Since September of 2010 the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel (MJS) has been detailing an ongoing “John Doe” criminal investigation being run out of the Milwaukee County District Attorney’s office involving Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker’s former staff and associates. The wide-ranging investigation has included allegations of campaign finance malfeasance, embezzlement of veterans funds, bid-rigging, and even child enticement during the period when Walker served as Milwaukee County Executive, but was running for governor.
On June 1, 2012, the MJS broke the story that Milwaukee County prosecutors were forced to move from a regular investigation to a secret “John Doe” criminal investigation more than two years ago after being stonewalled by the County Executive’s office. Court records released in the trial of one of the defendants showed that prosecutors said Walker’s office had been “unwilling or unable” to turn over requested records. This new information contradicts Walker’s repeated claims that he has been “fully cooperating” with the investigation since the start.
As of today, this ongoing criminal investigation has resulted in six indictments, 15 felony charges, and two convictions. At the moment, five people are awaiting trial. Below we provide a John Doe primer for the uninitiated.
1) What is a John Doe investigation?
In Wisconsin, a “John Doe” investigation is a closed-door criminal proceeding that operates much like a Grand Jury does in other states. Rather than appearing before a jury, though, a John Doe investigation takes place before a judge. Witnesses with evidence relevant to the investigation can be subpoenaed and compelled to testify under oath about potential crimes. Due to the secrecy rules governing the investigation, the scope and targets of the investigation are sometimes difficult to discern. The John Doe investigation involving Walker’s tenure as County Executive is being prosecuted by the Milwaukee County District Attorney John Chisholm before Judge Neal Nettesheim of Waukesha. It has been underway since May of 2010, but it is active and ongoing, with the latest immunity deal being announced last week. New evidence emerged this weekend that there is also a parallel federal investigation underway.
2) Who is the target of the investigation?
When Current TV’s David Shuster broke the story on Friday that Walker was a “target” of the investigation he cited anonymous sources. On Saturday, Walker issued a strong denial, saying any suggestions that he has become a target of the John Doe probe are “100 percent wrong.” Late on Saturday, Shuster revealed more. “I stand by my reporting 100 percent,” Shuster said in a conference call reported by the Progressive Magazine, citing sources with the U.S. Justice Department’s Public Integrity Section, and clarifying that there is a parallel federal investigation. Shuster also said that Walker’s attorneys had been seeking to have their client publicly cleared of wrongdoing for the last five or six weeks, but prosecutors would not clear him.
Shuster’s report is the first on a federal investigation parallel to the ongoing investigation by the Milwaukee DA, but the news did not come as a surprise. Walker has hired high-powered criminal defense lawyers and is using a portion of his $30 million raised for the campaign to pay legal bills being run up by his campaign attorneys and his personal criminal defense attorneys, over $320,000 combined so far. The use of a campaign war chest to pay legal fees is only permitted under Wisconsin statutes when a person or their “agent” acting on their behalf are “under investigation for, charged with, or convicted of a criminal violation” under campaign finance and election laws. Walker announced he was starting a criminal defense fund in March 2012.
Walker’s recall opponent, Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett, has challenged Walker to turn over all the emails related to this controversy. Walker says he can’t reveal any emails or speak about the investigation because of secrecy rules from the prosecutor. However, Judge Nettesheim made clear to a reporter in a rare interview, that no individual would be subject to the secrecy order unless he physically appeared in front of the judge while in court on the John Doe proceeding and personally received the secrecy order from the judge (not a prosecutor). Further, he said that an individual who had not appeared as a witness would be free to discuss or distribute documents even if those documents were evidence. We do know Walker was called in to talk to prosecutors in February 2012, but we do not know if he appeared before the judge.
3) Who has been charged and what are the charges so far in the investigation?
So far the investigators have charged six people with 15 felonies; one person, who turned himself in to prosecutors, was convicted on two counts:
* Timothy Russell (former deputy chief of staff to Milwaukee County Executive Scott Walker) was charged with two felonies, and one misdemeanor related to embezzlement of donations intended for Wisconsin veterans in a special fund, which was created at Walker’s direction. The money was used by Russell and his partner, Brian Pierick, to take a few vacations. Read the criminal complaint here.
* Brian Pierick (partner of Timothy Russell): charged with two felonies involving child solicitation. It appears Russell’s phone records led to Pierick and a nasty story about two men soliciting a 17-year old minor for sex. Read the criminal complaint here.
* Kevin Kavanaugh (appointed by Walker as a county veterans’ official): charged with five felonies related to embezzlement from the veterans fund. Kavanaugh appears to have been raiding the funds separately from Russell. Read the criminal complaint here.
* Kelly Rindfleisch (former deputy chief of staff to then-Milwaukee County Executive Scott Walker): charged with four felonies relating to campaign fundraising while on the county payroll. Rindfleisch’s worked on a secret wifi system in her office just steps away from Walker’s office. Rindfleisch continued to work for Walker’s campaign until she was charged. Read the criminal complaint here.
* Darlene Wink (former aide to then-Milwaukee County Executive Scott Walker): pled guilty to two unclassified misdemeanors as part of a deal that she made with the prosecutors relating to working on campaign fundraising while on the county payroll. Winks office was down a short hallway from Walker’s. Read the complaint here.
* William Gardner (President and CEO of Wisconsin & Southern Railroad): Gardner pled guilty to felony violations of Wisconsin’s election campaign laws in April of 2011. Gardner tried to convince prosecutors that his $50,000 in illegal contributions to Walker, which he funneled through his employees and a girlfriend, was an innocent mistake, except he had done the same thing the previous year. Read the criminal complaint here.
4) What did Walker know and when did he know it?
The investigation was initially sparked by a probe into some $60,000 in missing veterans’ funds. Based on discoveries made in that investigation, it expanded into a probe of illegal fundraising activity by government employees who were Walker’s staff. The allegation is that Tim Russell set up an unofficial email and wifi system in the Milwaukee County Executive’s office so that staffers could conduct campaign business on laptops while their salaries were being paid by the taxpayers. This type of activity is a felony in Wisconsin, and other high-level politicians have been prosecuted and convicted of similar misconduct in the past. The existence of the secret email system was “never disclosed to county employees outside a closely held group within the Walker administration,” says the indictment of Kelly Rindfleisch, the employee hired by Walker who spent the most time on fundraising activities. On county time, the staffers communicated extensively with Walker campaign staff, organized fundraisers, made invitations, exchanged fundraising lists, and sent out campaign press releases, all just steps away from Walker’s own office.
Walker says he knows nothing about it, but an email included in the Kelly Rindfleisch charging documents suggests otherwise. When the MJS caught Darlene Wink Facebooking for Walker’s campaign while working on the county payroll and printed a story on the morning of May 14, 2010, she was fired. Walker sent an email to Deputy Chief of Staff Tim Russell that same morning at 8:46 a.m. — not demanding an investigation or a top to bottom review of staff procedures — but telling him he felt bad about firing her and stating “we cannot afford another story like this one. No one can give them any reason to do another story. That means no laptops, no websites, no time away during the work day, etc.” Many have described this as a “smoking gun” email.
As if the story were not complicated enough, the MJS has also reported that investigators are looking into bid-rigging charges related to the county’s decision, when Walker was County Exec, to move the Wisconsin Department of Aging from a public facility to a private facility using a bidding process. That investigation has lead to raids on the home of Walker’s former chief of staff, Jim Villa, and a focus on his long-time campaign treasurer, Joe Hiller, a realtor involved with the potential county real estate contract. The MJS has reported on a private email exchange between Walker and Hiller that has been described as a “bombshell” in the investigation, but has not yet been released.
5) How many people have had their homes and computers raided by the FBI?
This may not be knowable. About a dozen law enforcement officers, including FBI agents, raided the Madison home of Cynthia Archer, who worked for Walker as a top aide at both the state level and at the county level. The raid on Archer’s home was watched with interest by friends and neighbors in her close knit community, but we are now finding out about more raids that went unnoticed at the time. Lawyers involved in the defense of Kelly Rindfleisch, are trying to suppress evidence gained by searches of the homes and offices of Walker’s former chief of staff Jim Villa and former state Rep. Brett Davis, who ran for the Republican nomination as Lt. Governor at the time that Walker ran for governor. Darlene Wink and Tim Russell apparently also were visited by the FBI.
6) How many people have been granted immunity?
So far, 13 people have been granted immunity in the case, but not Walker according to court records. This means that 13 people surrounding Walker could have been charged with a crime, but avoided prosecution by agreeing to cooperate with investigators and waive their constitutional right against self-incrimination. The 13 include Governor Walker’s Press Secretary, Cullen Werwie and Fran McLaughlin, Walker’s spokeswoman while he was Milwaukee County executive; David Halbrooks, a Milwaukee attorney with Democratic ties who specializes in procurement; GOP official Rose Ann Dieck; and Suzanne Immel, a Walker donor, and others involved in the prosecution of the railroad magnate who sought to conceal his illegal donations to Walker’s gubernatorial campaign.
7) Who are the lawyers?
Walker’s campaign has attorneys, including former federal prosecutor Steven M. Biskupic of the Wisconsin firm Michael Best & Friedrich. Walker himself is represented by a pair of high-powered law firms. Michael J. Steinle is a criminal defense attorney at the law firm Terschan & Steinle, LTD. Steinle has been included in the Best Lawyers in America and has been selected as one of Wisconsin’s Super Lawyers every year since 2005. Some of Steinle’s cases include a former flag football coach accused of molesting several of his underage players. He also represented clients in several homicide cases including the high-profile case of Richard Berhens who killed his live-in girlfriend and buried her body. Walker’s other attorney is John N. Gallo, a partner at Sidley Austin LLP, a large law firm in Chicago. He is a 1986 graduate of Harvard Law and a former federal prosecutor in Chicago with a specialty in grand jury investigations. Walker has spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on lawyers already, but many in the legal community think that the lawyers are holding back their bills until after the election.
8) Is this a partisan witch hunt?
Chisholm was already taking a lot of heat for alleged leaks to the MJS when the right-wing online media source “Media Trackers” used a data-base of recall petition signers prepared by an out-of-state Tea Party group to document that people in the Milwaukee DA’s office signed Walker’s recall petition. This is hardly surprising given that these county workers were directly affect by Walker’s collective bargaining bill and other policies. Chisholm responded that none of the attorneys or staff working on the investigation signed the recall petition. Moreover, the U.S. Supreme Court has consistently protected the free speech rights of public employees.
While Chisholm was elected as a Democrat in a democratic county, he has a track-record of prosecuting democratic politicians. During Chisholm’s first term, he worked with federal prosecutors to convict democratic Alderman Michael McGee, Jr. on a series of state and federal charges that included bribery and extortion. More recently, he charged democratic Milwaukee County Supervisor Johnny Thomas with accepting a bribe in public office and with misconduct in public office. If proven Thomas could serve 10 years. Judge Nettesheim defended Chisholm and the integrity of the case to the MJS. “This has been an orderly and professionally conducted procedure,” he said. MJS’s lead reporter, Dan Bice, has repeatedly denied receiving leaks from the Milwaukee prosecutor’s office. With a growing number of witnesses, and with computers and data and other information being subpoenaed all around town, Bice likely has plenty of sources, but has not been able to get his hands on key emails in the possession of prosecutors.
The question today is, how much do voters know about the John Doe investigation, and how much do they care? Wisconsin’s historic recall election is June 5, 2012. Visit PRWatch.org for more reporting on news from Wisconsin.