By Ruth Conniff on Feb 20, 2014
Today a court of appeals in Madison, Wisconsin, will release thousands of previously sealed emails that belong to convicted felon and former Scott Walker aide Kelly Rindfleisch.
The Progressive will be publishing sections of the emails and other documents released by the court, as well as breaking news and analysis throughout the day. Follow the conversation on Twitter at #WalkerDocs.
Wisconsin's divisive governor became a national rightwing hero after he ended most collective bargaining rights for public employees and survived massive public protests in 2011 and a recall election in 2012. He has been traveling the country to promote his book, "Unintimidated: A Governor's Story and a Nation's Challenge," laying the groundwork for a likely 2016 Presidential campaign.
When New Jersey Governor Chris Christie's popularity plummeted after news stories and subsequent investigations into his possible role in a politically motivated traffic tie-up on the George Washington Bridge, Walker's star seemed to rise. Politico ran a story under the headline "Chris Christie's Pain is Scott Walker's Gain," suggesting that "no on is in a better position to get a boost from the Christie Bridgegate scandal than Walker."
But Bridgegate is minor compared to the "John Doe" investigations that have dogged Walker for the last four years, landing one of his closest aides and longtime political advisers in prison.
A John Doe investigation is a secret proceeding for which witnesses may be subpoenaed. Like a grand jury investigation, prosecutors open a John Doe in order to take testimony under oath or compel a witness to testify in order to gather sufficient evidence to issue a criminal complaint.
More news and more revelations from these secret investigations could jeopardize Walker's national political ambitions.
Six Walker staffers and associates racked up 15 felony convictions and three misdemeanors in the first John Doe investigation, begun in May 2010 -- a secret probe into illegal campaign work on taxpayer time while Walker was county executive of Milwaukee.
Walker started a criminal defense fund -- an unprecedented move for a Wisconsin governor -- in response to the first John Doe. In total, he paid more than $650,000 for lawyers representing himself and his campaign committee, according to Jason Stein of The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.
The first John Doe investigation ended on March 1, 2013 with no charges against the governor.
A second John Doe probe, begun in 2012, focuses specifically on illegal coordination between rightwing groups and the governor's campaign during the recall election, according to Dan Bice of The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.
Court documents show Kelly Rindfleisch is a target in both John Doe probes. Rindfleisch also worked for Walker, Republicans, and a firm tied to the Walker campaign after she was charged.
What to watch for:
The Kelly Rindfleisch emails released today will test Walker's repeated assertions that he had no knowledge of the illegal campaign work going on in his office when he was county executive.
Rindfleisch, Walker's fundraiser for the 2012 campaign and his former deputy chief of staff, admitted to using a secret email network to conduct campaign activities on county time when Walker was Milwaukee County exec.
Walker denied knowing anything about Rindfleisch's illegal activities, despite the fact that she sat 25 feet from his desk. Rindfleisch pleaded guilty during the first John Doe investigation to doing illegal campaign work for lieutenant governor candidate Brett Davis.
Was Rindfleisch also doing campaign work for Walker? And was Walker himself aware or involved?
Her emails will likely include correspondence with Walker that could answer those questions.
They could also shed light on the scheme to use a secret router to evade open records law.
That secret router was put in place by longtime Walker aide Tim Russell, who is now serving time in prison.
Other names that could come up in Rindfleisch's emails include RJ Johnson, former head of the state Republican party and a paid consultant for Wisconsin Club For Growth. Club For Growth has sued to try to stop the second John Doe probe. Eric O'Keefe, the group's director, told The Wall Street Journal that he is a target of the probe, which focuses in part on illegal coordination between several rightwing groups and the Walker campaign.
Today's document release provides the first detailed public view into the John Doe investigation, including affidavits and a transcript of secret court proceedings.
The court documents could show whether Walker himself was a target.
The first John Doe (PDF) also included revelations of Walker staff stealing money through a scheme to defraud the widows and orphans of Wisconsin's Iraq War veterans, as well as lurid child-enticement charges (PDF).
Although none of the charges touched Walker directly, they are unpleasant baggage to drag into a national campaign.
The Republican Response
State Republicans and their allies at rightwing groups under investigation in the second John Doe have repeatedly characterized both investigations as a "partisan witch hunt," which The Wall Street Journal described as targeting "dozens of conservative groups" in the state. The Journal lumped together nonpartisan judges, prosecutors, and investigative reporters who covered the Doe as Democratic party hacks.
The underlying theme of dark money which has poured into Wisconsin at an unprecedented rate during the Walker era -- and the shadowy players who back Walker's anti-union, anti-regulatory, anti-tax, and anti-public-education agenda -- is the backdrop to the current John Doe.
Despite aggressive efforts to stop the John Doe, including a federal lawsuit filed on February 10 by Wisconsin Club For Growth against the prosecutors and the John Doe judge, no one in the state Republican Party or allied rightwing groups seems to have been able to stop the Rindfleisch emails from coming out.
That raises another question: Why didn't the Republicans stop this from happening?
Rindfleisch, who has struggled to pay her legal fees, declined through her attorney to spend 30 days (and many billable hours) combing through her emails to make arguments to the court that some should be withheld.
Either Republicans and rightwingers in Wisconsin are sure there is nothing damning in all those emails, or they didn't adequately coordinate their spending to cover Rindfleisch's legal expenses.
Illustration: Flickr user DonkeyHotey, creative commons licensed.