By Elaine Magliaro
In April, I wrote a post about the Wisconsin Supreme Court being slated to take up a “John Doe” criminal investigation of alleged coordination between Friends of Scott Walker and “independent” groups during the tumultuous 2011-2012 recall elections.
Mary Bottari of PRWatch:
The Center for Media and Democracy (CMD) has detailed the bipartisan state investigation into the Walker campaign and the secretive big money groups that bankrolled his 2012 recall victory. Wisconsin Club for Growth (WiCFG), headed by Walker campaign manager R.J. Johnson and the “third Koch Brother” Eric O’Keefe, spent at least $9.1 million on Wisconsin’s unprecedented recall elections, and funneled almost $10 million more to other politically-active groups, including Wisconsin Manufacturers and Commerce. Yet, WiCFG, which enjoys tax free status, told the IRS that it spent $0 in political activity during that period.
Earlier this week, Billy Corriher (ThinkProgress) wrote an article on the subject of the “John Doe” investigation and whether Walker’s 2012 recall campaign “illegally coordinated with nonprofit groups that spent money to support him.”
Campaign finance laws prohibit “coordination” because they would allow candidates to run shadow campaigns outside of campaign finance law. The Center for Media & Democracy’s PRWatch said, “Prosecutors gathered evidence of Walker secretly raising millions of dollars for the supposedly ‘independent’ nonprofit Wisconsin Club for Growth (WiCFG), with the express purpose of bypassing campaign finance disclosure laws.” The secret donations were revealed to include money from a mining company that received permission to open a mine soon after Walker won reelection.
The investigation is at a preliminary stage, called a John Doe proceeding under Wisconsin law, which determines whether charges are filed. PRWatch said that “Walker and his allies have fought the probe not by denying coordination, but by claiming the rules don’t apply to so-called ‘issue ads’ that stop short of expressly telling viewers how to vote.” The Wisconsin Supreme Court is considering one of the many lawsuits filed to stop the investigation.
Corriher reported that Francis Schmitz, the prosecutor in this case, had “raised the question of whether one or two of the justices hearing the case are implicated in the same kind of scheme” in a recently released court filing. (Note: Schmitz is a Republican who voted for Walker in 2012.)
Two groups suspected of coordinating with Walker’s campaign have also spent $10 million to elect the four-justice conservative majority. The prosecutor’s heavily redacted brief also suggests that two justices, or, at least, their campaigns, may have committed the same offense that is at the heart of the Walker investigation—coordinating with dark money groups to get reelected.
Corriher said Schmitz noted that the groups “had significant involvement in the election of particular justices.” Corriher added, “While the justices are not named, the brief refers to the justices benefitting from money spent by John Doe groups to support the reelection of the justices, and the groups have spent money to support the election of all four members of the court’s conservative majority.”
According to Corriher, Schmitz’s brief also referred to a “history of control, collaboration and coordination” between the groups and “political campaign committees that may potentially include judicial candidates.” He said that the brief described “persons who worked for both a supreme court campaign and the John Doe groups.” Corriher noted that a portion of the brief that had been redacted “quotes an email that seems to provide evidence that a group was ‘actively involved’ in a justice’s reelection campaign.” He added that other portions that had been redacted seemed “to describe contacts and ‘close connections’ between the justice’s campaign and John Doe groups…”
Corriher said that the prosecutor’s brief “asked two of the justices to recuse themselves.” He added that one group, Wisconsin Manufacturers and Commerce, “also helped to write the court’s rule on conflicts of interest, which says that campaign cash does not in and of itself justify recusal.” He also said that the four conservative justices have given no indication that they will not participate in ruling on the case.
Barring review by the U.S. Supreme Court, the four conservative Wisconsin justices can shut down this criminal investigation into groups that spent $10 million to elect them. It’s also possible that at least one of them could halt a criminal probe into their own campaign activities. Schmitz argued that “the Justices will be deciding issues that may well reflect back on their own campaign committees,” and he said that the extent of the justices’ coordination would remain “unknown, possibly forever if the investigation is not allowed to continue.”