Secret’s out: The world is beginning to learn more about WI’s John Doe

M.D. Kittle
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May 12, 2014 1:27 PM
Secret’s out: The world is beginning to learn more about WI’s John Doe
Part 59 of 58 in the series Wisconsin's Secret War

By M.D. Kittle | Wisconsin Reporter

MADISON, Wis. — A year ago, the only mention of a secret John Doe investigation  in Wisconsin was mostly from disgruntled liberals grumbling that fellow Democrat, Milwaukee County District Attorney John Chisholm, hadn’t been able to indict Republican Gov. Scott Walker.

In early March 2013, Chisholm had officially shut down a nearly three-year probe into former aides and associates of Walker that began when Walker was Milwaukee County executive. That investigation ended with relatively little to show for its exhaustive, meandering efforts. The court-administered dragnet picked up six convictions, only two that had anything to do with the original scope of the John Doe — the pilfering of cash from a county veterans’ fund. And those allegations were brought to the DA by Walker’s staff.

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SECRET NO MORE: Thanks to a civil rights lawsuit filed by conservative activist Eric O’Keefe, more light is shining on a politically charged and secret John Doe investigation into conservatives.

But little did anybody know, save the Milwaukee County prosecutors and perhaps some of the conservatives they were targeting, that Chisholm had never really stopped looking at Walker. He had, in fact, opened a second John Doe in August 2012.

Armed with another gag order that kept conservative targets of his investigation locked in secrecy at the peril of their personal liberty, Chisholm and crew went about the business of quietly gathering evidence against dozens of conservative organizations.

The latest probe, looking into possible illegal coordination between the groups and Walker’s campaign during the state’s 2011 and ’12 partisan recall campaigns, counted on that secrecy even during what have been described to Wisconsin Reporter as predawn, “paramilitary-style” raids at the homes and offices of conservatives — and only conservatives.

Today, the secret’s out.

More than seven months after Wisconsin Reporter began hearing from sources about the investigation, describing it as a partisan witch hunt, a “taxpayer-funded, opposition-research campaign” led by Wisconsin liberals, the rest of the nation is now learning about the secret probe.

Without the committed stance of conservative activist Eric O’Keefe in breaking the silence and risking jail time in doing so, the prosecutors’ little secret might still be fairly well-kept, at least in the way the investigators might want it to be maintained.

O’Keefe and his Wisconsin Club for Growth, among the targeted conservatives in the investigation, in February filed a civil rights lawsuit against Chisholm, two of his assistant DAs, John Doe special prosecutor Francis Schmitz, and a shadowy investigator contracted by the state’s Government Accountability Board.

After U.S. District Court Judge Rudolph Randa — twice — last week ordered the John Doe probe shut down and expressed deep concerns about the validity of investigation and its conduct, the details of the prosecutors’ work sound more and more troubling. Much more troubling than the common narrative of assumed campaign finance wrong-doing of conservatives that much of the Wisconsin mainstream media has pawned off on Badger State readers over the past several months.

Now, the Washington Post, the New York Times, Forbes and a host of national voices are routinely reporting on what the Wall Street Journal dubbed early on, Wisconsin’s “Political Speech Raid.”

The latest to weigh in, conservative columnist titan George F. Will in a Washington Post column last week with a headline that doesn’t mince words: “Wis. Prosecutors abuse the law for partisan ends.”

Will writes:

U.S. District Judge Rudolph T. Randa, revolted by the police-state arrogance of some elected prosecutors, has stopped a partisan abuse of law enforcement that was masquerading as political hygiene. Last Tuesday, Randa halted the corruption being committed by people pretending to administer campaign regulations — regulations ostensibly enacted to prevent corruption or the appearance thereof. The prosecutors’ cynical manipulation of Wisconsin’s campaign laws is more than the mere appearance of corruption.

Will takes aim at Wisconsin’s peculiar John Doe procedure, which functions much like a jury investigation, without the benefit of a jury of peers. Instead, a presiding judge is vested with extraordinary power to compel witnesses to testify.

“In such investigations, prosecutors can promiscuously issue subpoenas and conduct searches. The identities of the targets are kept secret, and the targets are silenced by gag orders, thereby preventing public discussion of the process. Thus John Doe investigations are effective government instruments of disruption and intimidation,” Will writes.

Will, like many Wisconsin conservatives, asserts the John Doe’s aim, “which had been achieved until Randa’s ruling, was utterly unrelated to law.”

“It was abetted by selective leaks by the prosecutors and by subpoenas sent to conservative donors and organizations nationwide. The purpose of all this was to suppress conservative political advocacy by consuming the time and other resources of conservative leaders, and by making people wary of collaborating with those targeted by a secretive criminal investigation,” he writes.

Hans von Spakovsky, a former member of the Federal Elections Commission, notes Randa’s condemnation of the John Doe prosecutors, who, Randa insists, don’t seem to understand Wisconsin campaign law.

“Randa’s condemnation of the Wisconsin prosecutors was stinging. He said he was ‘left to wonder’ if the prosecutors had ‘actually read the complaint’ O’Keefe filed against them,” writes von Spakovsky, senior legal fellow at the Washington, D.C.-based Heritage Foundation’Edwin Meese III Center for Legal and Judicial Studies.  “He had ‘no idea why the defendants even attempted to raise’ some of their defenses and characterized them as ‘the height of frivolousness.’  Most important, the judge held that the prosecutors were not entitled to immunity from civil liability because they had acted without probable cause.”

The prosecutors, who had sought and received a brief stay on Randa’s ruling, are seeking relief in the  7th Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals.

Expect more prosecutor secrets to be flushed out in the coming weeks.

David B. Rivkin Jr., lead attorney for O’Keefe and the Wisconsin Club for Growth, told Wisconsin Reporter last week he is looking forward to “wide-ranging” discovery into the activities behind the John Doe probe.

“We plan to serve discovery questions on a number of other people because we strongly suspect the defendants are not the only people whose fingers have been involved in driving this investigation there,” Rivkin said. “There may well be other individuals in the Wisconsin political establishment who have their finger on this.”

Contact M.D. Kittle at mkittle@watchdog.org