Politics & Policy

The Bogus Walker Scandal

Wisconsin governor Scott Walker (Ethan Miller/Getty Images)
Two judges have already decided that he wasn’t part of a “criminal scheme.”

If you were online on Thursday, chances are you saw the following headline in a font large enough to put the Hindenburg disaster in your paper’s News in Brief section: “Prosecutors: Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker part of a ‘criminal scheme.’”

Different incantations of that headline traveled the land far and wide, leading readers to believe that somehow the Wisconsin governor (and likely presidential hopeful) was being investigated for corruption. Liberals at the Huffington Post, the Daily Kos, and ThinkProgress all prepared their readers for Walker to show up as a new character on the next season of Orange Is the New Black.

But there are two very important people that don’t believe Walker was part of a “criminal scheme:” the two judges who have shut the case down for lack of evidence. The “scheme” charge was made last December in a court filing by prosecutors. But less than a month later, a judge rejected the charge, saying that the motion “failed to show probable cause that a crime had been committed.”

The document dump made available yesterday included previously secret motions in the “John Doe” investigation that has plagued Walker for months. But the liberals cheering this new “revelation” were likely unaware that they were cheering an investigation that has been defunct for over a month now. They were chasing the ghost of John Doe.

Last month, a second judge shut down the investigation into Walker and his allies completely. In May, federal judge Rudolph Randa issued a sternly worded decision chiding prosecutors for their overreach and halting the probe in its tracks. Randa’s decision is currently being appealed.

At issue is whether Walker’s campaign has “coordinated” with third-party groups in an effort to circumvent Wisconsin’s campaign-finance laws. Prosecutors believe that state law prohibits coordination between campaigns and independent groups, and groups that advertise during campaigns should be counted as making a “contribution” to the Walker campaign, and thus subject to regulation. Randa, however, said explicitly that such activity is not within the purview of state regulations.

It seems clear under state campaign-finance law that regulations apply solely to groups who engage in “express advocacy” by telling voters to vote for or against a specific candidate. These groups have to file paperwork with the state, reporting their donors and how much they have spent, and swearing that they haven’t coordinated with a candidate’s campaign.

The groups that Walker is being accused of coordinating with, however, are groups that run “issue ads.” These ads, while plainly making an implicit endorsement, don’t directly advocate for or against candidates; they simply say, “call Scott Walker and tell him to keep on being awesome,” or the like.

These groups operate completely off the state’s books; government has as much right to inspect their ad buys and customers as they do Taco Bell’s. Further, they can coordinate with one another and shift money back and forth in whatever way they like, as their activities are protected free political speech.

Prosecutors allege the fact that political operative R. J. Johnson did consulting work for both Walker and the Wisconsin Club for Growth (a group that didn’t even run issue ads during the 2012 Walker recall election, although they helped funnel money to groups that did) is evidence of “coordination.” But in shutting the case down, Randa said the evidence doesn’t support any charge of coordination, and even if there was coordination, it isn’t regulated by state law, which covers only “express” advocacy.

As Judge Gregory Peterson wrote in his January decision to quash prosecutors’ subpoenas, “the legislature crafted definitions of four key terms: committee, disbursement, contribution and political purposes. All statutory regulations emanate from these four definitions. Before there is coordination there must be political purposes; without political purposes, coordination is not a crime.” Peterson further added, “the only clearly defined political purpose is one that requires express advocacy.”

Of course, any interest the Democratic district attorney had in investigating the over $20 million spent by special interests against Walker during the recall election has likely been lost under his driver’s side seat. Other filings found in yesterday’s document dump detail coordination between a vast cabal of union groups. To wit:

On Nov. 19, 2011, The Committee to Recall Scott Walker . . . announced a gathering to kick off the Walker recall effort. The event was widely announced as being “in coordination with We Are Wisconsin, United Wisconsin, and the Democratic Party of Wisconsin) . . . ” In fact . . . the timing of the recall was carefully discussed between these members, political candidates, and nationwide Democratic Party leaders, including officials from the Barack Obama presidential campaign.

But that’s one thing both Walker and the liberal groups have in common: Contra the breathless stories in the national media, neither is subject to an active investigation. The “criminal scheme” charge was issued and shot down before Americans could even contemplate the term “Grammy winner Macklemore.”

So while the Walker investigation is dead, like Frankenstein’s monster, the bogus headlines still live.

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

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