The political and pundit class loves to identify “outsider” candidates for the presidency, looking in particular to governors who have not been tarnished by the compromises and corruptions of Washington. But the trouble with being an “outsider” candidate is that, eventually, you face the same sort of scrutiny as the insiders.
Just as New Jersey Governor Chris Christie suffered a blow when the media started to examine the extent to which he mingled politics and governing, so Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker is now taking a hit that will inspire serious doubts—even among his admirers—about whether he is ready for the political prime time.
The release of 27,000 pages of e-mails from the seized computers of a former Walker aide who has since been convicted of political wrongdoing, along with more than 400 documents from the first of two major probes into scandals associated with Walker’s service as Milwaukee County executive and his gubernatorial campaigns, is shining new light on the extent to which the controversial governor’s legal, ethical and political troubles will make his transition to the national stage difficult.
The e-mails offer a powerful sense of how Walker and his aides appeared to have blurred the lines between official duties and campaigning when he was seeking the governorship in 2010—taking actions that would eventually lead to the convictions of key aides. Walker, who has steered hundreds of thousands of dollars from his campaign account into a legal defense fund, has not been charged with wrongdoing himself. But the e-mails and legal documents paint a picture of an elected official who was so focused on political positioning that he felt it necessary to order daily conference calls to “better coordinate” between aides in his Milwaukee County Executive office and campaign staff.
Walker’s county aides used a secret e-mail routing system to coordinate campaign events and fundraising, and to trash the woman who would eventually serve as Walker’s lieutenant governor as “the bane of your existence.” They circulated crude, sometimes racist messages. And as news outlets sifted through the e-mails, they found one from a top Walker appointee, administration director Cynthia Archer, telling another aide who had accessed the secret network that she was now “in the inner circle.” “I use this private account quite a bit to communicate with SKW…” wrote Archer.
Scott Kevin Walker identified himself on e-mails as “SKW.” Indeed, among the thousands of e-mails released Wednesday was one from a top Walker aide—Tim Russell, who has since been convicted and hailed. In it, he forwards a link to video of Chris Christie yelling at a reporter with the line: “skw should talk like this.”
The largest paper in Wisconsin, The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, which endorsed the governor in the past, featured a banner headline on its Thursday edition that read: “Records Link Walker to Secret Email System.”
Walker—who the e-mails reveal thought “9 out of 10 requests [from reporters] are going to be traps” and ordered his county aides to generate “positive and bold stories”—was scrambling Wednesday to dismiss the download of e-mails and legal documents as “old news.” A particularly defensive governor griped about all the attention to the e-mails and documents, saying, “these people are naysayers who want things bad to happen in Wisconsin so they are going to be circling again today. It’s exactly what’s wrong with the political process that they’re hoping for something bad to happen in Wisconsin. It’s not.”
At the same time, the Republican Governors Association—which is chaired by Christie—made a six-figure television ad buy in Wisconsin to protect the governor’s position in a 2014 re-election race where polls show him leading but with support levels below 50 percent.
The e-mails and documents—which media outlets have sought for months—were released by a judge dealing with ongoing legal wrangling over the conviction of former Walker aide Kelly Rindfleisch for misconduct in public office.
Rindfleisch did not just work for Walker before he was elected governor. She was also associated with him after he took his state post, as a key fund-raiser who traveled with the governor while he raised money nationally. And her name has been linked to a new John Doe probe that reportedly has focused on wrongdoing by individuals and groups that backed the governor’s 2012 campaign to beat a recall vote.
That’s not exactly “old news.” And it comes at a particularly unfortunate moment for Walker, who cannot have been happy with a Wednesday Washington Post headline that read: “Scott Walker, eyeing 2016, faces fallout from probes as ex-aide’s e-mails are released,” and “E-mails may spell trouble for Scott Walker.” Or a Thursday New York Times report that said the emails and documents portray Walker as “having presided over an office where aides used personal computers and email to conceal that they were mixing government and campaign business.”
There’s no question that Walker wants to be considered as a contender for the 2016 Republican presidential nomination. Even as he seeks re-election this year, he has been busy touring a new book that conservative commentators say “reads like one gigantic presidential trial balloon,” making the rounds of the same talk shows once frequented by Christie, and maintaining a relentless schedule of national appearances to aid Republican candidates and raise money.
With one-time GOP front-runner Christie mired in scandal, pundits who don’t know much about Walker like to imagine that he might be the next “shiny penny” for Republicans seeking a candidate from outside Washington.
But Walker’s national prospects have never looked as good as his admirers imagine. Even after Christie’s downfall, the Wisconsinite was wrestling with Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal for last place in most state and national polls of likely Republican caucus and primary voters.
Now, just as Christie faces fallout from an aide’s revealing e-mails, so Walker faces fallout from an aide’s revealing e-mails. The circumstances may be different, and Walker has certainly tried to present himself as a less politically contentious figure than the governor of New Jersey. But when the headlines in Washington are talking about a governor facing “fallout from probes,” and the governor in question is not Chris Christie, there’s a good chance that even the most ardent Republicans will start noticing the tarnish on their shiny penny.
By: John Nichols, The Nation, February 19, 2014
They say that misery loves company, and New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie (R) may soon have a friend who can sympathize with seeing a 2016 presidential campaign threatened by a tawdry political scandal.
On Wednesday, more than 27,000 emails were released from a now closed investigation into alleged illegal activity by Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker’s (R) 2010 election campaign. Though Walker himself was never charged with anything, the new documents for the first time tie him directly to his staff’s shady campaign dealings, an embarrassing blow that could hinder his re-election bid this year and dampen his appeal as an establishment alternative come 2016.
A quick recap on how we got here.
Back in 2010, when Walker was still the Milwaukee County executive, his staff established a secret wireless network in the county office to coordinate strategy with his political campaign. Because such coordination is illegal in Wisconsin when done on the taxpayers’ dime, a probe into the effort resulted in convictions for six of Walker’s former aides and allies, including his former deputy chief of staff, Kelly Rindfleisch, who pleaded guilty in 2012 to a felony for her role.
Walker, meanwhile, came through unscathed — until now, that is.
According to the newly released emails, the investigation into the Walker campaign’s misconduct widened one day before the 2012 election, with raids targeting Walker’s campaign office, the Milwaukee County executive office, and the homes of some Walker staffers. As for that secret wireless router, the emails provide the first direct indication that Walker knew about it.
From the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel:
“Consider yourself now in the ‘inner circle,’” Walker’s administration director, Cynthia Archer, wrote to Walker aide Kelly Rindfleisch just after the two exchanged a test message.
“I use this private account quite a bit to communicate with SKW and Nardelli. You should be sure you check it throughout the day,” she wrote, referring to Walker by his initials and to Walker’s chief of staff, Tom Nardelli. [Milwaukee Journal Sentinel]
Now, the emails do not prove that Walker actually used the secret network while on the county clock. And many of the details in the unsealed emails have been known for some time. Still, the negative headlines they’re generating — and the subsequent investigative reports they’re bound to spawn — are a stain on the resume of someone many believed to be the GOP establishment’s next best hope after Bridgegate tarnished Christie’s once-glorious political career.
Christie’s downfall is an apt parallel.
Though Christie hasn’t been tied directly to the politically motivated traffic scandal, his aides and appointees have. That leaves just two conclusions to draw about Christie himself: Either he’s lying or he surrounded himself with devious incompetents over whom he had little control. Neither interpretation reflects favorably on a chief executive’s character.
So while Christie is innocent (so far) of any personal wrongdoing, his popularity has taken a massive hit.
That’s the same problem now facing Walker. The governor could still be found guilty in the court of public opinion of poor judgment for hiring law-skirting staffers. Indeed, the Democratic National Committee and local Democratic operatives are now lumping the two governors together under one big umbrella of shame.
“This wasn’t the work of a few rogue staffers,” Michael Czin, a DNC spokesman, said in a statement, “this was a coordinated effort that goes right to the top.”
“Just like in New Jersey, top aides used taxpayer resources to push a political agenda,” he added. “And just like Chris Christie, Scott Walker has a lot of questions to answer.”
The emails support that claim, to a certain extent. One correspondence shows that Walker instructed a top aide to coordinate a daily conference call between county and campaign staff. Again, though that doesn’t implicate Walker in any illegal activity, it suggests he might have encouraged it in his underlings.
Walker’s problems don’t end there, either. As the Huffington Post noted, the emails also revealed that Walker once wanted to fire a doctor because she used to be a thong model, a tale that would be perfect fodder for Democrats who want to trot out their effective “War on Women” message. And the emails also contained a racist, homophobic chain message about a fictional nightmare. (Punch line: “I can handle being a black, disabled, one-armed, drug-addicted, Jewish, homosexual… but please, Oh dear God, don’t tell me I’m a Democrat!”)
Meanwhile, Walker’s recall campaign committee — the governor defeated an attempt to remove him from office in 2012, which is what earned him the national spotlight to begin with — is believed to be the subject of a second, ongoing investigation. Depending on what that investigation finds, Walker could be in for yet another round of awful coverage.
The symmetry between Walker and Christie’s tales is remarkable. Both involve a prominent GOP governor with presumed White House ambitions allegedly using his office for underhanded political machinations. And in both cases, the governor claimed innocence and ignorance of his staff’s misdeeds.
That excuse didn’t work for Christie, and there’s no reason to believe it will work any better for Walker.
By: Jon Terbush, The Week, February 20, 2014
On the very day that Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker’s scandals became big national news, Politico’s Mike Allen is out with his Playbook Snapshot 2016 – the top 16 Republicans most mentioned in Beltway chatter – and Walker is at the top of the list (along with erratic Tea Party Sen. Rand Paul). It’s a perfect example of how and why Walker has persisted as a top presidential contender: the national media knows little and cares less about Wisconsin politics.
Walker is an interesting contrast with embattled New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie. Poor Christie. Live by the media, die by the media. There’s no question that the national media made Christie, though he gave them plenty to work with. He is an outsize personality, and the fact that he’s the governor of New Jersey and used to be a federal prosecutor working in the world’s major media market played a huge role in his rise as a national figure. Now, though, the attention of the national media is (however belatedly) focused obsessively on Christie’s troubles, and every new subpoena, every wronged mayor, and every unsavory crony tied to the George Washington Bridge scandal is a major story.
Scott Walker, by contrast, has actually managed to benefit from his distance from the national media. Sure, it kept him only in the second tier of potential 2016 candidates – but tough media scrutiny would have excluded him from any tier. No one has ever explained how a governor can have six associates convicted of illegal campaign activities – including three “top aides who sat just feet from his desk,” in the words of the Wisconsin State Journal — and come away from it entirely unsullied. At minimum it raises questions of management and judgment.
But even leaving aside the two John Doe investigations that have ensnared his office, Walker has never been ready for national prime time. He’s a charisma-free divider who got big attention for ending collective bargaining for public employees and then surviving a union-led recall election. All of that made him a hero on the right, of course, but Walker was never going to survive close inspection. He’s given to dim-bulb platitudes, like defending a state law requiring women to undergo an ultrasound before an abortion by saying blithely, “I don’t have any problem with ultrasound. I think most people think ultrasounds are just fine.” As though the procedure involved looking at kidney stones, not invading a woman’s privacy. In a cycle when Republicans are supposed to be trying to solve their problems with women, that’s not all. Walker signed a bill repealing Wisconsin’s equal pay for women law and has crusaded against Planned Parenthood.
Personally, I thought Walker was toast when he got pranked by someone pretending to be David Koch, and he yukked it up about how “stereotypical blue-collar workers” supported his attacks on unions, but I was wrong about that. No one really cared.
I firmly believe that if the global media establishment was based in Milwaukee, the idea that Walker had the political talent to become a top tier presidential candidate would never have taken hold. Even Mike Allen would know better.
Well, the treasure rove of 27,000 emails related to the first John Doe investigation of Walker’s office – which led to the criminal conviction of six Walker staffers, including three top aides – is forcing national reporters to pay attention. In the last 24 hours we’ve learned that Walker staff set up a secret email system, complete with a separate router, where public workers could plot strategy with campaign staffers – and Walker regularly participated in the email round-robin.
“Consider yourself now in the ‘inner circle,’” administration director Cynthia Archer wrote to Walker deputy chief of staff Kelly Rindfleisch (who was convicted in the first John Doe probe) after they exchanged a message to test the system. “I use this private account quite a bit to communicate with SKW [Walker] and [Walker chief of staff Tom] Nardelli,” Archer confided. “You should be sure you check it throughout the day,” she wrote. Walker defenders say the governor didn’t know about the secret email system though he participated.
The newly released email also featured staffers forwarding racist jokes, making light of the death of a mental hospital patient because “no one cares about crazy people,” and recording Walker’s personal decision to fire a public health doctor because she had once modeled thongs. The emails show Walker ran a daily conference call that mixed his public and his campaign staff “so we can better coordinate sound, timely responses, so we all know what the others are doing,” according to Nardelli. Although the first John Doe investigation ended in convictions for six associates but no charges against Walker, a second probe, into whether his recall campaign illegally coordinated with outside right-wing backers, is ongoing.
Now, some in Wisconsin say even the new revelations won’t doom his reelection, though it certainly makes it more of a fight. But Mike Allen notwithstanding, it seriously damages the boomlet that has made him the potential establishment “front-runner.” To benefit from Christie’s stumble, and become the big donors’ new savior, Walker had to be squeaky clean, in contrast with the investigation-tarnished Christie. With his own ethical troubles now growing, and renewed attention on the scandal he survived, Walker is almost as bad an investment for donors as Christie.
As I’ve written before, that “deep bench” of Republican 2016 contenders has completely splintered. Walker was a second string candidate who was on the verge of becoming a contender only because of the troubles of Christie, toxic Ted Cruz, Florida’s Marco Rubio, Louisiana’s deeply unpopular Gov. Bobby Jindal and disgraced former Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell.
But hey, there are always folks ready to step up. Allen’s Playbook 2016 list features South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley as “rising.” If only.
By: Joan Walsh, Editor at Large, Salon, February 20, 2014
“What Makes a Scandal Stick?”: Why Scott Walker’s Proponents Aren’t Paying Attention To His Misconduct
Scott Walker is one of the few GOP figures in a position to benefit from Chris Christie’s Bridgegate scandal. The Wisconsin governor is uniquely appealing as a potential presidential candidate to both the moderates in his party and its far-right members. Walker is also the first governor in United States history to win a recall election, so if he wins reelection this year, he will have won three times in five years.
But Walker’s prospects aren’t totally rosy. Charles P. Pierce at Esquire has a good rundown of the lurking scandals: Aides from Walker’s first campaign went to jail for using his Milwaukee County Executive office to campaign for him for governor, another former aide was convicted of stealing money from a fund for families of U.S. soldiers who fought in Iraq and Afghanistan, and Walker’s administration gave raises that skirted state limits after a series of phantom job transfers took place. Another corruption probe is ongoing.
For now, however, the myriad of corruption charges against his administration are being largely ignored by both the right-wing sites that love the Wisconsin governor and the mainstream media. Why hasn’t Walker’s questionable past been addressed in much of the national coverage he has received?
I put the question to Dr. Amelia Arsenault, Assistant Professor of Communication at Georgia State University and author of the article “Scandal Politics in the New Media Environment.” Arsenault told me that in cases like these, there are multiple explanations that often interact. For one thing, there’s what she calls “impact journalism”—a kind of domino effect in media coverage. “If CNN is covering it, or if The New York Times is covering it, then they all pile on, and it becomes this cycle,” she said. “Some scandals are just sexier than others, and Christie is a huge personality. He has more charisma than Scott Walker in a lot of ways in terms of being a media personality.”
Apart from the personality factor, there’s also a more deliberate element at play. Lesser known right-wing news sites often serve as the springboard for determining which scandals will enter the mainstream, according to Arsenault. “Even though they don’t have high readership, sites like The Blaze and Breitbart.com really glom onto a particular scandal, and they’re very good at activating particular scandals and then pushing them forward, so they have to be covered by [outlets] like Fox News,” says Arsenault. “People on either side of the political spectrum are going after Christie, whereas Scott Walker has sort of been the darling of the online scandalmongers.”
Then there’s the matter of various incentives on either side of the political spectrum: Far-right conservatives don’t want a pro-gun control Northeasterner as their leading presidential hopeful; Democrats are similarly eager to discredit a compelling GOP candidate, and it may work in their favor for now to ignore Walker’s skeletons in order to keep the focus on Christie.
Should Walker decide to run, however, opposition researchers would have plenty to work with. What does it say about the GOP that their next-best potential contender has scandal aplenty of his own?
By: Lane Florsheim, The New Republic, February 12, 2014
Newly-unsealed court documents and media leaks add to a growing body of evidence that Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker’s campaign is at the center of a wide-ranging secret probe into campaign finance violations during the state’s contentious 2011 and 2012 recall elections.
The John Doe probe began in August of 2012 and is examining possible “illegal campaign coordination between (name redacted), a campaign committee, and certain special interest groups,” according to an unsealed filing in the case. Sources told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel the redacted committee is the Walker campaign, Friends of Scott Walker. Campaign filings show that Walker spent $86,000 on legal fees in the second half of 2013.
A John Doe is similar to a grand jury investigation, but in front of a judge rather than a jury, and is conducted under strict secrecy orders. Wisconsin’s 4th Circuit Court of Appeals unsealed some documents last week as it rejected a challenge to the probe filed by three of the unnamed “special interest groups” that had received subpoenas in the investigation and issued a ruling allowing the investigation to move forward.
The special interest groups under investigation include Wisconsin Club for Growth, which is led by a top Walker advisor and friend, R.J. Johnson, and which spent at least $9.1 million on “issue ads” supporting Walker and legislative Republicans during the 2011 and 2012 recall elections. Another group is Citizens for a Strong America, which was entirely funded by Wisconsin Club for Growth in 2011 and 2012 and acted as a conduit for funding other groups that spent on election issue ads; CSA’s president is John Connors, who previously worked for David Koch’s Americans for Prosperity and is part of the leadership at the Franklin Center for Government & Public Integrity (publishers of Watchdog.org and Wisconsin Reporter). Other groups reportedly receiving subpoenas include AFP, Wisconsin Manufacturers and Commerce, and the Republican Governors Association.
In January, the judge recently appointed to oversee the John Doe probe quashed subpoenas to Wisconsin Club for Growth, Citizens for a Strong America, and the Walker campaign, apparently based on a theory that coordination was not illegal because the groups’ ads did not expressly tell viewers to “vote for” Walker or “vote against” his opponent. If upheld, the ruling could have major implications for Wisconsin campaign finance law, as the Center for Media and Democracy identified, and could potentially undermine candidate contribution and disclosure limits. Prosecutors plan to appeal that decision.
Probe Led by Bipartisan Group of Prosecutors
The latest probe grew out of an earlier John Doe investigation into illegal campaigning in Walker’s office during his time as Milwaukee County Executive, led by Milwaukee’s Democratic District Attorney John Chisholm, and which resulted in six criminal convictions — including three Walker aides, one political appointee, and one major campaign contributor — for a variety of crimes including embezzlement, campaign finance violations and political corruption.
Prior to the court unsealing documents in “John Doe II,” individuals subpoenaed in the investigation and subject to its secrecy order had strategically leaked some information to friendly right-wing media sources. Wisconsin Club for Growth director Eric O’Keefe defied a secrecy order to speak with with members of the Wall Street Journal editorial board, and unnamed sources spoke with the Franklin Center for Government & Public Integrity’s Wisconsin Reporter. As CMD has documented, Franklin Center was launched by O’Keefe, and its Director of Special Projects, John Connors, is president of Citizens for a Strong America.
Wisconsin Reporter and the Wall Street Journal editorial board have consistently attacked the probe, characterizing the criminal investigation as a “political speech raid” and citing unnamed sources to portray the investigation as a Democrat-led “taxpayer-funded opposition research campaign” with “one party in this state using prosecutorial powers to conduct a one-sided investigation into conservatives.”
The new court documents undermine those portrayals. The documents show that while the probe started in Milwaukee, it quickly spread to four other counties and is now led by Republican and Democratic prosecutors.
The five-county effort is the result of Assembly Republicans pushing changes to Wisconsin law in 2007 to require that individuals accused of campaign finance or ethics violations be charged in their county of residence, rather than where the violation actually occurred. The subjects of this John Doe investigation live across the state, the filings show, in Columbia, Dane, Dodge, Iowa, and Milwaukee counties. The 2007 law was widely seen as an effort to help Republicans avoid trial in Madison, Wisconsin’s capitol, where campaign finance violations would be most likely to occur but whose District Attorney and judges are perceived as liberal.
“Whatever the reason for the enactment of [the statutes], from the standpoint of judicial administration, the results are chaotic in a John Doe investigation where the subjects live far and wide within the state,” wrote Special Prosecutor Francis Schmitz in an unsealed filing with the Court. “The only reasonable approach to the handling of this circumstance is to assign one judge to hear all five John Doe proceedings.”
The judiciary in each of the five counties appointed a Milwaukee judge to oversee the proceedings. The bipartisan group of District Attorneys then asked the court to appoint a Special Prosecutor to coordinate the investigation, after Wisconsin’s Republican Attorney General J.B. Van Hollen declined to lead the probe, citing potential conflicts of interest. The nature of this potential conflict was redacted from the unsealed court documents.
Unnamed Candidate Committee Requests Opinion on Funding Legal Fees
Earlier this week the Government Accountability Board issued an advisory opinion on the use of campaign funds for legal fees, in response to a request from an unnamed candidate committee, described as a group “currently subject to an investigation which could expose the committee to both civil and criminal penalties.” The GAB advised that a committee may use campaign funds when facing both civil and criminal charges, but must establish a segregated criminal defense fund when the investigation becomes “purely a criminal one.”
When asked whether his campaign had requested the opinion, Walker told the Wisconsin State Journal that “we’re not getting into details about this.”
By: Brendan Fischer, The Center for Media and Democracy, February 7, 2014