Schimel wants contempt proceedings in Walker John Doe
MADISON - State Attorney General Brad Schimel has recommended contempt proceedings for a prosecutor and eight other officials over their handling of material from a secret probe of Gov. Scott Walker's campaign.
In a 91-page report made public Wednesday, the Republican attorney general sharply criticized the probe's leaders for engaging in an overly broad investigation and failing to secure the vast amounts of evidence seized. He contended contempt proceedings should be initiated against special prosecutor Francis Schmitz and the team he led for how they handled seized material after courts told them they could not review it further or had to get rid of it.
Schimel also wants to seek professional sanctions against Shane Falk, who served as an attorney for the now-defunct Government Accountability Board, as part of his investigation into the leak of secret John Doe material to the Guardian U.S.
"The systemic and pervasive mishandling of John Doe evidence likely resulted in circumstances allowing the Guardian leak in the first place, and now prevents prosecutors from proving criminal liability beyond a reasonable doubt," the report says.
Jefferson Circuit Court Judge William Hue made Schimel's report public Wednesday. Hue, who is overseeing the wrap-up of the Doe investigation, wrote in a brief order that he would consider Schimel's request for contempt proceedings.
Milwaukee County District Attorney John Chisholm and Schmitz ran the investigation into whether the Republican governor’s campaign illegally worked with conservative groups in recall elections. Chisholm is a Democrat and Schmitz has identified himself as a Republican.
The state Supreme Court shut down the investigation in 2015, finding nothing illegal had occurred.
In 2016, the Guardian U.S. published a trove of documents from the investigation that were supposed to be kept secret. Among other things, the leaked documents showed that Walker and the GOP-controlled Legislature approved a 2013 measure aimed at retroactively shielding paint makers from liability after a billionaire owner of a lead producer contributed $750,000 to a political group that provided crucial support to Republicans in recall elections.
By early 2017, Schimel opened an investigation into the leak to the Guardian.
Schimel's report asked for contempt proceedings against Schmitz, Falk and employees from the accountability board and Chisholm's office.
The former accountability board employees are Kevin Kennedy, who headed the agency; Jon Becker, the director of its ethics division; Nathan Judnic, an attorney; and Molly Nagappala, who managed oversight of lobbyists. The Milwaukee County district attorney employees are former Assistant District Attorney David Robles, investigator Robert Stelter and administrator James Krueger.
Schimel is not seeking contempt proceedings against Chisholm.
In an email, Schmitz said he was “completely surprised” by Schimel's report. He said he cooperated with investigators at the outset of their leak investigation and didn’t hear from them after that.
In addition, Schimel wants to refer Falk to the Office of Lawyer Regulation for potential professional sanctions.
Schimel’s investigators determined “with reasonable certainty” that Falk’s hard drive was the only place that held all of the documents that were leaked to the Guardian, including emails seized in the investigation and court filings. Falk turned that hard drive over to another GAB attorney when he left the agency but investigators couldn't find out what happened to the device after that.
Falk, who denied any involvement in the leak to investigators, had no comment Wednesday.
"As you know, I am arguably still subject to a gag order on these matters and unlike the AG and others involved, I cannot talk about it," Falk told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel by email.
The others named by Schimel did not respond to requests for comment.
The material seized by investigators included millions of pages of emails and documents that were taken from dozens of Republicans, some of it personal. They included more than 150 personal emails between state Sen. Leah Vukmir (R-Brookfield) — who is now running for U.S. Senate — and her daughter, the report said. Some of those emails included medical information.
In a statement, Vukmir slammed the probe as a "witch hunt."
"The upsetting news that my privacy was violated ... by those who ran the John Doe investigation is absolutely appalling," Vukmir said. "This criminal behavior is inexcusable, and the individuals involved in this belong in prison."
John Doe investigations are similar to grand juries and are often conducted in secret. Chisholm launched an initial John Doe investigation that looked into Walker aides and associates during his time as Milwaukee County executive and a second that looked at the 2011 and 2012 recall campaigns.
Schimel's report said that this second probe into Wisconsin Republicans became so broad that parts of it amounted to a third John Doe probe.
Despite secrecy orders, information about the probes seeped out during the years Walker's campaign was investigated — some of it helpful to prosecutors and some of it helpful to Walker and other conservatives who were being investigated.
Schimel investigated the leaks to the Guardian but not ones that were critical of the probe and appeared to be leaked by its targets.
In an interview Monday, Schimel said he did not investigate whether Eric O'Keefe, the head of Wisconsin Club for Growth and a target of Chisholm's probe, had leaked information because "he has a right as a citizen to say whatever he wants" about the raids of the homes of those who worked with him.
“It would smack frankly of authoritarian countries” if someone were barred from saying his or her home had been raided, Schimel said.
The investigation of Walker's campaign was conducted in partnership with the state accountability board, which at the time administered state elections and ethics laws. Walker and GOP lawmakers approved disbanding the agency in late 2015 and the responsibility for campaign finance violations — and the closed John Doe investigation — went to the state Ethics Commission.
The Ethics Commission operates differently than the accountability board did.
Unlike the accountability board, the commission cannot open its own investigations and needs to receive a complaint to do so.
In addition, the Ethics Commission has an internal computer system that shows which staff members have viewed each document associated with an investigation, making it easier to see which workers might be responsible for leaks if they happened in the future.
Ed Pilkington, the Guardian reporter who wrote about the documents that were leaked, said he had never been contacted by investigators looking into the leak.