By M.D. Kittle | Wisconsin Reporter
SUN PRAIRIE, Wis. — She thought about it — a lot.
In the depths of her depression, Kelly Rindfleisch, the former county government official marked by the left with a political scarlet letter, considered killing herself.
She just wanted it all to stop — the browbeating prosecutors, the mainstream media feeding frenzy, the crushing legal bills, the shadow of a jail sentence hanging over her. The betrayal.
“There were times I felt like I wasn’t going to make it through. They drove me to the absolute depths of depression,” Rindfleisch told Wisconsin Reporter during a recent interview at a diner in downtown Sun Prairie, a Madison suburb.
She agreed to meet here, about 15 miles southwest of her Columbus home, because Sun Prairie is just far enough from the vicious whisper of state politics.
Being here, talking like this, could cost Rindfleisch her freedom. She doesn’t care. She said she needs to tell her story of what a team of vindictive, partisan prosecutors has done to her — in the name of law enforcement.
“I may end up in jail for talking to you, but I’m not going to sit and let Judge (Neal) Nettesheim intimidate me into not telling the people in Wisconsin what they are doing, what he did, what (Milwaukee County District Attorney) John Chisholm did, what those investigators did,” Rindfleisch said.
“I’m not going to stay quiet. If I go to jail, so be it. It only proves that they are corrupt.”
Much has gone down since October 2012, when Rindfleisch said she was essentially forced by a Milwaukee County judge to plead guilty to a felony count of the nebulous charge of misconduct in public office.
She originally faced multiple charges for responding to emails regarding fundraising on behalf of failed lieutenant governor candidate Brett Davis. She was on the government clock when she sent those communications, working as an aide to Gov. Scott Walker when Walker was Milwaukee County executive.
But prosecutors wanted to up the ante and make Rindfleisch an example in the politically charged “John Doe” investigation.
She took the best deal she could get at the time, although she said it came back to haunt her. Rindfleisch is appealing the conviction, asserting prosecutors grossly violated her Fourth Amendment rights. She never gave up her right to appeal even while entering a guilty plea.
The 45-year-old former deputy chief of staff looks tired. The stress of the past three-and-a-half years is etched into her pale face. She trembles before the interview begins. Her voice quivers as she begins to speak.
Rindfleisch said she’s doing OK, perhaps as well as anyone who is facing the real possibility of going to jail for six months and another three years of probation.
“I still have a lot of things hanging over my head. I’m still dealing with the repercussions. It’s difficult,” Rindfleisch said, pausing to order a blueberry muffin and Diet Pepsi. “The thing I’m still struggling with is just my mental health. That’s been the worst part of it.”
She’s been through a lot since the fall of 2010. She claims her life has been ripped from her by partisan prosecutors pushing a secret investigation bent on taking down Walker.
Rindfleisch said she isn’t surprised by the voracious appetite of the left and the mainstream media for every last detail of her political and personal life, to spin her legal troubles into a narrative of Walker-led corruption. But she sounds absolutely heart-broken by so many of her so-called friends in conservative politics who were nowhere to be found when she needed them most.
“There comes a point where you do the wrong thing and justify what you’re doing or you do the right thing. But the wrong thing is still the wrong thing, and I think a lot of people did the wrong thing, just out of fear,” she said of fellow Republicans who seemed to instantly disappear when she became the lead target in the so-called John Doe I investigation.
In her conversation with Wisconsin Reporter, Rindfleisch went over much of what she told the Wall Street Journal in the newspaper’s March 28 interview. But she delves into more detail about the investigation and the investigators, suggesting that, if not for at least the temporary measured kindness of a Milwaukee County assistant district attorney, she would have seen no evidence of humanity in the DA’s office.
The John Doe investigation, which began under the premise of a reported theft from a county veterans’ fund, spiraled into a probe of the people surrounding Walker, who, in 2010 was making his first run for governor. The office of Chisholm, a Democrat, held on to the veterans’ fund information for nearly a year and a half before doing much of anything, to the frustration of Walker’s then-chief of staff at the time, Tom Nardelli, Rindfleisch said.
But after county executive staff member Darlene Wink admitted making pro-Walker comments on the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel website during office hours, the prosecutorial chase was on.
Investigators burst into the county executive’s office on Nov. 1, 2010, the day before the gubernatorial election, loaded with warrants. They demanded copies of the office’s hard drives, and more.
“They kept me in our meeting room and refused to allow me to call our corporation counsel,” Rindfleisch recalled. “They wouldn’t allow me to leave the room … They took away my phone and told me I could not contact anyone.”
Investigators had warrants to search her office, her car, her house in Columbus and the home of Walker former chief of staff Jim Villa, where Rindfleisch was staying a couple nights each week.
“When we got there, (the investigators) said if I didn’t open the door they would break it down,” Rindfleisch said.
During the six-hour search-and-seizure operation, Bob Stelter, an investigator for the DA’s office, took Rindfleisch aside and told her she was in a lot of trouble, Rindfleisch recalled.
“He attempted to scare the hell out of me,” she said.
Mission Accomplished. Rindfleisch said she was scared, crying from a mixture of fear, frustration and anger.
“It was all about intimidation,” she said.
Late in the interrogations, during the closing months of 2010 and early 2011, Milwaukee County Assistant DA Bruce Landgraf stepped in briefly, Rindfleisch said. Landgraf was different than “hard-nosed” Chisholm, who wanted to throw the book at her, she said.
“And I believe to this day that if it wasn’t for Bruce Landgraf I would be in prison,” she said. “I know from people who met with him who were supposed to be witnesses (in the John Doe probe) that said he was reluctant to go through with this prosecution.”
Chisholm was not, and apparently Landgraf lost his soft touch along the way.
The DA’s office did offer Rindfleisch immunity should she divulge information on Walker that might be helpful to the investigation.
Investigators found the testimony not to their liking, so no immunity. Rindfleisch said she could offer them nothing but the truth, but that didn’t seem to be good enough for prosecutors.
“Their goal from the very start was to get to Scott Walker,” she said.
In a sentencing memo, Landgraf told the judge Rindfleisch had “provided no information deemed useful by prosecutors.” Landgraf asked the judge to view Rindfleisch’s campaign fundraising on county time as an “aggravated offense” that is “properly addressed with a jail sentence as a condition of probation.” Landgraf sought “deterrence.”
After nearly three years of extensive probing, prosecutors ended up getting Rindfleisch, and five other convictions, although four of the six had nothing to do with the original scope of the John Doe probe. The secret investigation finally ended in March 2013, a very expensive “political witch hunt,” according to critics, although the Milwaukee County DA’s office refuses to itemize the costs.
Rindfleisch acknowledges doing campaign work on the taxpayers’ dime was wrong, but she is furious at what she sees as the DA’s disparate treatment of left-leaning organizations and individuals who engaged in political activities on government time.
Take, for example, the case of Milwaukee County employee and liberal blogger Christopher Liebenthal, who in spring 2010 was caught engaging in “excessive political blogging” for liberals from his taxpayer-funded computer.
The DA’s office recognized that “Mr. Liebenthal’s actions constitute an extreme example,” but stated it would prefer to see the situation handled as a personnel matter rather than a criminal matter. The DA declined to prosecute.
There was no lengthy investigation into Kris Barrett, a teacher and Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett’s wife, who violated Milwaukee Public Schools policy in 2011 when she sent three emails rallying political support from the school district’s account.
“The difference between all of them and me, I wasn’t using the county computer, I wasn’t using the county phone,” Rindfleisch said. “I was using my own personal cell phone, laptop and private, not ‘illegal’ web connection.”
Prosecutors have accused Rindfleisch of sending out campaign-related emails on a “secret email system.”
“The only resource I was using was time,” she said, calculating that she generally spent no more than 10 to 20 minutes each day answering emails related to Davis’ campaign. Rindfleisch said she often worked 10-hour days at the county executive’s office, more than making up for any lost time from her political work.
Ah, but there’s a big difference, said the left, a point breathlessly voiced by Urban Milwaukee’s Bruce Murphy, general defender of Chisholm and despiser of all things Walker, in a March 6 piece.
“But Liebenthal, who was suspended for ten days for personal activities unrelated to work, didn’t do any blogging from a ‘tax supported computer’ and wasn’t writing on behalf of or paid by any political party or political official,” Murphy said, ignoring the fact Rindfleisch used her own electronic devices to communicate on behalf of Davis. “Indeed (Liebenthal) was (a) county employee who regularly blasted his ultimate boss, then County Executive Walker.”
Liebenthal, for the record, did use a “tax supported computer.”
Chisholm in late summer 2012 seamlessly moved from that broad investigation into what has been billed as John Doe II. As the Wall Street Journal reported earlier this month, it appears the sequel is the same old movie.
A court document obtained by the newspaper’s editorial board shows Nettesheim, the presiding judge in John Doe I, authorized Chisholm to “roll all information” from that secret investigation into a “new proceeding while maintaining all documents under the ‘existing’ secrecy order.”
The document also reveals John Doe I was “enlarged no fewer than 18 times over two and a half years.”
Earlier this year, prosecutors disclosed that Rindfleisch is a target in John Doe II, a multi-county investigation into dozens of conservative organizations. Rindfleisch said she cannot comment on that. The latest Doe also is bound by a strict secrecy order, meaning targets and prosecutors alike cannot talk about the investigation on threat of contempt charges.
Prosecutors repeatedly have declined to comment.
But unlike the first John Doe, conservatives are fighting back, breaking their silence — at the peril of their liberty.
In February, conservative activist Eric O’Keefe and his Wisconsin Club for Growth filed a federal civil rights lawsuit against Chisholm, Landgraf, another senior prosecutor in the Milwaukee County DA’s office by the name of David Robles, John Doe special prosecutor Francis Schmitz and Dean Nickel, a shadowy investigator contracted by the state Government Accountability Board.
O’Keefe’s lawsuit claims the prosecutors violated conservatives’ civil rights in an unlawful investigation that included predawn, “paramilitary-style” raids at the homes of several conservative targets.
Prosecutors have operated under a legal theory that at least 29 conservative organizations illegally coordinated with Walker’s campaign during the state’s partisan recall election drives.
Last month, U.S. District Court Judge Rudolph Randa ordered the John Doe probe shut down, noting the prosecutors’ theory is “simply wrong” and that it appears no campaign finance laws were broken. John Doe presiding Judge Gregory Peterson in January effectively ruled the same, quashing several subpoenas because prosecutors had failed to show evidence of probable cause.
Finally, Rindfleisch said. Someone striking back at the heavy hand of John Chisholm.
“To me, Eric O’Keefe and his attorneys are heroes for exposing the corruption that has taken place with these John Does,” Rindfleisch said.
While the lawsuits won’t help her case, Rindfleisch said she’s glad conservatives are finally fighting this critical free speech battle.
The 7th Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals is hearing the appeal of prosecutors, who claim, in part, Randa has no jurisdiction in the matter because the John Doe is a state investigation, and prosecutors are protected from such lawsuits.
But the appeals court, also last month, handed down an 88-page decision declaring unconstitutional portions of Wisconsin’s campaign finance law — language that involves issue advertisements, precisely the kind of political speech in which prosecutors say the club and other conservative groups were engaged.
Rindfleisch said the lowest point in her long legal nightmare came in February, when state Court of Appeals Judge Patricia Curley ordered the release of Rindfleisch’s emails, some professional, others personal, ostensibly related to her legal troubles.
The mainstream media seized on the release, and the left used it as a rallying cry in its running narrative of a corrupt governor despite the fact John Doe I closed without any charges or accusations of wrongdoing lodged against Walker.
“I am still furious and disgusted about them releasing my private emails, most of which had nothing to do with my appeal and the charges,” Rindfleisch said. “The judge released it and it was fodder to make Scott Walker look bad.”
To be sure, there were some unflattering and embarrassing communications, not the least of which were Nardelli’s racially charged comments.
But Rindfleisch said much was misinterpreted or skewed by the press, beginning with the volume of emails. Media outlets everywhere reported the court-ordered release included 27,000 pages of emails, when in fact much of the document dump included thousands of pages of legal documents and thousands of pages of repeated emails.
Rindfleisch said she will not apologize for the content of the emails.
“If someone wants to judge me let six months of their private emails be released to the public and not have something (controversial) in there. I don’t feel the need to defend myself,” she said.
Some of the emails include very personal information, such as family communications about her elderly father, at the time dying from the effects of a stroke. A number of media outlets reported on emails concerning the antidepressant Rindfleisch was taking.
But beyond the public humiliation was the sense of private betrayal from the people Rindfleisch thought were her friends. Asked if she felt sold out by some fellow Republicans during the investigation and the court process, Rindfleisch said, “In a lot of ways, yes.”
“Throughout it, I blamed who should be blamed, and that’s John Chisholm. The media was out for blood. Anyone remotely associated with me was going to get smeared,” she said.
Asked if she felt abandoned by Walker, Rindfleisch said she didn’t want to talk about that.
“What he did or didn’t do doesn’t matter. What matters is what was done to me,” she said.
What drives her crazy, she said, is the Republican Party’s failure to rally around the “fact that our Constitution is being destroyed.”
She points specifically to comments early this year by Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, R-Rochester, who told Wisconsin Reporter he was concerned about the John Doe probes but wanted to wait until the investigations were in the “rearview mirror” before legislatively addressing John Doe law.
“Doesn’t that kind of defeat the purpose?” Rindfleisch asked. “Shouldn’t you be calling it out while it’s happening? How much more damage do you want to be done before you say something.”
To the politicians, Rindfleisch said, it’s all about getting re-elected and getting power. John Doe probes are messy distractions in the bid to obtain both.
For now, Kelly Rindfleisch lives her life in a state of limbo, waiting for the slow wheels of justice to turn in her appeal.
If she loses, she goes to jail.
“I’m extremely frustrated. This thing can be dragged out for years,” Rindfleisch said, adding a famous aphorism, “Justice delayed is justice denied.”
Thanks to the “kindness of strangers” she said she isn’t as financially crippled as she once was, but she still has legal bills to pay. And finding work has become a struggle. People are under the impression she is “incompetent,” that all she can do is political business.
As the legal battle rolls on in John Doe II, Rindfleisch has some advice for the conservative targets caught in prosecutors’ net.
“Don’t back down,” she said. “The more of us that tell our stories, the more exposed this whole rotten investigation will be.”
Contact M.D. Kittle at email@example.com.