MacIver News Service
By M.D. Kittle
MADISON, Wis. – Deborah Jordahl and her family felt like they woke up in another country in the predawn hours of Oct. 3, 2013.
That’s when law enforcement officials, directed by the prosecutors of Wisconsin’s infamous John Doe investigation, showed up with warrants and raided the homes of several Wisconsin conservatives – including the one in Jordahl’s middle-class Middleton neighborhood.
It certainly didn’t feel like America.
“It was surreal,” Jordahl recently told MacIver News Service on the Jay Weber Show, on NewsTalk 1130 WISN in Milwaukee.
“I woke up to some sounds in the yard. It was still dark out. The door bell rang. My husband and I were met by an armed deputy sheriff who told us she had a warrant to search the house. Wouldn’t say why,” recalled Jordahl, one of scores of right-of-center activists and other conservatives swept up in the campaign finance probe.
“They would not let me wake my children by myself. They followed me into their rooms. My children, at the time, were 15 and 17, and they woke up to an armed deputy standing over their bed,” Jordahl continued.
She found out months later that her son – 17 at the time of the raid – feared that his father had died, “because why else would there be people crawling around” the house at that hour of the morning. “I couldn’t really say anything. I had to keep them moving. I was terrified,” Jordahl said.
Law enforcement corralled this family of four into their living room. For the next few hours these John Doe raiders searched every closet, every drawer, in every room of the house. Then they went through the basement, then the garage, and the Jordahls’ vehicles. They hauled out boxes of paper and all kinds of electronic equipment.
Jordahl, a successful political consultant who, alongside her partner R.J. Johnson had advised Republican Gov. Scott Walker’s campaign, was the target named on the search warrant. But that didn’t stop deputies and John Doe agents from rooting through her husband’s, daughter’s and son’s possessions – their computers, their cellphones, hard drives, more.
As the sun rose and the business day began, the John Doe agents searched and seized private possessions in front of passing school buses loaded with peers of the Jordahl children, in full view of neighbors heading to work.
“The most difficult thing for me was to sit there and see what was happening with my daughter,” Jordahl recalled, “when she realized the school buses were going by, that the kids at school were going to ask what was going on at our house, and the deputy who was guarding us said, ‘You can’t tell them anything or you’ll go to jail.’”
At this point in the interview, Jordahl paused, swallowed hard and sighed at the memory. “To sit there helpless and watch them do that to your child, I don’t think that will ever go away.”
Jordahl’s story cuts to the quick the defenders of the politically driven John Doe II investigation and, as we have recently learned, the abusive probe’s offshoots.
In the days following state Attorney General Brad Schimel’s bombshell report last month detailing a litany of legal and ethical breaches, John Doe agents have offered breathless – if not seemingly outlandish – defenses of their conduct.
And so it goes for a remorseless lot of government agents who, two-and-a-half years after the state Supreme Court declared the political investigation unconstitutional and ordered it shut down, stubbornly deny any wrongdoing. They do so amid growing evidence exposing just how partisan their little campaign finance probe was.
But the agents and board members of the old Government Accountability Board, the “nonpartisan” political speech regulator that helped lead the John Doe II, have expressed little compunction about the investigative tactics employed. In October 2015, just three months after the Supreme Court ruling, then-GAB chairman Gerald Nichol said he was more than comfortable with the pre-dawn, armed raids on the homes of conservatives and spying operations that grabbed up millions of emails and other electronic communications.
“How are you supposed to execute a search warrant?” Nichol told Wisconsin Watchdog at the time. “I wasn’t offended by the way it was executed.”
Even if the government agents believed what multiple courts did not – that conservative groups illegally coordinated with Walker’s campaign – do they feel any shame in sending cops into homes before sunrise, floodlights flashing, to serve warrants for alleged campaign finance paper crimes? If they do, they’re not saying so publicly.
In the case of Jordahl’s partner, R.J. Johnson, John Doe raiders searched the home while Johnson and his wife were out of town, while their 16 year-old son was home alone. The teen asked if he could call his parents, his grandparents, a lawyer. He was told what the others were told, that he couldn’t say anything to anybody or he could go to jail.
Remember, this is the same political investigation that the state Supreme Court majority opinion described in tyrannical terms.
“The (John Doe) special prosecutor (Francis Schmitz, a former GAB investigator) has disregarded the vital principle that in our nation and our state political speech is a fundamental right and is afforded the highest level of protection,” Justice Michael Gableman, a conservative member of the court, wrote. “The special prosecutor’s theories, rather than ‘assur[ing] the unfettered interchange of ideas for the bringing about of political and social changes desired by the people’ … instead would assure that such political speech will be investigated with paramilitary-style home invasions conducted in the predawn hours and then prosecuted and punished.”
More so, as has become clear in court records, John Doe investigators already had seized the documents they grabbed up in the raids.
“They didn’t need to come to any of our homes because, as we now know, they’ve been collecting evidence for 27 years,” Jordahl said. “We know from subsequent lawsuits that they had everything that they said they were looking for when they came into our homes. There was no other reason to have come into our homes than to intimidate us and to make sure everyone else knew that we were under investigation.”
The Real John Doe
The state Department of Justice’s recent report on illegal John Doe leaks to a British publication found the former GAB and its successor, the Ethics Commission, kept political investigation files going back to 1990, well beyond statute requirements. The DOJ report found, among other things, that former GAB agents maintained hundreds of thousands of John Doe II-related records in folders labeled “Opposition Research.” One of the former agents claimed in media accounts that the folders were labeled by the same Republicans prosecutors were investigating, a claim that Attorney General Brad Schimel described as “bizarre.”
While the DOJ could not definitively prove who leaked the court-sealed John Doe records, the report showed it likely came from inside the GAB. Schimel has requested the John Doe judge initiate contempt of court proceedings against nine officers of the John Doe, including Schmitz, the special prosecutor, and attorneys and investigators from the GAB and the Milwaukee County DA’s office.
Jordahl said she is “disgusted with the alleged conservative” appointees of the state Ethics and Elections commissions who have come to the defense of agents who have clearly defied court and John Doe orders. The commissions, created when the Republican-controlled Legislature disbanded the GAB in 2016, include appointees from both parties.
Michael Haas, interim administrator of the Elections Commission, has demanded an apology from Republican legislators for “slandering” him. Brian Bell, interim administrator of the Ethics Commission, has asked for an investigation to clear his name.
Bell was a GAB employee but apparently did not work on the John Doe investigation. Haas, despite his statements to the contrary, was an instrumental player in the probe, according to documents released as part of lawsuits.
“My question for everybody involved is this: How bad do things have to get until it’s not even good enough for government work?” Jordahl asked. “These people stand in judgment of all of the rest of us, and they can’t follow simple ethics, they can’t follow gag orders, they can’t follow the law. They can’t cooperate with the Department of Justice and be honest on the first try.”
Schimel said GAB and Ethics Commission officials continued to turn over John Doe-related documents to DOJ investigators long after they were first sought, and even longer after the Supreme Court demanded they be transferred to the court’s custody.
Jordahl said she hopes the Legislature pursues an investigation into the John Doe probes because there remain a number of unanswered questions. Sen. David Craig (R-Town of Vernon) has called for a bicameral committee with rare subpoena power. The Legislature also has asked the Department of Justice to expand its investigation into the John Doe investigators.
“Why did all of this evidence that they had been collecting for all of these years, but in particular the John Doe evidence, ever make it to the Ethics Commission in the first place?” Jordahl asked. “These people were not authorized to have it.”
Despite increased scrutiny, Jordahl remains less than confident that the government agents involved in the political John Doe probes will ever face justice.
“…(T)here is this circle of protection among law enforcement agencies and the court,” she said. “When it comes to these folks employed by the state of Wisconsin, they have a duty to uphold the law and to abide by ethics rules regardless of what their bosses tell them…”