The Media Whiff on Scott Walker

by Christian Schneider
The new e-mails don’t reveal any evidence of illegal activity at all — as prosecutors already knew.

As Wisconsin governor Scott Walker headed toward his June 2012 recall election, his political opponents dropped any pretense that the recall attempt was about his reforms to public-sector collective bargaining, the election’s previously stated purpose, which had come to be a relatively popular, successful measure. Instead, Democrats focused on a “John Doe” investigation into actions taken by former staffers while Walker was Milwaukee County executive in 2010.

In March 2013, well after Walker won his recall election, the John Doe investigation was dropped, and Walker was cleared of any criminal wrongdoing. The probe did, however, snag several staffers, including Kelly Rindfleisch, Walker’s deputy chief of staff when he was county executive, who pleaded guilty to one felony count of misconduct in office for doing campaign work at her government job. (She is currently appealing the conviction.)

While the investigation has been closed for nearly a year, yesterday nearly 27,000 pages of Rindfleisch’s e-mails were made public. In an age when politics is characterized by careful, guarded public statements, the anything-but-guarded Rindfleisch e-mails caused a feeding frenzy among local media.

As governor, Walker’s public persona is pretty bulletproof, but these e-mails give a glimpse as to what went down behind the scenes as he ran for governor in 2010 (although most of Rindfleisch’s alleged on-the-clock campaign work was done for an unsuccessful lieutenant governor candidate, not Walker).

There really doesn’t appear to be anything new in the e-mails: Voters knew about Rindfleisch’s conviction when they went to the polls in 2012 and Walker still won by a larger margin than he had in 2010. But there’s just enough in them for Democrats to try to do what prosecutors couldn’t: convict Walker in the court of public opinion.

How? There are the embarrassing e-mails one would find looking through 27,000 pages of any organization’s server. For instance, one of Walker’s former older staffers, Tom Nardelli, appears to be fond of racially insensitive jokes, which national outlets are trying to stick to his former boss. In some e-mails, Rindfleisch complains about deeply personal matters, such as feeling bad about being left off an invite for a “couples’ weekend” in Northern Wisconsin, and her need to lose weight. (The chances Rindfleisch’s e-mails become part of a dramatic reading performance in one of Madison’s art houses currently stands at 99 percent. Sample: “I just got my rolodex back and that f***ing c*** took business cards out of it. Can she do that?”)

Yet the e-mail Walker’s opponents are making the most of is one they believe “directly ties” Walker to a separate wireless network his staff had set up in his county executive office. Having a “secret” router would protect certain campaign-related e-mails from being made public under open records laws.

Slate’s Emma Roller argues one of the e-mails released “directly implicates Walker in breaking campaign law.” But it does nothing of the sort.

At one point, Walker’s administration director, Cynthia Archer, wrote to Rindfleisch, saying, “Consider youself [sic] now in the ‘inner circle.’” Archer followed up:

“I use this private account quite a bit to communicate with SKW and Nardelli. You should be sure you check it throughout the day.” “SKW,” of course, is Scott Walker. And that is their supposed “evidence” that Walker was a criminal mastermind.

And while prosecutors have had these e-mails for nearly three years and found nothing, Democrats believe this exchange proves Walker was in on the “secret network,” which his subordinates used to access campaign e-mails while in the office.

Again, voters knew about this network and refused to let it trouble their consciences in the 2012 recall election. When asked in January of 2012 whether he knew about the extra network in his office, Walker said he couldn’t discuss it because of the then-ongoing investigation.

All these e-mails prove is that Walker’s staffers used the network to receive the e-mails he sent to their campaign accounts from his own campaign e-mail account. It in no way proves Walker knew anything about the “secret” network. Under this logic, anyone who e-mailed Rindfleisch during this time is “directly tied” to the private router.

In a separate filing made available yesterday, prosecutors said they suspected Walker knew of the “secret” network. But, of course, the filings show that they never proved that allegation, and again, Walker was never charged with anything. (The investigator raising the suspicion, David Budde, has come under fire from conservative groups for having a “Recall Scott Walker” sign in his yard during the investigation.)

Walker’s critics have also slammed what they believe to be the “intermingling” of Walker’s campaign and his county administrative staff. They claim that, for instance, official staff would fact-check campaign communications for accuracy.

But this makes total sense. For instance, at one point, then–county supervisor Chris Larson claimed vandalism was up in Milwaukee County parks because Walker had cut enforcement staff. Naturally, Walker’s staff called the parks director, a county employee, to get some facts to refute Larson’s nakedly political attempt to derail Walker’s gubernatorial campaign.

So aside from the prurient interest in the occasionally scandalous personal details in the e-mail dump, nothing has yet come to light that the voters didn’t already know in the summer of 2012.

Despite Democrats’ best attempts to call this “Walker’s Chris Christie moment,” the fact remains that after two years of investigation, prosecutors came up with nothing to link Walker to any kind of illegal activity. And while there are still thousands of e-mails to pick through, don’t expect the Democratic party or Slate writers to dredge up anything trained prosecutors couldn’t find in two years.

— Christian Schneider is a columnist for the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.