointed a Milwaukee judge to oversee the proceedings. The bipartisan group of District Attorneys then asked the court to appoint a Special Prosecutor to coordinate the investigation, after Wisconsin’s Republican Attorney General J.B. Van Hollen declined to lead the probe, citing potential conflicts of interest. The nature of this potential conflict was redacted from the unsealed court documents.
Unnamed Candidate Committee Requests Opinion on Funding Legal Fees
Earlier this week the Government Accountability Board issued an advisory opinion on the use of campaign funds for legal fees, in response to a request from an unnamed candidate committee, described as a group “currently subject to an investigation which could expose the committee to both civil and criminal penalties.” The GAB advised that a committee may use campaign funds when facing both civil and criminal charges, but must establish a segregated criminal defense fund when the investigation becomes "purely a criminal one."
When asked whether his campaign had requested the opinion, Walker told the Wisconsin State Journal that “we’re not getting into details about this.”