A federal appeals court released a trove of documents June 19 related to a John Doe investigation involving Gov. Scott Walker and conservatives groups in the state. The case is nuanced, had been secret, and can be quite confusing. Here we'll try to break down the details for you.
1. What is the John Doe investigation about?
Not to be confused with a previous John Doe investigation involving Walker, this investigation centers around coordination between Walker, his top aides, and conservative interest groups in Wisconsin. Prosecutors in the recently released documents [PDF] allege the governor was aware that two of his top aides were engaging in fundraising and coordination between his campaign and a number of independent conservative organizations during the recall elections in 2011-2012. The investigation was being done in secret as provided under state law, but four of the groups being investigated sued in state and federal court to stop the proceedings and much of the information became public. The groups allege that the investigation is unfounded, and that subpoenas and document seizure is violating their first amendment rights.
2. Who are the key people and groups involved?
It's likely you've heard a number of names, so we'll give you the cast of characters based on their roles in this drama.
John Chisolm is the district attorney in Milwaukee County. In August 2012, Chisolm began this most recent Doe investigation, and in early 2013 asked Attorney General J.B. Van Hollen to take the case statewide. Van Hollen declined, citing a conflict of interest. Ultimately, Chisolm brought in DAs from four other counties-- Columbia, Dane, Dodge and Iowa-- but because of concerns that there would be "allegations of impropriety" because of their political affiliations, asked for a special prosecutor to take over the case.
Francis Schmitz is the special prosecutor that got that job. Schmitz is a former deputy U.S. attorney, who also has filed documents with the court saying he's a Republican.
Eric O'Keefe is the current director of Wisconsin Club for Growth, a conservative interest group. He lives in Wisconsin, and is one of the primary forces behind the state and federal lawsuit trying to stop the John Doe investigation.
R.J. Johnson is a Republican strategist, and is a key figure in the investigation. Prosecutors say Johnson was working as a consultant on the governor's campaign, and also for a number of conservative groups. They allege he was raising money for one group and distributing it to a number of others, coordinating messages and advertising with the campaign. Johnson's home was raided by prosecutors in October 2013 and a number of documents, computers, and phones were seized.
Deborah Jordahl is the business partner of Johnson. Prosecutors say she was involved in the media production and strategy for both the campaign and independent groups, and specifically say she signed checks on behalf of Wisconsin Club for Growth. Jordahl's home was also raided in 2013.
Keith Gilkes is Walker's former chief of staff and campaign manager. Prosecutors say Gilkes was involved in discussion of coordination between both groups.
Wisconsin Club for Growth is the group run by O'Keefe, and a major party to the lawsuit. The subpoena for O'Keefe's documents and correspondence between 29 groups was included in the documents released Thursday. Prosecutors say that group funded a number of others during the recall elections.
Wisconsin Manufacturers and Commerce is another party to the lawsuit. It is the state's biggest business lobby and has had a history of supporting and spending money on Republican causes.
Citizens for a Strong America is the third independent group party to the lawsuit. Prosecutors say it was the creation of Jordahl and Johnson and that Johnson's wife signed checks for the organization.
Friends of Scott Walker is the campaign committee for the governor, and was during the recall elections.
3. How is the Governor involved?
It's clear now that prosecutors believe Walker had knowledge of coordination between his campaign and the groups through Johnson. Documents released Thursday show an email exchange allegedly between Walker and Republican strategist and former Bush aide Karl Rove [PDF], saying that Johnson was coordinating a number of groups. But to be clear, prosecutors are fighting in court to make their case and no charges have been filed against Walker, anyone with his campaign or the other groups.
4. What has the court ruled? And is the investigation still going on?
So far, two judges have ruled the investigation should stop. In January, Reserve Judge Gregory Peterson said [PDF] the state needed to prove that the coordination included "express advocacy" to be illegal-- meaning that ads or communication by the groups included "vote for" language. Peterson said that prosecutors "failed to show a crime was committed" under state law.
Then in May, Federal Judge Rudolph Randa ruled [PDF] the investigation should stop, and items be destroyed or returned to their owners. Randa said "the plaintiffs have found a way to circumvent campaign finance laws, and that circumvention should not and cannot be condemned or restricted. Instead it should be recognized as promoting political speech."
Randa and Peterson's rulings are being appealed by prosecutors, but the Doe is on hold until then. Democrats have also attacked Randa's conservative history.
5. What's the potential fallout for the Governor's race?
Democrats are trying to immediately make hay out of the ruling, rolling out web ads and sending out fundraising appeals [PDF] questioning Walker's character. Walker's challenger, Mary Burke, so far has been silent on the issue when asked about it.
Republicans, including Walker, are saying this is much ado about nothing, as two judges have halted the investigation. Walker called the allegations "categorically false" and began airing a TV attack ad against Burke on her involvement in the Doyle administration Friday.
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