As the recall-election campaign against Wisconsin governor Scott Walker wound down in June 2012, Democrats completely abandoned their reason for attempting to yank Walker out of office in the first place. While the election had originally been about the ability of public unions to collectively bargain, in its final weeks Democrats pivoted to a “John Doe” investigation of some former staffers who had worked for Walker during his tenure as Milwaukee county executive.
Well before the election, several of these former staffers were charged with crimes — one for child enticement, one for stealing money from a veterans’ fund, and one for sending political e-mails on government time. Yet despite Walker himself not having been accused of anything improper, his opponent, Milwaukee mayor Tom Barrett, ran television ads drenched in innuendo, attempting to declare Walker guilty simply for, among other things, setting up a legal fund to defend himself. On his Twitter feed, then-spokesman for the Wisconsin Democratic party Graeme Zielinski accused Walker of bankrolling the defense fund of men accused of “boy rape.” (I kept score of the more ridiculous John Doe–related attacks here.)
But while the investigation went away, the investigators did not. The same prosecutors who went after Walker prior to his recall election have now returned, launching another John Doe investigation into whether conservative groups may have unlawfully coordinated to help Walker win the recall.
According to a piece in the Wall Street Journal over the weekend, subpoenas for these groups have been issued over the past month:
Copies of two subpoenas we’ve seen demand “all memoranda, email . . . correspondence, and communications” both internally and between the subpoena target and some 29 conservative groups, including Wisconsin and national nonprofits, political vendors and party committees. The groups include the League of American Voters, Wisconsin Family Action, Wisconsin Manufacturers & Commerce, Americans for Prosperity — Wisconsin, American Crossroads, the Republican Governors Association, Friends of Scott Walker and the Republican Party of Wisconsin.
One subpoena also demands “all records of income received, including fundraising information and the identity of persons contributing to the corporation.” In other words, tell us who your donors are.
These subpoenas seek to accomplish what campaign-finance reformers have failed at so miserably over the past decade: to expose the names of people who support conservative causes but contribute to third-party groups anonymously. In many cases, conservative donors want to remain anonymous in order to prevent the type of intimidation tactics virulent liberals will use against them. (As the WSJ notes, during Walker’s recall, many businesses that supported Walker were “outed,” and thus subject to boycotts by union sympathizers.)
It appears that investigators are looking into whether these groups provided Walker’s campaign with a “benefit” that should have been reported on Walker’s finance reports, and whether these benefits were improperly coordinated with Walker’s reelection effort. But what constitutes a “benefit” is certainly vague. Any number of actions can affect an election, and few of them ever show up on an official finance report.
It is particularly troubling that the investigation targets only conservative groups; apparently all the pro-union money that flooded into Wisconsin to help unseat Walker doesn’t quite gnaw on the consciences of these particular investigators. One needs to look no further than the Internal Revenue Service scandal from earlier this year to realize how dangerous partisan government can be when it has an agenda.
But even if these investigators don’t find any “coordination” between Walker’s campaign and conservative groups — and campaign coordination is an extremely difficult charge to prove — the real damage may be in the investigation itself. Walker is up for reelection in 2014, which coincides perfectly with this latest probe. At the very least, this active investigation could chill would-be donors to Walker’s 2014 campaign.
Further, as conservative activist Eric O’Keefe told the Wall Street Journal, “the process is the punishment.” In fact, John Doe proceedings are supposed to be secret, so O’Keefe could face sanctions for speaking out — yet during the last John Doe investigation, details of the proceedings that made Walker look bad were routinely leaked to media outlets, with no repercussions.
After any election, an overzealous prosecutor could perform an ex post facto review and determine that an independent group’s actions constituted a benefit to a campaign. It appears that such a specious review may be occurring in Wisconsin right now, as the timing and partisanship of this recent probe are extremely suspect. If we find out after Walker’s 2014 election that this John Doe has once again turned up nothing, perhaps Democrats should be required to report the investigation itself as a campaign benefit.
— Christian Schneider is a columnist for the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.