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Club for Growth Heads to Federal Court to Stop John Doe 2

Walker’s supporters attack prosecutors for investigating possible crimes

Feb. 12, 2014
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Less than two weeks after losing before a panel of state appellate court judges, the Wisconsin Club for Growth filed suit in federal court to stop the John Doe 2 investigation into possible campaign finance crimes committed by it and other conservative special-interest groups.

The heavily redacted suit from Club for Growth and its leader, Eric O’Keefe, claims that the investigation violates their rights under the First and Fourteenth Amendments of the U.S. Constitution.

In the complaint, filed on Monday, they attack prosecutors—specifically Milwaukee County District Attorney John Chisholm—for investigating Republican Gov. Scott Walker and groups that support him, while turning a blind eye to possible violations committed by Democrats.

Throughout, the plaintiffs provide their version of Wisconsin’s recent political history in which Walker, O’Keefe and Wisconsin Club for Growth are victims of prosecutorial misconduct and high-spending liberal special-interest groups. In this version of events, Chisholm is biased against Walker and his budget repair bill, Act 10, because it adversely affected assistant district attorneys. It also notes that Chisholm, a Democrat, supported Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett in his re-election bid in 2008. It claims that Chisholm kept the John Doe running to create an open-ended investigation into Walker’s affairs.

But other documents show that the two John Doe investigations have been nonpartisan. When Chisholm asked Republican Attorney General J.B. Van Hollen to helm the second investigation, Van Hollen declined—not because of lack of evidence, but because of potential conflicts of interest and “the perception that my office can not act impartially.” Chisholm then worked with four other district attorneys, two of them Republican, to investigate the potential violations in the home counties of the parties involved. In addition, the special prosecutor assigned to the investigation, Francis Schmitz, was a federal prosecutor in the George W. Bush administration and has been described to the Shepherd as a “straight arrow” and “law-and-order” kind of prosecutor who isn’t politically biased.


DA Sought State Emails

The first John Doe investigation netted convictions for crimes ranging from campaign finance violations by a Walker supporter, embezzlement by Walker aides from charities, contributing to the delinquency of a minor, and misconduct in public office.

The first John Doe investigation centered on Walker’s activities while serving as Milwaukee County executive; the new one is said to focus on potential illegal coordination between Walker’s campaign and independent special-interest groups, including the Wisconsin Club for Growth. It’s illegal for candidate committees and independent issue groups to coordinate; it’s also illegal for independent issue groups to advocate for or against a specific candidate, although they can advocate for specific policy positions.

The document released on Monday presents a new detail of the investigation—that just two weeks after the June 2012 recall, a prosecutor sent an open records request to the state Department of Administration (DOA) seeking all communications between that agency and Walker’s staff at the state Capitol. The request, allegedly not on Milwaukee County district attorney letterhead and sent via a Milwaukee County assistant district attorney’s personal email account, sought communications dating back to Jan. 3, 2011, when Walker took office. DOA attorneys responded two weeks after the request.

What happened after that remains a mystery.

The next nine pages of the document are completely redacted.


Group Wants to Return to Elections

The Wisconsin Club for Growth was closely connected to Walker before he ran for governor. In his political memoir, Unintimidated, Walker names its longtime spokesman, R.J. Johnson, his close political advisor for two decades.

Johnson served as a general campaign advisor during Walker’s 2010 gubernatorial run. According to documents turned up in the first John Doe investigation, Johnson was among the handful of top Walker campaign advisors to be included on emails dealing with Milwaukee County business—including those concerning the fatality at O’Donnell Park in the summer of 2010. In addition, Walker’s campaign and county staffers spoke via a conference call every day to discuss strategy. One of those staffers, Kelly Rindfleisch, worked for Walker and raised funds for a Walker ally while on the county taxpayers’ time. She pleaded guilty to misconduct in office.

After Walker became governor in 2011, Johnson continued to advise him and get paid by his campaign. But Johnson also appeared in the media as a spokesman for Wisconsin Club for Growth. The group spent at least $9 million on ads supporting Walker’s agenda during the 2011 and 2012 recalls.

The Wisconsin Club for Growth’s O’Keefe, one of the plaintiffs in the new lawsuit, is connected to a number of very conservative groups, including the Franklin Center, a network of right-wing media outlets. One of its spin-offs is the Wisconsin Reporter, which has released a number of John Doe 2 details that only insiders would know.

According to the document released on Monday, both O’Keefe and Wisconsin Club for Growth apparently have ceased “all First Amendment protected activity” in Wisconsin while the investigation continues.

“As the investigation is ongoing throughout the 2014 legislative session and campaign period, the investigation will have the intended effect of silencing plaintiffs in Wisconsin during the 2014 legislative session and election cycle,” the document states.


Accusations of Leaks

The document also accuses the district attorney’s office of selectively leaking details of the John Doe investigations to politically damage Walker, but it appears that the most recent leaks were coming from Walker’s side.

Eric O’Keefe himself apparently has leaked to the Wall Street Journal in a bid to spin the story his way and attack the Doe prosecutors.

The latest example is an unsigned Wall Street Journal op-ed that broke the news that the judge overseeing the John Doe 2 quashed subpoenas sent to the Wisconsin Club for Growth, Walker’s campaign and other conservative groups. The portions of Peterson’s ruling that were published stated that the groups and Walker’s campaign did not illegally coordinate during the recall elections.

The Journal quoted O’Keefe and printed snippets of Peterson’s ruling. Both O’Keefe and the Wisconsin Club for Growth are subject to the Doe’s secrecy order, as is Peterson’s ruling.

Nevertheless, the new suit accuses the John Doe prosecutors of leaking damaging information throughout their investigations. However, the only leak whose source was confirmed in the first John Doe investigation wasn’t from the district attorney—it came from an attorney for Tim Russell, who was convicted of embezzling from a sham veterans’ charity. The attorney sent a tip to Walker supporter Charlie Sykes.

Bruce Landgraf, the assistant district attorney who has played a key role in the John Doe investigations, declined to comment on the Wisconsin Club for Growth’s suit.

Next week, thousands of pages of documents from convicted Walker staffer Rindfleisch’s prosecution will be released, which will provide the public with more details about the inner workings of the John Doe investigations.


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