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Walker Was Part of the O’Donnell Park Coverup

Newly released emails show how his political campaign was involved in county government matters

Aug. 14, 2013
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In the initial phases of the John Doe investigation, the public learned how then-Milwaukee County Executive Scott Walker’s county aides worked on his gubernatorial campaign while working at their taxpayer-funded jobs. Some of these aides were prosecuted for their illegal behavior.

But the release of hundreds of emails sealed for years under the John Doe’s secrecy order—recently released as part of the litigation involving the O’Donnell Park tragedy—reveals more serious evidence of how Walker’s top campaign advisers were actually calling the shots on county matters to protect Walker and his campaign for governor from political damage from this tragedy.

And make no mistake: Scott Walker was definitely aware that his campaign and county staffers were working together to shape his image as he ran for governor in 2010.

Walker was copied on almost all of the emails.


‘Make Sure There Is Not a Paper Anywhere’

Immediately after a concrete slab fell off the O’Donnell Park parking structure and killed 15-year-old Jared Kellner and injured two others on June 24, 2010, Walker’s campaign aides took control of Walker’s image.

Nowhere in any of the emails released is there evidence of Walker or any of his campaign or county staffers expressing sympathy or concern for the Kellner family or the public’s safety. Their only interest seems to be managing Walker’s image and distancing himself from any potential cause of the structure’s failures.

To do so, Walker’s campaign and county aides worked outside of the county’s official email servers to prepare his messaging, dig up information on the structure’s history and discuss how to respond to requests from the public.

Because they conducted their operations outside of the official network, Walker’s aides were able to evade open records requests from reporters and members of the public about the true state of the parking structure—and the extent to which Walker’s campaign and county aides were aligned.

As Keith Gilkes, Walker’s campaign manager, put it immediately after Kellner was killed: “Make sure there is not a paper any where that details a problem at all.”

At the same time Walker’s campaign was working on the response to the tragedy, his inner circle was complaining about the “politicization” of it. Walker himself wrote on July 20, 2010, “It is disgusting that anyone would use a tragedy for such blatant political purposes.”

It’s difficult to see how Walker could have a legitimate complaint about politics intruding on his official county affairs, since he politicized the matter by sending that email from his campaign email account to his top campaign aides and his top county aides on their personal email addresses.


Inside Walker’s Inner Circle

Walker was copied on almost all of the emails dealing with O’Donnell Park, but not at his county email address.

Instead, Walker discussed this official county matter via his campaign email account with his inner circle. The main players included: 

Fran McLaughlin: Walker’s county spokeswoman at the time of the tragedy, McLaughlin proved to be the main conduit between Walker’s campaign and county staffers. McLaughlin would receive an email at her official county account, then forward it to a personal email account to get it off of the county’s official email system.

From her personal email, McLaughlin would forward the message to the inner circle, which included Walker at his campaign email account, Chief of Staff Tom Nardelli at his personal email account, Deputy Chief of Staff Kelly Rindfleisch at her personal email account, longtime Walker campaign and county aide Tim Russell at his personal email account, Walker campaign manager Keith Gilkes, campaign spokeswoman Jill Bader, longtime county and campaign advisor Jim Villa and campaign operative R.J. Johnson. Frequently, Department of Administrative Services chief Cindy Archer would participate on her private email account. McLaughlin often used her “gopfran” email address on these county matters as well.

From the emails it’s clear that McLaughlin had to run all communications through this inner circle, which apparently is the same circle that prosecutors dubbed “The Campaign Group.” McLaughlin was frequently overruled on her suggestions and deferred to Walker and his campaign advisors on statements about O’Donnell Park and responses to reporters.

McLaughlin was so committed to Walker’s political future that she monitored all news coverage of county matters and forwarded them to the group. No matter was too small for her attention. For example, she emailed Walker and his inner political and county circle “can someone get supporters to vote?” on a Business Journal poll asking if former Congressman Mark Neumann or Walker would win the Republican primary for governor.

McLaughlin was given immunity from prosecution for her activities while Walker was in office. She’s currently the spokeswoman for Milwaukee County Sheriff David Clarke.

Tim Russell: Russell was a longtime county and campaign aide to Walker. In June 2010, Russell was working as Walker’s director of Housing in the Department of Health and Human Services, a position that had nothing to do with O’Donnell Park. At the same time, as we learned from the John Doe investigation, Russell was embezzling more than $20,000 from a sham veterans’ charity he’d set up with Walker’s blessing.

Prosecutors alleged that Russell also purchased a private wifi router for the county executive’s suite so that Walker’s inner aides could communicate without having to go through the county’s email server.

In January, Russell was sentenced to two years in prison and five years on probation for his crimes. His domestic and business partner, Brian Pierick, was sentenced to community service and fined $2,100 for misdemeanor delinquency for sending graphic images to a Waukesha County teen. Pierick’s personal email address pops up from time to time in the O’Donnell emails.

Kelly Rindfleisch: Russell hired Rindfleisch as a policy analyst for Walker’s county executive office in January 2010 and by June 2010 she was working as Walker’s deputy chief of staff. But that wasn’t her only place of employment. While Rindfleisch was working as Walker’s county aide, she was also working as a fundraiser for Brett Davis, a Republican candidate for lieutenant governor. Prosecutors allege that she exchanged more than a thousand emails with Walker’s campaign staffers during regular business hours at the county.

Immediately after the O’Donnell tragedy, Walker campaign manager Keith Gilkes ordered her to go to work early the next day to “Keep on top of Sue Black, [county aide Steven] Kreklow, [county aide Cindy] Archer and all staff to make sure there is not a paper any where that details a problem at all. My fear is some 1999 memo to [former County Executive Tom] Ament outlines a problem—and somehow Ament remembers it and finds it. [County attorney Tim] Schoewe needs to have every piece of paper ever created on this structure completely reviewed. You are the only person capable of overseeing these people.”

Rindfleisch agreed to a plea deal with prosecutors for one felony count of misconduct in public office and was sentenced to six months in jail and three years of probation. She’s appealing her conviction and remains free during the appeal.

Tom Nardelli: Nardelli served as Walker’s chief of staff and Rindfleisch’s boss during the O’Donnell Park aftermath, then secured two state positions when Walker was elected governor. He abruptly quit his state job in August 2011, while the John Doe probe was heating up.

Nardelli routinely used a personal email account for the O’Donnell Park matters, but he seemed to chafe against the Walker campaign staffers’ intrusion on county affairs, at one point grumbling, “just in case anyone cares what I think as COS [chief of staff].” Nardelli appears to have sent that message on his cell phone via his private email account.

When, just a month before the general election in 2010, he finds that a lawsuit would be filed in the O’Donnell Park case, Nardelli advised Walker: “You need to be as far away from this issue as possible.”

Nardelli was never charged with a crime or granted immunity from prosecutors, and it’s unknown if he testified in the probe.

Cindy Archer: Archer was the head of the Department of Administrative Services and communicated often via her personal email account about O’Donnell Park. Archer would often pose “breakfast topic” questions, such as whether Walker’s aides could affect the timing of reports on O’Donnell Park and the troubled Behavioral Health Division. Archer wondered if they should be released before or after the November 2010 election, then conceded that they had no control over their release. Archer also wrote in an email to Nardelli and Rindfleisch that she was “getting mixed messages from the campaign side” about how the county executive’s office was handling open records requests.

Archer followed Walker to Madison when he was elected governor. State and federal law enforcement officers raided her home in September 2011 and seized items including a computer hard drive. She wasn’t charged with any crimes, nor was she granted immunity from prosecution. On Monday, the Journal Sentinel reported, Archer began a job in the state Public Defender’s Office, where she will earn a $101,510 salary.


Walker Aides’ War on Reporters and Transparency

When Walker’s campaign and county aides weren’t complaining about progressive members of the Milwaukee County Board of Supervisors and, ironically, the “politicization” of the tragedy, they were moaning about local reporters’ coverage of the O’Donnell Park investigation. They complained about Aaron Diamant at TMJ4; Brendan Conway, then at WISN and now working as the spokesman for County Executive Chris Abele; Mick Trevey, then at TMJ4; and, not surprisingly, the Shepherd.

Not all reporters came under fire, however. Gilkes from the campaign instructed Rindfleisch to get a response to “talk radio ASAP to get our spin on it right away.” Right-wing talker Charlie Sykes emailed Walker’s campaign address about TMJ4’s coverage of the incident, which Walker then forwarded to his county and campaign aides. Tim Russell informed the others that the Journal Sentinel’s Jesse Garza had promised Walker “good ink” on the tragedy. And Aaron Rodriguez, then working for the Hispanic Conservative blog and El Conquistador, was given the kid-glove treatment when he asked McLaughlin questions. He now blogs for the Journal Sentinel and is one of Chris Abele’s favorite bloggers.


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