U.S. District Court Judge Rudolph Randa has put an end to a political witch hunt by local Wisconsin prosecutors that featured a secret investigation more reminiscent of a banana republic than the world’s foremost democracy. In two orders – one of which termed the prosecutors’ appeal of his decision as “frivolous” – Randa ordered local prosecutors to “cease all activities related to the investigation” and to return all of the records and documents they had seized from dozens of conservative advocacy organizations.
Judge Randa concluded that local prosecutors, led by Milwaukee County District Attorney John Chisholm, a Democrat, were attempting to criminalize the political speech of about 30 conservative organizations, including Wisconsin Club for Growth. These prosecutors had instigated “a secret John Doe investigation replete with armed raids on homes to collect evidence.” The prosecutors were upset apparently over the organizations’ support of legislation pushed by Gov. Scott Walker, a Republican, to limit the collective bargaining rights of public employees. They claimed it was a criminal violation for independent organizations to engage in political speech and political advocacy in support of Gov. Walker’s proposed legislation. Judge Randa ruled the prosecutors had a “long-running investigation of all things Walker-related.”
Judge Randa’s description of the appalling tactics used by the prosecutors is shocking. The head of WCG, Eric O’Keefe, as well as his advisors and employees, were treated like members of a drug cartel. Armed officers conducted raids in the early morning hours, with sheriff deputy vehicles using “bright floodlights to illuminate” the activists’ homes. Deputies executed search warrants “seizing business papers, computer equipment, phones, and other devices, while their targets were restrained under police supervision and denied the ability to contact their attorneys,” the judge wrote. Just as bad, O’Keefe and the other targets of the investigation also were served with subpoenas that included a “Secrecy Order” telling them they could not reveal anything about the investigation or the seizure of their property and records “under penalty of perjury.”
According to Judge Randa, the list of advocacy groups subpoenaed by the prosecutors “indicates that all or nearly all right-of-center groups and individuals in Wisconsin who engaged in issue advocacy from 2010 to the present are targets of the investigation.” And yet because of the Secrecy Order, the victims of this prosecutorial abuse were unable to exercise their right to complain in public about an offensive investigation and obnoxious police tactics aimed at restricting their First Amendment rights to speak about important public policy issues.
Judge Randa said the prosecutors’ interpretation of the law was “simply wrong”:
“The defendants are pursuing criminal charges through a secret John Doe investigation against the plaintiffs for exercising issue advocacy speech rights that on their face are not subject to the regulations or statutes the defendants seek to enforce.”
Randa’s condemnation of the Wisconsin prosecutors was stinging. He said he was “left to wonder” if the prosecutors had “actually read the complaint” O’Keefe filed against them. He had “no idea why the defendants even attempted to raise” some of their defenses and characterized them as “the height of frivolousness.” Most importantly, the judge held that the prosecutors were not entitled to immunity from civil liability because they had acted without probable cause.
This means that not only has the judge put a halt to the criminal investigation being conducted by the prosecutors, but the lawsuit filed by O’Keefe against the prosecutors for violating his civil rights will go forward. The judgment could be substantial. O’Keefe said his organization lost $2 million as a result of the investigation, which “devastated” its ability to advocate for Walker’s reforms.
The use of the tremendous power given to law enforcement officials to target political speech they do not like is one of the greatest threats to our liberty and freedom of speech. Although the tactics these prosecutors used have now been rebuked in court, voters should remember this shameful behavior. And the Wisconsin legislature should immediately act to rid of the state of a statute that allows Star Chamber proceedings that impinge upon our cherished First Amendment rights.