It was still dark outside when “Jonah” (not his real name) heard the pounding on his front door. As luck would have it, he was awake — or mostly awake. He’d gotten up at 4:00 a.m. on October 3, 2013, to see his parents off to the airport. They were leaving on a quick trip to raise money for the children’s charity his father runs. Jonah was 16 at the time, old enough to stay home alone for a short time, but not old enough to deal with what awaited him on the other side of the door.
The pounding continued, and Jonah peered out the window to discover its source. To his horror, he saw uniformed officers, their guns drawn. “Police,” they yelled. “We have a warrant.” An officer shined a flashlight on a document Jonah couldn’t read. Unsure what to do, but unwilling to defy the authorities, he let them in.
Then, they proceeded to turn his house “upside down.”
The pretense for the October raids was suspected “coordination” between various conservative organizations and Wisconsin governor Scott Walker’s campaign — activity that a trial court has held constituted nothing more than entirely legal “issue advocacy,” if it even occurred. Because they’d had the temerity to engage in this issue advocacy — constitutionally protected free speech — multiple conservative citizens were subjected to so-called John Doe proceedings by Milwaukee County District Attorney John Chisholm, a Democrat.
A quirky and dangerous Wisconsin legal mechanism, the John Doe proceeding allows, among other things, for expansive and completely secret criminal investigations, supervised not by the citizens of a grand jury but by judges who all too often simply rubber-stamp prosecutors’ demands. As a prominent Wisconsin conservative and political consultant, Jonah’s father was one of Chisholm’s targets.
The origins of the affair are complex. It began almost four years before the October raids, with a request from Governor Walker’s own staff to investigate the loss of $11,242.24 from a local veteran’s fund. Chisholm waited almost a full year to investigate and then launched his first John Doe investigation, now known as John Doe I. He subsequently expanded that initial investigation no fewer than 18 times, raiding Walker’s office and campaign headquarters, his county-executive offices, and the homes of his advisers and supporters in an attempt to make any possible criminal charge — the initial embezzlement complaint, sexual misconduct, campaign-finance violations, the alleged misuse of county time and property — stick to the governor.
All of this occurred against the backdrop of one of the most dramatic political fights in the country, as Walker and Wisconsin’s Republican legislature enacted conservative public-employee-union reforms over the objections of tens of thousands of chanting protestors and virtually the entire American Left. Chisholm’s wife was a teachers’ union shop steward, and a whistleblower has said that Chisholm “felt it was his personal duty” to stop Walker’s reforms.
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He failed. The reforms passed, and Walker won a closely contested recall election. John Doe I claimed a few scalps — the initial embezzler, an employee guilty of sexual misconduct, and some convictions for minor campaign violations — but the governor himself was unscathed. So Chisholm tried again, launching John Doe II, the comprehensive investigation of conservative “issue advocacy” that led police to Jonah’s door.
Jonah’s father may have been the target of the raid on his home, but according to the family, investigators went well beyond the scope of the warrant to seize business records in his mother’s possession, including confidential donor and financial information for two conservative Wisconsin nonprofits, which were paralyzed for weeks as a result. Yet despite the overly expansive search, to this day, no one in Jonah’s family has been charged with a crime.
The damage to the family’s reputation was immense. Soon after the raid, and despite court orders mandating confidentiality (orders that prevented the family from publicly defending themselves), their names leaked to the press. Jonah’s father — working to help the most disadvantaged kids — found himself struggling to defend a professional reputation under siege. In both his day job as a political consultant and his nonprofit work, even the slightest rumor of illegality can cause clients and donors to shy away. As he puts it, when you’re hired as a consultant, “No matter how good you are, you can’t become the issue.” A consultant whose home was just raided by law enforcement is, most definitely, an “issue” for any politician or political movement.
At present, John Doe II is halted. In response to a challenge from Wisconsin conservative activist Eric O’Keefe and the Wisconsin Club for Growth, a trial judge blocked multiple prosecution subpoenas, holding that they “do not show probable cause that the moving parties committed any violations of the campaign-finance laws.” This ruling has been appealed to the Wisconsin Supreme Court, and a decision that could potentially end Chisholm’s witch hunts once and for all is expected any day. At least one victim isn’t waiting for such a decision before she takes action. Cindy Archer has filed a civil-rights lawsuit against Chisholm, and more suits may be coming.
Still, no lawsuit or court ruling will undo the harm the investigations have already inflicted on their victims. Even reliving the experience of the raid in an interview was difficult for Jonah. He has a “deep sense” that his home is no longer safe. His family lives in a rural part of their county, and cars — especially dark SUVs — approaching their driveway now cause him deep, immediate anxiety. His family used to be more politically active; now, they watch what they say. They used to be more trusting, especially of police; now, they assume the worst.
And his mother continues to be terrified by the thought of what could have happened in the raid.
“We’re so fortunate that he’s okay,” she says. “He could have been in the shower. They could have broken the door down. He could have been shot. Over politics.”
— David French is an attorney and a staff writer at National Review.