Nearly four years ago, Milwaukee County District Attorney John Chisholm, a Democrat, initiated his first investigation into suspected at-work campaign activity by staff members working for then-Milwaukee County Executive Scott Walker. It was the beginning of two "John Doe" investigations into Walker, those who supported him and roughly 30 conservative organizations in the state who backed him.
Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, a member of the executive committee of the National Governors Association, speaks to the media after meeting with President Barack Obama at the White House Tuesday, Jan. 14, 2014, in Washington. (AP/Jacquelyn Martin)
Despite the wide scope of the probe, Chisholm found no evidence in the first "John Doe" investigation to charge now-Gov. Walker. The case was effectively closed last March. Walker, a Republican, beat a 2012 recall effort by the Wisconsin union leaders he had publicly battled in an effort curb their collective bargaining rights. His win was a signal to Democrats that one of their most powerful constituencies -- the unions -- were vulnerable.
But for Chisholm's office, it didn't end there. He launched a second John Doe investigation last November against Walker supporters.
Wednesday's episode of TheBlaze TV's For The Record, "State Secrets: Investigating John Doe," (8 p.m. ET) will look at how the investigations have continued to target Walker's supporters, and how the original investigation regarding money missing from a veterans’ fund has turned into a controversial, multi-year probe aimed at a large number of people and nearly 30 conservative groups who support the governor.
Milwaukee County Sheriff David Clark, a Democrat, told TheBlaze that "John Doe" investigations are mainly used in drug-related cases to protect witnesses turning over evidence on organized crime, but instead, Chisholm's office used the law for "what appears to be political purposes, government shouldn't be used as a weapon to go after political adversaries."
"There's a chilling effect because if you're a contributor [to Walker] and you find out, hey I usually make a political contribution to this particular political organization and I see that they're seizing their records, next thing you know I'm subpoenaed and dragged into this thing," Clark said. "This appears to be a political witch hunt. ... The district attorney's office has been weaponized to go after political groups and people who are adversarial to their political ideology."
The original “John Doe” investigations were supposed to be secret, but according to a number of Republican and conservative groups interviewed by For The Record, witness names were leaked to local news media outlets from Chisholm's office. They said it was an effort to intimidate those supporting Walker. Now Chisholm is under fire and this month, the conservative Wisconsin Club for Growth is arguing in a civil rights lawsuit that the probe violated their rights to free speech, free assembly and equal protection under the law. They are asking the U.S. District Court in Milwaukee to block Chisholm from continuing his John Doe probe.
Chisholm's declined repeated requests for comment from TheBlaze, citing the ongoing investigations.
Milwaukee conservative groups have called Chisholm's investigations into Walker -- considered a potential Republican presidential contender in 2016 -- a witch hunt that has served to strike fear into anyone supporting the governor.
The name leaks believed to be emanating from Chisholm's office were "unethical" and "a basic violation of the code of conduct for prosecutors" said Hans von Spakovsky, a senior legal fellow at the conservative Heritage Foundation. Most of the people and organizations whose names were published in the media were never found guilty of any wrongdoing.
But Chisholm has many supporters who say he has been vilified by right-wing conservatives trying to protect Walker and his presidential aspirations. They say there is enough circumstantial and viable evidence to go after Walker, and accusations that the district attorney's office is using the law as a "political weapon" are just not true.
Chris Liebenthal, a Democratic blogger whose website Cognitive Dissidence has been in operation since 2006, told TheBlaze he "vehemently" opposes Walker, and said the Feb. 19 release of more than 27,000 emails and documents collected by Chisholm's office during the "John Doe" investigations show evidence of wrongdoing. The local Milwaukee papers, among others, petitioned the courts for the release of the emails belonging to Walker's former executive chief of staff Kelly M. Rindfleisch. She pleaded guilty in 2012 to one count of felony misconduct of performing political work for a lieutenant governor hopeful in 2012.
"I am very much opposed to Mr. Walker," said Liebenthal, a staunch liberal and lifelong union supporter. "I would say that the documents that have been released last week show a pattern that [Walker] mixed government and campaign work. "
But Liebenthal, who goes by the name Capper on his blogs and is a Milwaukee County employee, was accused by a conservative group of doing the same thing in 2010. He, however, received only a 10-day suspension from work and had to forfeit $2,051 in county pay. After seizing his work computer, prosecutors with Chisolm's office found Liebenthal had engaged in political activity at work, but decided not to file charges.
Darlene Wink, who worked with Walker, received one year of probation after pleading guilty of two misdemeanor counts for sending hundreds of campaign-related emails for Walker's campaign during her time at work. Rindfleisch, whose emails have now been made public, was sentenced at the end 2012 to six months in jail for campaign fundraising at the courthouse.
Walker told the Washington Post this week that the ongoing probe should not damage him politically as an upcoming presidential hopeful.
“The bottom line is I’m probably the most scrutinized public official in America,” Walker told the Post.