MacIver News Service
By M.D. Kittle
MADISON, Wis. – The state Department of Justice’s investigation into the John Doe investigators will be expanded.
On Thursday, the Committee On Senate Organization voted 3-2, along party lines, to authorize the DOJ to dig deeper into the conduct of the state bureaucrats and prosecutors who led the infamous secret probe into dozens of conservative groups and the campaign of Republican Gov. Scott Walker.
The vote follows this month’s bombshell report by state Attorney General Brad Schimel that found agents of the former Government Accountability Board led a parallel investigation using secretly seized documents, some of which ended up in folders labeled “Opposition Research.” Schimel’s report also found that GAB attorneys continued to cull John Doe-related documents long after a judge ordered them to stop, and they held on to court records long after the state Supreme Court ruled that the materials must be turned over to the court.
A year ago, the Legislature authorized the DOJ to look into leaked John Doe documents to the liberal Guardian newspaper. The publication used hundreds of cherry-picked court-sealed records to try to paint a picture of illegal coordination between conservative groups and Walker’s campaign. Multiple courts found that the prosectors’ theory of illegal coordination was wrong and they has shown no probable cause that campaign finance crimes were committed.
The Guardian story was published in September 2016, just weeks before the U.S. Supreme Court was set to rule on whether to review the Wisconsin Supreme Court’s 2015 rulings declaring the “John Doe II” political investigation unconstitutional, and an abuse of government. The U.S. Supreme Court unanimously decided in early October 2016 not to take the case.
Schimel’s investigation found that the leaks more than likely came from GAB staff, and that the illegal disclosures were done in an attempt to influence the high court’s decision. But the attorney general said he could not recommend charges because he could not determine beyond a shadow of a reasonable doubt the identity of the leaker. He did, however, recommend that nine officers of the John Doe investigation face contempt of court charges, and he asked that one of the GAB attorney’s face disciplinary review before the Wisconsin Office of Lawyer Regulation.
The Legislature last year asked the DOJ to specifically look into the leaks, limiting the scope of the probe. Schimel said the investigation uncovered a number of “shocking” findings, some areas the agency could not follow-up because of the Legislature’s specific request.
A DOJ spokesman said the agency cannot comment on pending criminal investigations.
Meanwhile, the interim administrators of the state Ethics and Elections commissions – the successor agencies of the GAB – may not remain in their positions much longer. While the chairman of the commissions have stood by their top administrators, the Legislature is slated to hold confirmation hearings on Elections chief Michael Haas and Ethics chief Brian Bell as its first order of business in January when lawmakers return from the holiday break.
Republican lawmakers, sources say, have lost any remaining faith they had in the administrators, particularly Haas, who was a key player in the highly partisan John Doe investigation.
But the clock was probably ticking for Haas and Bell, anyway. The long-time regulators were kept on and promoted to help the new agencies get off the ground. They were never supposed to be permanent fixtures, one Capitol source told MacIver News Service.
The Ethics Commission has scheduled a meeting for 10:30 a.m. Friday. On the agenda – discussion of recent letters from Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald and Assembly Speaker Robin Vos calling for an expanded DOJ investigation of the John Doe investigators and calling on the Ethics and Elections administrators to resign.
Fitzgerald is a member of the Senate Committee on Organization. So is Sen. Leah Vukmir (R-Brookfield). The DOJ report found that John Doe investigators spied on Vukmir, seizing at least 150 of her private emails, including conversations with her daughter about sensitive medical information.