Paul Jacob

Americans have become far too familiar with the existence of secret courts — about which, of course, we know next to nothing. But, thank goodness, these “aberrations” are only for “terrorists.”

And you’re not a terrorist. (Or, so you say.)

How about a conservative . . . or a Tea Partier? Do you fit either of those criminal profiles?

Or, perhaps you are more aptly classified as an independent, even a libertarian, and you often engage in speech designed to nudge people to think about issues you deem critical. You’ve probably noticed that folks tend to be more receptive to political ideas right before an election, so you carefully enter that arena, knowing that voters might go so far as to cast a ballot that shows the influence of some newly found information. That you happen to offer.

Heavens! Are you one of them?

My friend Eric O’Keefe is.

Last weekend, The Wall Street Journal reported that O’Keefe, the head of the Wisconsin Club for Growth, had his records subpoenaed as a target in a top secret, “John Doe” investigation whereby a District Attorney in Milwaukee County is reportedly sweeping up O’Keefe’s — and 28 other conservative organizations, including Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker’s campaign committee — in a multi-county witch-hunt.

The District Attorney is a Democrat, by the way. This fact is almost certainly not irrelevant.

According to the Journal’s editorial, one subpoena calls for these conservative groups to turn over “all records of income received, including fundraising information and the identity of persons contributing to the corporation.” As the editorial puts it, “In other words, tell us who your donors are” — noting that, “The disclosure of conservative political donors has become a preoccupation of the political left across the country.”

After all, one cannot harass donors if one doesn’t know who they are.

While O’Keefe was subpoenaed, at least three individuals had their homes ransacked in dawn raids. Still, we know very little. These John Doe investigations are somewhat unique to the Badger State, and their defining feature is to slap their targets with gag orders forbidding them from talking about the case.

The prosecutors aren’t talking. Neither are the conservative groups being raked over, and who are threatened with criminal prosecution if they speak about it.

Except for Eric O’Keefe, who could be facing jail time for speaking up. (The only reason we know anything about this is that O’Keefe broke the gag order.) And this threat of jail is not an empty one. That’s what has happened in previous John Doe investigations — even in cases where those jailed have later been exonerated. But O’Keefe refuses to be silenced.

After all, it’s not as if O’Keefe lacks a legitimate complaint: even if no one is ever convicted of any crime, “the process” of being targeted and silenced “is the punishment.” Meanwhile, the massive sweep of subpoenas and the gag orders have made it difficult, if not impossible, for targeted groups to communicate with each other, which is the First Amendment right of freedom of association and to be politically active as the 2014 campaign season begins for Governor Walker. As O’Keefe points out, it certainly “froze my communications and frightened many allies and vendors of the pro-taxpayer political movement in Wisconsin and across the country.”

That could very well be the goal. If a crime has been committed, then charge the individual(s) or group(s) and prosecute the case. But to launch a massive fishing expedition into “possible” wrongdoing and to, as part of the process, seek to silence political groups and prevent them from talking to each other and working with each other . . . well, that is tyranny.

If it can be successfully employed in Wisconsin to combat the success conservatives have had at the polls in recent elections, you can bet it’ll find its way into regular use elsewhere.

Americans owe it to themselves to back Mr. O’Keefe as this legal assault, this persecution, continues in Wisconsin.

And perhaps they owe it to themselves to learn a little bit about the man and his cause.

Eric O’Keefe’s hasn’t sought public office or made a big noise to “make a name for himself” in politics. Instead, O’Keefe made enough money decades ago to gain the independence to put much of himself, his time and effort as well as money, into political issues — specifically issues designed to hold government accountable to the people.

Like term limits.

O’Keefe should be known, but isn’t, as the man who came up with the plan to blitz the country with statewide ballot initiatives aimed at limiting the terms of politicians. Following that plan in the 1990s, U.S. Term Limits worked with citizen leaders from all across the country to place more than four-dozen term-limit measures before voters — winning virtually every vote. (O’Keefe served on the U.S. Term Limits board of directors during the 1990s; I worked as executive director during the same time.)

O’Keefe authored an important book on the term limits movement and its broader implications, Who Rules America?: The People vs. The Political Class, wherein he wrote that

proponents of term limits are not a mob of disaffected rabble, scouring the ground for sticks and stones with which to clobber congressmen. The junkets, the venality, the occasional Honorable who is caught with his hand in the cookie jar are cause for concern, but they are not what motivate us. We are not in this to punish members of Congress or harass Washington monuments. Anger is not the presiding emotion within the term-limits movement. The real spur is love: love of country, love of community, and belief in the promise of the American Founding.

Eric O’Keefe has remained active in politics beyond the term limits issue, playing a critical role usually as a volunteer activist and a facilitator helping activists and donors get together to pursue ideas. He has served on the board of the Cato Institute and helped found the Center for Competitive Politics, which works to protect political speech. And he has been active within Wisconsin politics backing the policies courageously pursued by Governor Walker.

But how long will O’Keefe — and those valiant souls like him — remain engaged in politics, when to do so risks attack from the full force of state power?

Who is Eric O’Keefe? If you don’t know, he may soon be you.     [references]


Paul Jacob

Paul Jacob is President of Citizens in Charge Foundation and Citizens in Charge. His daily Common Sense commentary appears on the Web and via e-mail.