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Thursday, Jan. 5, 2012

Scott Walker's Other Big Problem

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The recall of Gov. Scott Walker has grabbed the attention of almost every Wisconsinite, whether they oppose or support the governor. Everywhere one turns in every corner of the state, there are reminders of the recall. Signs, both for and against recalling Walker, decorate yards almost as frequently as holiday lights. Petition circulators are found on street corners and public spaces like so many carolers. Meanwhile, Walker is traveling the country from one fund-raiser to another, hoping to raise enough money to be able to fight off the attempt to remove him from office.

But the recall is not the only thing that must be weighing heavily on Walker's mind. Walker's staffers, both from his gubernatorial campaign and from his office when he was Milwaukee County executive, have been caught up in an ongoing John Doe investigation for the past 20 months. But unless the occasional development occurs and is reported in the media, most people overlook it.

Due to the highly secret nature of John Doe investigations, few solid facts are publicly known. But what is known indicates that this is a very large investigation, which has expanded to include many people and many possible problems for Walker and his attempt to remain in office.

What We Do Know

In May 2010, it was found that one of Walker's county executive staff members, Darlene Wink, was leaving political comments on JSOnline.com and other blogs to promote Walker and his gubernatorial bid while at work. When this information was discovered, she immediately resigned from her taxpayer-funded county post. Since then, investigators have confiscated her work computer and have executed a search warrant of her home.

The revelation of Wink's activities led Milwaukee County Supervisor John Weishan to contact the district attorney's office, inquiring about this as well as an obstruction in an open-records request he had filed with the Walker administration.

At about the same time, Walker took his annual Harley-Davidson ride around the state, purportedly to promote tourism for Milwaukee County. The Democratic Party of Wisconsin sent people to follow Walker and his entourage. During this bike ride, the Democrats shot footage of Tim Russell, then Walker's director of housing and a longtime campaign worker and close friend, traveling with Walker and—as the Democratic Party of Wisconsin alleged—performing campaign-related activities, even though he was traveling as a county employee.

In August 2010, Milwaukee County sheriff's deputies executed a search warrant on Russell's office, confiscating his computer; witnesses say his BlackBerry phone and boxes of documents were also seized.

News regarding Walkergate became scarce for more than a year, but exploded in September 2011, when the home of Walker's trusted aide and top staffer in Milwaukee County, Cynthia Archer, was searched by FBI agents and Dane County sheriff's deputies. The agents removed boxes of items from her home and took the hard drive from a computer that she had just sold to a neighbor a few weeks earlier. After Walker was elected governor, Archer took a top position at the state Department of Administration and, later, the Department of Children and Families.

Just prior to this, Tom Nardelli, who was Walker's chief of staff in Milwaukee County and like Archer had also followed Walker to the state, suddenly resigned from his position at the state Division of Environmental and Regulatory Services.

Another departure, which wasn't revealed until the fall, is that of John Hiller, who suddenly left his position as Walker's campaign treasurer, a job he's held for 18 years.

In the same month, it was learned that several people were granted immunity in the investigation. One of the people granted immunity was Rose Ann Dieck, a ranking member of the Republican Party of Milwaukee County and an acquaintance of Wink's.

Even more telling of the scope of the investigation, the most prominent person to receive immunity is Cullen Werwie, who worked for Walker's campaign and is currently Walker's spokesman as governor. This would indicate that the investigation has expanded from just being about Walker's county staff, and also involves his campaign. In support of that, Walker's campaign has retained former U.S. Attorney Steven Biskupic to represent it, paying him about $60,000 to do so.

One Conviction Already

Conservative talk-radio hosts and other right-wing pundits have tried to minimize and dismiss the John Doe investigation as a "witch hunt," merely over-hyped coverage of a staffer leaving some comments that will lead to nothing. What these Walker supporters fail to mention is that the John Doe investigation has already led to one conviction. Furthermore, that conviction shows that the investigation is about much more than just politicking on government time.

William E. Gardner, president and CEO of Wisconsin & Southern Railroad, pleaded guilty to making illegal contributions, in the amount of $53,800, to Walker's campaign and others. Gardner used company money, laundered through employees and family members, to make these contributions. Gardner ultimately had to plead guilty to two felonies and pay $166,900 in fines.

Also showing that the investigation has taken on different turns is the recent development that Milwaukee-based commercial real estate mogul and former head of the Commercial Association of Realtors-Wisconsin, Andrew P. Jensen Jr., was incarcerated for refusing to cooperate with the investigation. Prosecutors had wanted to offer Jensen immunity, but Jensen would only take the offer if he could keep that information from being made public. In a recent interview, Walker admitted to having met with Jensen on occasion, even though he has tried to downplay these meetings.

These developments have given fuel to allegations leveled by Walker opponents that Walker and his staff have regularly done pay-for-play in which Walker would use his office to reward campaign donors with contracts, government loans and grants and tax breaks, among other political favors. Supporting these accusations, opponents have cited Walker giving contracts to Wackenhut and to Edward Aprahamian—both have donated to Walker's campaign and had received millions of dollars in contracts with Milwaukee County while he was county executive.

The questions continue. In December, five Assembly Democrats asked federal regulators to delay the sale of Wisconsin & Southern Railroad to a Kansas-based company, questioning whether it's "political payback" for illegal campaign contributions to the governor.


When and Where Will It End?

Due to the secret nature of John Doe investigations, it is impossible for anyone to say with absolute certainty how much longer the investigation will go on or how far it has been extended.

It is safe to say that the investigation will go at least into the spring, since Jensen has been ordered to report to the district attorney's office on Jan. 25. Even if Jensen is the last interview that the authorities need, it would take time to compile all the information gathered in order to write and issue any indictments.  

The big question on many people's mind is whether Scott Walker is the John Doe being investigated. Again, this can't be answered with absolute certainty.

It is known that the investigation has involved Walker's staff at the highest levels of his administrations as county executive and as governor as well as his campaign staff, which are often the same people.

Given these facts, it is still impossible to say that Walker will be indicted. But it can be said that even if Walker is not indicted, the slow but steady drip of information about the John Doe investigation is a big problem for him and his attempt to win the support of Wisconsin voters during a high-stakes recall campaign.

Chris Liebenthal writes the Cognitive Dissidence blog at cognidissidence.blogspot.com.

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