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The Smoking Laptop

Jan. 31, 2012
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When companies are discovered to be keeping two sets of books—one for public consumption and the other to hide illegal activities—top management usually goes to prison.

The modern technological equivalent now has been uncovered in District Attorney John Chisholm's investigation into criminal activities in the office of Gov. Scott Walker when he was Milwaukee County executive.

In Walker's county executive offices, according to a criminal complaint, a separate, secret computer network was set up to allow a small circle of top staff to use private computers to engage in illegal activities.

Unfortunately for those Walker apologists who go into contortions arguing there's no proof Walker knew anything about the alleged criminal activities taking place around him, an email from Walker appears to show otherwise.

Kelly Rindfleisch was the second deputy chief of staff to Walker to be criminally charged, suggesting the unofficial duties of that job include committing felonies.

Tim Russell already was charged with stealing more than $21,000 in that position from a charitable event for military families and spending the embezzled money to vacation with his domestic partner in Hawaii and the Caribbean.

Russell handpicked Rindfleisch to succeed him. According to the complaint, when she showed up for work as a policy adviser in the county executive's office in January 2010, Tom Nardelli, Walker's chief of staff, didn't even know she'd been hired. Two months later she was deputy chief of staff.

Rindfleisch has had previous encounters with the crimes she is now charged with committing: performing illegal campaign work as a county employee for Friends of Scott Walker and for Republican lieutenant governor candidate Brett Davis.

When Rindfleisch was a Republican legislative caucus employee in 2001, she was granted immunity for providing evidence in the state caucus scandal that rocked Wisconsin's Legislature. That investigation led to criminal charges against five state legislators and four aides for the same crime of using public employees as campaign workers.

Shortly after joining Walker's staff, Rindfleisch told a friend in an electronic message "half of what I'm doing is policy for the campaign."     

Destruction of Evidence

Darlene Wink was the other Walker appointee charged last week, the fifth so far. Wink followed Rindfleisch's strategy of a decade ago to reduce her legal consequences. She agreed to testify in the prosecution of others for "destruction of digital evidence."

The destruction of evidence and the secret computer network in his office provide the most direct legal threat to Walker himself.

On May 14, 2010, there were two incriminating emails between Walker and Russell and Russell and Rindfleisch.

A story had appeared in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel that day in which Wink admitted to posting comments on newspaper stories and blogs promoting Walker for governor and attacking his opponents while working in Walker's office.

Walker, in an email from his BlackBerry, told Russell: "We cannot afford another story like this one. No one can give them any reason to do another story. That means no laptops, no websites, no time away from the work day, etc."

Walker's email contradicts the governor's public claims of ignorance of illegal activities.

But first, why was it addressed to Russell? At that point, Russell had no authority over Walker's office staff. Walker had appointed him to an entirely different county job as director of housing.

Or was the housing job just a front? Was his real job to continue to direct illegal work by county employees in Walker's office and elsewhere in county government?

According to the district attorney, it was Russell who set up the secret computer network by installing a 3G wireless router in the county executive's office that could be accessed by private laptops of select staff.

And Walker certainly appears to know about the secret network. His order to Russell is: "That means no laptops." Walker wouldn't care what type of computers staff were using for legitimate county business. He appears to be telling Russell to shut down the private network.

And, indeed, about 10 minutes after Walker's email to Russell, Rindfleisch tells Russell electronically: "I took the wireless down."

In the complaint against Rindfleisch, the district attorney says Walker's email "with its reference to no more laptops during the workday provides an apparent explanation for the drop in Rindfleisch's daytime fund-raising activity in the few weeks following Darlene Wink's resignation."

According to the district attorney, the secret computer network was used to shield both illegal campaign activity and some discussion of county business from public disclosure. Why keep discussion of public business secret unless it's dishonest?

When the media and even county supervisors made open records requests for emails about public policy, emails from the private system were never provided.

But the district attorney now has a large number of those emails detailing illegal activities as well as information about destruction of evidence.

The next boots to drop from this corrupt centipede could be enormous ones.


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