Last we checked on Gov. Scott Walker, he was (a) knotted in the polls with his Democratic challenger, and (b) fending off mind-bendingly dishonest media coverage of the scurrilous investigation into Wisconsin conservative groups – which has been summarily thrown out of court by two different judges. The 7th Circuit Court of Appeals took up the ‘Joe Doe’ circus yesterday, as twice-thwarted prosecutors sought to have their secret probe reinstated; lawyers for the Wisconsin Club for Growth, one of the targeted organizations, argued that a scathing lower court ruling shutting down the investigation and exposing the prosecutors to misconduct lawsuits ought to be be upheld. A press account of Tuesday’s oral arguments said the judges, “repeatedly quizzed lawyers… why the federal courts should weigh in on a state investigation” at all. Leading up to the proceedings, former FEC official Hans Von Spakovsky penned an op/ed in the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel spelling out what’s at stake in the case:
The fact that such a secret persecution of citizen advocacy organizations even occurred ought to be an embarrassment to a state that prides itself on being a progressive bastion of individual freedom. It is more reminiscent of a banana republic than the world’s foremost democracy… The [conservative] group’s supposed “crime” was coordinating its efforts on public policy issues with elected officials such as Gov. Scott Walker and with other conservative advocacy organizations. This resulted in SWAT-like raids in the middle of the night by armed law enforcement officials to seize “evidence,” as if these organizations were dangerous drug cartels or mob operations. Last week, I joined three other former members of the Federal Election Commission in filing an amicus (“friend of the court”) brief for the organizations unfairly targeted.
Based on our extensive experience interpreting federal campaign finance law, we argue that issue advocacy is at the core of our rights to free speech, to assemble and to petition the government for a redress of grievances. The right of citizens and their membership associations to directly engage elected leaders is all the more important on politically charged questions of public policy. Such collaboration is the norm in the political arena, where there is extensive interaction between citizens groups and elected officials about proposed legislation. In fact, such coordination is vital to a functioning democracy… I hope that the civil rights lawsuit filed against these prosecutors is successful and results in a large judgment that deters this type of investigation from ever happening again.
As we await the panel’s ruling – which is expected before the upcoming elections – a new report from respected journalist and Brookings senior fellow Stuart Taylor, Jr. sheds fresh light on the possible motivations behind the whole imbroglio. According to a source described as a former prosecutor with firsthand knowledge of the investigation’s inner workings, Milwaukee County District Attorney John Chisolm’s efforts have been driven by intense partisanship. The source says Chisolm’s wife is a fanatical anti-Walker agitator, and assesses the entire inquiry as a vindictive political crusade:
A longtime Chisholm subordinate reveals for the first time in this article that the district attorney may have had personal motivations for his investigation. Chisholm told him and others that Chisholm’s wife, Colleen, a teacher’s union shop steward at St. Francis high school, a public school near Milwaukee, had been repeatedly moved to tears by Walker’s anti-union policies in 2011, according to the former staff prosecutor in Chisholm’s office. Chisholm said in the presence of the former prosecutor that his wife “frequently cried when discussing the topic of the union disbanding and the effect it would have on the people involved… She took it personally.” Citing fear of retaliation, the former prosecutor declined to be identified and has not previously talked to reporters. Chisholm added, according to that prosecutor, that “he felt that it was his personal duty to stop Walker from treating people like this.” Chisholm was referring to Gov. Walker’s proposal – passed by the legislature in March 2011 – to require public employee unions to contribute to their retirement and health-care plans for the first time and limited unions’ ability to bargain for non-wage benefits.
This former Chisolm associate goes on to allege that the culture within his office was about as far removed from the paradigm of impartial law enforcement as could be imagined:
Chisholm said his wife had joined teachers union demonstrations against Walker, said the former prosecutor. The 2011 political storm over public unions was unlike any previously seen in Wisconsin…Chisholm’s private displays of partisan animus stunned the former prosecutor. “I admired him [Chisholm] greatly up until this whole thing started,” the former prosecutor said. “But once this whole matter came up, it was surprising how almost hyper-partisan he became… It was amazing… to see this complete change.” The culture in the Milwaukee district attorney’s office was stoutly Democratic, the former prosecutor said, and become more so during Gov. Walker’s battle with the unions. Chisholm “had almost like an anti-Walker cabal of people in his office who were just fanatical about union activities and unionizing. And a lot of them went up and protested. They hung those blue fists on their office walls [to show solidarity with union protestors] …At the same time, if you had some opposing viewpoints that you wished to express, it was absolutely not allowed.”
Read Taylor’s whole story, which traces the history of the ‘John Doe’ campaign finance probe and describes the pair of lower court decisions that lowered the boom on overzealous prosecutors. Not one person has been charged throughout the ordeal (let alone indicted or convicted), and prosecutors admit that Walker hasn’t even been served with a single subpoena. Meanwhile, conservatives in Wisconsin say the groundless, never-ending, punitive, secret investigation has frozen them into a state of paralysis, which they argue is a clear violation of their rights. President Obama’s former White House counsel appears to agree:
Bob Bauer, one of the nation’s leading election law experts, counters that however valid the reformers’ concerns may be, the Wisconsin investigation raises important constitutional and policy issues. “There are serious problems with the effort to prohibit or limit issue ad coordination,” Bauer said. “I’m very wary of using the criminal law to enforce them.” Punishing coordination, Bauer said, would “drive apart natural allies who should be free to collaborate on common political goals.” …Since Bauer served as President Obama’s White House Counsel, he cannot be discounted as a conservative partisan.
This is only the latest skirmish in the Left’s apparent campaign to criminalize political disagreement – ranging from a proposed Constitutional amendment restricting political speech, to an endless ‘Bridgegate’-to-nowhere investigation in New Jersey, to the utterly preposterous indictments against Texas Gov. Rick Perry. If these tactics prove successful, what’s to stop agenda-driven prosecutors in heavily partisan jurisdictions from routinely cooking up criminal inquiries and charges for the sole purpose of hanging a dark cloud over a rival politician during an election season? By the time the target has time to clear his or her name, the political damage has been done. The attack ads already aired. The people already voted (see: Stevens, Ted and DeLay, Tom). Genuine public corruption is a scourge that must be rooted out, but abusing the legal system to harass and silence ideological opponents is disgraceful. I’ll leave you with one of Walker’s latest ads touting Wisconsin’s job growth, followed by an RGA hit on Mary Burke:
Democrats are now seizing on new projections of a future structural deficit – estimated to emerge between 2015 and 2017 – to pummel Walker. These gripes come from the same people who left Wisconsin drowning in a $3.6 billion sea of red ink, which Walker has mopped up by reducing spending and reforming the budget, all while lowering taxes across the board. A Republican member of the state’s Joint Finance Committee offers a six-point primer on what Democrats won’t mention as they fulminate about potential structural deficits, which they suddenly care about very deeply. His first point: Walker and the Republican legislature have produced a string balanced budgets, leading to a sizable surplus and a robust rainy day fund. These latest projections employ a static analysis that assumes no efforts will be undertaken to adapt, respond, and achieve balance.