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Friday, Jan. 17, 2014

Issue of the Week: New John Doe 2 Ruling Lacks Common Sense

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In a ruling Friday by retired Appeals Court Judge Gregory Peterson, subpoenas issued in the new John Doe investigation to some conservative groups that supported Gov. Scott Walker and other Republicans in the 2011 and 2012 recalls were halted, according to an unsigned op-ed printed in the Wall Street Journal.

John Doe 2 allegedly is looking at whether Walker’s campaign committee and outside groups had illegally coordinated during the recalls. Candidates and independent groups aren’t allowed to link their campaign messaging, fundraising or strategy. As you may recall, evidence revealed in the first John Doe investigation found that Walker’s campaign and his county staff were in communication and were coordinating efforts to further his ambitions. John Doe 2 is looking at a different issue. It is illegal for independent expenditure groups, where billionaires have no limit on what they can contribute, to communicate or coordinate with the candidate’s campaign. John Doe 2 apparently was looking into whether this type of coordination occurred after Walker became governor and during the recalls. For example, Walker’s top campaign advisor, R.J. Johnson, is also the longtime spokesman for Wisconsin Club for Growth, which launched pro-Walker ads immediately after Walker announced his controversial plan to gut public employees’ bargaining rights in 2011. Overall, Wisconsin Club for Growth spent $9.1 million on recall ads—apparently while Johnson was still advising Walker.

The Journal reported that Peterson’s ruling stated that some of the groups that had been sent subpoenas—including Friends of Scott Walker, Wisconsin Club for Growth, Wisconsin Manufacturers and Commerce and the Johnson-connected Citizens for a Strong America—did not commit any violations of campaign finance laws. It seems that Peterson is arguing that because the outside groups didn’t directly state “Vote for Scott Walker” that they didn’t coordinate their efforts with his campaign.

It is questionable whether Peterson’s ruling is even technically correct, but because Wisconsin’s campaign finance laws are so easily bent in favor of large donors, it might actually be although to many it defies common sense. At the very least, the links between Walker and shadowy political groups should be investigated thoroughly—not stymied because of a technicality.

One new example of how well-funded conservative groups propped up Walker during the 2012 recall was dug up by the Madison-based Center for Media Democracy (CMD). Remember the $400,000 worth of TV ads produced by the Coalition for American Values Action? They denounced the recall because “recall is not the Wisconsin way”—a message that resonated with voters who ultimately kept Walker in office. CMD discovered that the shadowy group was funded by the Koch brothers-connected, Arizona-based Center to Protect Patient Rights, which also donated to the Wisconsin Club for Growth in 2011. The organization paid a record fine in California last year for breaking that state’s campaign finance laws.

Unfortunately, Peterson’s ruling might prevent Wisconsin voters from having the ability to learn more about how deep-pocketed anonymous donors paid to keep Walker as governor. We hope that the remaining aspects of John Doe 2 shine a spotlight on Walker’s biggest donors.