MacIver News Service
By M.D. Kittle
MADISON – Five years ago today.
Law Enforcement officers conducted predawn, armed raids on the homes of Wisconsin citizens in pursuit of “evidence” of campaign finance violations.
Five years ago today.
Armed police demanded a 16-year-old boy, home alone, open the door so that agents engaged in an unconstitutional investigation could root through his parents’ possessions.
Five years ago today, a suburban Madison mom was awakened by sounds in the darkness. Moments later, her children woke up to armed deputies standing over their beds.
On Oct. 3, 2013, the politically driven probe known as “John Doe II” exhibited the full force of prosecutorial abuse, exhibiting why this secret investigation marked one of the darkest chapters in Wisconsin history.
It’s unlikely the mainstream media will have much to say about the anniversary of such a sinister event, in large part because the coordinated raids on the homes of innocent people never fit into the narrative liberals pitched: That Republican Gov. Scott Walker and his conservative cronies were engaged in some “illegal” campaign coordination scheme.
What multiple courts found was that the scores of conservatives targeted were merely engaging in their First Amendment rights of political speech and association, just as left-wing organizations were freely permitted to do during Wisconsin’s bitter political recall season.
What multiple courts, including the Wisconsin Supreme Court, found was that the truly sinister, illegal conduct was perpetrated by “non-partisan” government agencies, like the former state Government Accountability Board and its hand-picked special prosecutor, and the Democrat-led Milwaukee County District Attorney’s office and its abusive prosecutors and investigators.
Oct. 3, 2013 certainly remains fresh in the memory of the citizens who lived it.
“It hasn’t slipped my mind. I think about it a lot,” said conservative activist Eric O’Keefe, whose Wisconsin Club for Growth was among more than two dozen right-of-center organizations spied on and harassed by government agents.
O’Keefe’s Iowa County home wasn’t raided that day, but it was on the list, according to court documents. Iowa County District Attorney Larry Nelson, a Democrat who has had his own run-in with the law of late, told the cabal of John Doe prosecutors that the county’s Republican sheriff wouldn’t sign on to the planned raid.
Instead, O’Keefe was served with a seven-page, “kitchen-sink” subpoena.
“My first reaction was, ‘Wow! They have been spying on us all along,’” O’Keefe said.
Indeed, they had been. Court documents, including those ordered released in Wisconsin Club for Growth’s lawsuit against the Government Accountability Board, show John Doe investigators had secretly tapped into millions of emails, financial records and other documents of conservatives.
A state Department of Justice investigation last year into the John Doe investigation found folders of thousands of emails labeled “Opposition Research” in the basement of the former GAB. Among the emails were private communications between state senator and U.S. Senate candidate Leah Vukmir (R-Brookfield) and her daughter. Former GAB employees cannot account for John Doe-related documents that have gone missing.
Conservative activist Deborah Jordahl and her family were subjected to the political raids five years ago.
“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,” Jordahl told MacIver News Service in an interview earlier this year.
“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.
Targets and subjects couldn’t say anything about the John Doe for years. They were bound by a secrecy order that demanded their silence on penalty of imprisonment and/or costly fines.
The Wisconsin Supreme Court in July 2015 ruled that the John Doe II probe was unconstitutional and that the investigation’s prosecutor instigated a “perfect storm of wrongs” on the innocent targets. And the Republican-controlled Legislature reformed the state’s unusual John Doe investigation law, particularly its gag orders on targets.
But not a single prosecutor, investigator or leader of the now-defunct Government Accountability Board has been punished for involvement in the illegal investigation. Attorney General Brad Schimel has recommended that several John Doe agents be held in contempt of court and that a GAB attorney face disciplinary charges through the state Office of Lawyer Regulation. But the latest John Doe judge, the fifth in six years, continues to conduct his review in secrecy 10 months after he was appointed. The judge has yet to determine what will happen to the millions of documents illegally seized in the probe, even as targets have implored the courts to give them back their property.
The speech chill remains five years later.
Asked if the John Doe secrecy order has finally been lifted, O’Keefe answered, “That is not clear to me. I’m not sure.”
That criminally enforced silence was arguably the most insidious aspect of an investigation ostensibly about campaign finance violations. Children subjected to government raids before the break of dawn were told that they and their parents could go to jail if they told anyone about the John Doe investigation.
National Review’s David French wrote about a 16-year-old who was home alone when John Doe investigators came pounding on his door that dark morning.
“To his horror, he saw uniformed officers, their guns drawn. ‘Police,’ they yelled. ‘We have a warrant.’ An officer shined a flashlight on a document (he) couldn’t read. Unsure what to do, but unwilling to defy the authorities, he let them in,” French wrote.
“The officers sat him down, read him the entire search warrant, and ordered him not to tell anyone about the raid — not even school officials. He asked if he could call his parents. They said no. He asked if he could call a lawyer. They said no.”
Investigators then rooted through the family’s home looking for evidence of a political crime, French wrote.
That’s the absurd part of it all, O’Keefe said. When he was served with the subpoena, he thought it was all just a misunderstanding. His organization, which had been extraordinarily successful in the conservative revolution that swept Wisconsin in 2010, was most adept at campaign finance law.
“We had not done anything wrong. We had not run any Walker-related ads. I thought they were barking up the wrong tree,” O’Keefe said. “I came to realize that our behavior was irrelevant to the purposes of the prosecution. We were being attacked because of our success.”
Walker and the Republicans had won control of state government in 2010 and they had enacted legislation that Democrats and their liberal allies detested. The sweeping John Doe investigation, led by now-exposed liberal government officials and a highly partisan Democrat district attorney, was always about power. The conservatives led by Walker had it, the liberals didn’t. An army of prosecutors and investigators was recruited to “overturn the results of an election,” O’Keefe said.
In many ways, Wisconsin was a preview of D.C. swamp politics and destruction through prosecution, John Doe targets assert.
Five years later, the scars remain.
One John Doe target says she was harassed and hectored so often by investigators that her children asked her if she did something wrong. Why would investigators repeatedly call her on the home phone if she hadn’t done something wrong, they asked. “Can you imagine how that feels? When your own children have to ask you if you are guilty of something?” The woman risked imprisonment under Wisconsin’s John Doe law for explaining to her family that she was not a criminal.
For so many reasons, Wisconsin, and the nation, cannot forget what happened on Oct. 3, 2013 and the secret political investigation that wrought the raids of that day.
M.D. Kittle is an Investigative Reporter with the MacIver Institute. This story appears courtesy of the MacIver Institute.