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“A Murky Fog, A Legal Morass”: Scott Walker’s Conservative Bubble Shielded Him, Now It Might Sink Him

There was a big political development in Wisconsin Thursday, with the release of court documents that include an allegation by state prosecutors that Gov. Scott Walker, a 2016 presidential prospect, was part of a “criminal scheme” to skirt state laws in coordinating with outside conservative groups to stave off the 2011-2012 recall effort prompted by his successful push to undo public employee collective bargaining. The allegation was contained in files ordered unsealed by a judge in the so-called “John Doe II” case into whether Walker’s political team and outside conservative groups violated Wisconsin’s stringent rules against direct coordination between independent political groups and candidates by funneling millions of dollars from donors, many of them from outside Wisconsin, to fight the recall, which Walker won in June 2012. The investigation has devolved into a legal morassa federal judge ordered a halt to it in May and instructed prosecutors to destroy their evidence, saying they were overreaching, but his order was in turn blocked by a federal appeals court, which will soon rule on whether the investigation can proceed. Meanwhile, rumors circulate that Walker is in talks to settle the case with the state prosecutors, which has earned him the ire of some of his conservative allies.

Walker, now in the midst of a tight race for reelection, has not been charged with any crime. Still, the document’s release adds considerable detail to the murky fog around the investigation, and, by laying out so many of the prosecutors’ findings, helps explain why Walker may be inclined to settle rather than fight the case. The five county district attorneys leading the investigation appear to have plenty of goods to back up their claim of a “nationwide effort to raise undisclosed funds for an organization which then funded the activities of other organizations supporting or opposing candidates subject to recall.” From the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel article on the release:

In the documents, prosecutors lay out what they call an extensive “criminal scheme” to bypass state election laws by Walker, his campaign and two top Republican political operatives R.J. Johnson and Deborah Jordahl.

The governor and his close confidants helped raise money and control spending through 12 conservative groups during the recall elections, according to the prosecutors’ filings.

The documents include an excerpt from an email in which Walker tells Karl Rove, former top adviser to President George W. Bush, that Johnson would lead the coordination campaign. Johnson is also Walker’s longtime campaign strategist and the chief adviser to Wisconsin Club for Growth, a conservative group active in the recall elections.

“Bottom-line: R.J. helps keep in place a team that is wildly successful in Wisconsin. We are running 9 recall elections and it will be like 9 congressional markets in every market in the state (and Twin Cities),” Walker wrote to Rove on May 4, 2011.

I did not go down the rabbit hole of the John Doe II investigation in my new cover story about Walker and the racial divisions and political polarization in metro Milwaukee. (The piece does quote from racially charged emails released as part of an earlier investigation“John Doe I”that produced guilty pleas by six former Walker aides and allies, for misdeeds that include embezzling from a veterans fund and doing campaign work on taxpayer time.) I decided that delving into the John Doe II morass might distract from the piece’s focus on how the metro Milwaukee political landscape, with its stark divides and influential local talk-radio culture, has shaped Walker and in turn been shaped by him.

But the theme of the cover story and the investigation into coordination between Walker’s team and conservative groups are not unrelated. Both are, at bottom, about the same thing: the protective bubble of adulation and affirmation in which Walker has become increasingly ensconced in Wisconsin. The cover story describes one aspect of this bubblethe astonishingly monolithic base that Walker has, with the help of the talk-radio hosts he has cultivated for years, built for himself in the nearly all-white suburbs of Milwaukee, where voters turn out at the highest rates in the country to vote for him at levels that surpass 80 percent in some communities.

The other aspect of this bubble, though, is the inter-locking network of conservative groups and donors, such as Wisconsin’s own Bradley Foundation and the Koch brothers, have since 2010 come together to boost Walker and the Republican legislators who joined him in pushing through an aggressive conservative agenda in the face of massive protests in Madison. It is worth recalling that when a prank caller got through to Walker in February 2011 pretending to be David Koch, Walker made a direct request to the man he thought was Koch: to do everything he could to offer covering fire to protect Republican legislators: “A lot of these [lawmakers] are going to need a message out there reinforcing why this is a good thing for the economy and for the state,” Walker told “David Koch.”

That is what this investigation is about, whether the “reinforcement” provided by conservative groups and donors to Walker and legislators up for recall broke the law. In ordering a halt to the investigation in May, U.S. District Court Judge Rudolph Randa, a Republican appointee who has been active in conservative judicial-activist circles, argued that there was no problem with coordination between Walker and outside groups because it wasn’t as if the groups were trying to bring Walker over to their side by funding his anti-recall campaign: “[Wisconsin Club for Growth] obviously agree[s] with Governor Walker’s policies, but coordinated ads in favor of those policies carry no risk of corruption because the Club’s interests are already aligned with Walker and other conservative politicians,” Randa wrote in his ruling. “Such ads are meant to educate the electorate, not curry favor with corruptible candidates.”

This is a striking claim, reminiscent of the Supreme Court’s recent rulings against limits on campaign contributionsthat limits can only be justified as bars against explicit attempts to bribe politicians to change their stances on issues. But that’s not what at issue in the John Doe II investigationthe question is whether the outside groups exerted undue influence over the outcome of the recall by skirting the state’s rules on coordination. It is whether the state’s electoral system was corrupted, not whether Walker was. No, there’s not any question that Walker already agrees with the groups that were backing himas our cover story shows, he’s developed politically in a deeply homogenous realm with precious little space for deviation. Our piece argues that this development has had a limiting effect on him that makes him a less than ideal presidential candidate for a Republican Party seeking to broaden its ideological and demographic appeal.

But with today’s release, the odds that Walker will even get the chance to make the 2016 case for himself within his party took a hit. The bubble helped Scott Walker rise, but it now threatens to take him down.

 

By: Alec MacGinnis, The New Republic, June 19, 2014

June 23, 2014 Posted by | Scott Walker, Wisconsin, Wisconsin Recall | , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

“Why Scott Walker Will Never Be President”: A Political Style That Doesn’t Say Statesman

Scott Walker, an ardent Ronald Reagan fan from his youth, was never likely to follow Reagan’s footsteps to the White House. The Wisconsin governor lacks his hero’s way with words, skill for crossing lines of partisan and ideogical division (especially within the Republican Party) and confidence on the national campaign trail.

Yet Walker has wanted to believe in the possibility so badly that he has spent the two years since his 2012 recall election win positioning himself as a contender for the 2016 Republican presidential nomination. He penned a campaign book, Unintimidated: A Governor’s Story and a Nation’s Challenge, which was so transparent in its ambitions that Glenn Beck’s The Blaze refers to it as “the prototypical book about someone running for president who doesn’t want to come out and actually say that he is running for president.” He jetted off to Las Vegas to to try and impress Republican mega-donor Sheldon Adelson, but Adelson missed the Wisconsinite´s speech. He even persisted in making the rounds nationally after polls showed that his enthusiasm for presidential politics did not sit well with the Wisconsin voters he must face in a November re-election bid.

But with the release of documents in which Wisconsin prosecutors allege Walker helped to engineer an expansive “criminal scheme” to coordinate efforts by conservative groups to help his recall campaign—by circumventing campaign finance laws—Walker’s presidential prospects look less realistic even than those of his mentor, scandal-plagued New Jersey Governor Chris Christie.

The headlines in Wisconsin Thursday were damning:

John Doe prosecutors allege Scott Walker at center of ‘criminal scheme’
Prosecutors accuse Walker of running ‘criminal scheme’

And the national headlines were just as rough. “Prosecutors: Scott Walker part of ‘criminal scheme,” read the headline of a Politico story that opened with a breathless report that

Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker participated in a “criminal scheme” to coordinate fundraising for the Republican in response to efforts to recall him and state senators from office, local prosecutors argue in court documents released Thursday.

Walker, his chief of staff and others were involved in the coordination effort with “a number of national groups and prominent figures,” including Karl Rove, says special prosecutor Francis Schmitz.

“[T]he evidence shows an extensive coordination scheme that pervaded nearly every aspect of the campaign activities during the historic 2011 and 2012 Wisconsin Senate and Gubernatorial recall elections,” Schmitz wrote in a December motion, on behalf of five attorneys from some of the state’s most liberal counties, just now unsealed by an appellate court judge.

Even worse for a governor who has already had to try an explain away highly controversial emails from former aides, as well as the investigations, prosecutions and convictions of aides, appointees, allies and campaign donors, are the actual details of the documents that were ordered unsealed by Federal Appeals Judge Frank Easterbrook.

“The documents include an excerpt from an email in which Walker tells Karl Rove, former top adviser to President George W. Bush, that (veteran Wisconsin Republican operative R.J.) Johnson would lead the coordination campaign. Johnson is also Walker’s longtime campaign strategist and the chief adviser to Wisconsin Club for Growth, a conservative group active in the recall elections,” reported the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, the state’s largest paper.

The May 4, 2011, e-mail to Rove read: “Bottom-line: R.J. helps keep in place a team that is wildly successful in Wisconsin. We are running 9 recall elections and it will be like 9 congressional markets in every market in the state (and Twin Cities).”

Walker, who is certainly no stranger to controversy, claimed Thursday that he had been vindicated by judges who have restricted—and even attempted to shut down—the “John Doe” investigation into political wrongdoing. But other judges have sustained the inquiry.

Walker allies argue that he is the victim of a “witch hunt” organized by Milwaukee County District Attorney John Chisholm and other top prosecutors, who they allege are out to silence conservatives and harm Republicans. Chisholm is a Democrat, but he is also a respected prosecutor who has gone after Democrats and worked with Republicans.

Lawyers for targets of the probe are fighting to shut it down and, in this unsettled and uncertain post–Citizens United period with regard to state and national campaign finance laws, they believe they will succeed.

Attempts to halt the probe, which have been cheered on by advocates for a no-holds-barred “big money” politics, are part of a broader strategy to gut remaining campaign-finance laws. One way to super-charge the influence of major donors and corporate interests is to undermine bans on coordination between candidates and their campaigns with “independent” groups that operate under different and more flexible rules for raising and spending money during a campaign.

“If you don’t have restrictions on coordination, then the contribution limits become meaningless,” Paul S. Ryan, the senior counsel for the watchdog group Campaign Legal Center, explained. Ryan told Politico that without the restrictions, a donor “could max out under the limits [for donating to a candidate], but then you could also just say to the candidates, ‘Hey give me an ad script and we’ll walk down to the TV station and do this ad for you.’”

But even if the probe is prevented from going forward, the documents that have now been released—in combination with the February release of 27,000 pages of e-mails from the seized from the “secret e-mail system” computers of a former Walker aide who has been convicted of political wrongdoing—paint a picture of a governor whose political style does not say “statesman.”

There is no question that Walker is a hero to some Republicans, and to some conservatives.

But Republicans and conservatives who want to win back the White House have to be realistic enough to recognize that Walker has a paper trail that is unlikely to read well on the 2016 campaign trail.

In fact, if the Wisconsin polls that have Walker tied with Democratic challenger Mary Burke are to be believed, Walker might have trouble getting past the 2014 election.

 

By: John Nichols, The Nation, June 20, 2014

June 21, 2014 Posted by | Campaign Financing, GOP Presidential Candidates, Scott Walker | , , , , , , | Leave a comment

“Following The Money”: Evidence Mounting That Walker Campaign Is At Center Of Criminal Probe

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.

Walker unambiguously denied being a target in the first John Doe investigation, but has been mum on whether he or his campaign is implicated in the latest probe.

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

February 11, 2014 Posted by | Campaign Financing, Scott Walker | , , , , , , | Leave a comment

   

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