Desperate to find a message that will stick in the final weeks of the recall campaign, Wisconsin Democrats have resorted to politicizing a legal probe into the actions of former Milwaukee County government employees who worked for then-county executive Scott Walker. The probe, known as a John Doe investigation, started two years ago at the request of Walker’s county administration. Its original purpose was to root out suspected fraud among county employees.
In Wisconsin, John Doe investigations are secret probes that legally prohibit all involved from leaking information about the proceedings to those in the press or public.
The current probe involving Milwaukee County government employees has become political because Democrats, including gubernatorial candidate Tom Barrett, have repeatedly tried to tie Governor Scott Walker into the indictments that have come down. Never mind the fact that Walker was the one who initially wanted the investigation.
A series of ongoing leaks to the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel have been massaged to benefit the narrative Democrats have been trying to build. With the recall election just two weeks out and polls showing the race between Barrett and Walker tight, the Democrats have made the probe the central part of their partisan strategy to take out Walker. But as they increase the partisanship surrounding the investigation by speculating that Walker is a criminal (something not borne out by any of the leaks or publicly available facts on the investigation), polling shows that the public increasingly regards the investigation as a politically motivated witch-hunt.
Public concern about partisan bias in the investigation is understandable. Milwaukee County District Attorney John Chisholm is a Democrat, and although both sides respected him in the past, his failure to stop the partisan leaks even while the Democratic Party has made the issue a political football has created outrage among Wisconsin conservatives.
Media Trackers discovered earlier this week that the chief investigator in the case, David Budde, allowed a Democratic Party of Wisconsin “Recall Walker” sign to be placed in his front yard, and a “Blue Fist” pro-labor poster to be plastered on the front door of his home. Chisholm as the Democrat district attorney defended Budde, saying it was Budde’s wife, a government employee who works for the brother of the Democratic gubernatorial candidate, who was responsible for the anti-Walker signs. Budde was not a partisan according to his boss.
But further information released a day later showed that Budde has given exclusively to Democratic campaigns at the state level, pouring money into the candidacy of a Democrat state Senate candidate widely seen as a favorite of labor unions and Big Labor bosses. He also has given to the Democratic campaigns of his boss, John Chisholm, the man who came to his defense when news of the anti-Walker signs started getting out.
A former district attorney in a neighboring county, a Republican, said that although Budde is a great investigator, his decision to allow anti-Walker signs in his yard at a time when he is helping lead a legal investigation Democrats are trying to use against Walker demonstrated a “total lack of common sense.”
This is not the first time that a member of the investigation has compromised the appearance of impartiality. Weeks ago Media Trackers discovered another stunning fact: 43 attorneys and staffers in the Milwaukee County District Attorney’s office signed petitions to recall Governor Walker from office. The leadership of the office defended the actions saying that none of the attorneys on politicized John Doe investigation signed the recall petition so all was well.
What they failed to comment on was the secretary of the public integrity unit, the special team running the John Doe, who signed the Walker recall petition.
With both the chief investigator in the probe and the secretary for the unit conducting the investigation compromising the appearance of impartiality surrounding the matter, it comes as no surprise then that public confidence in the integrity of the investigation is falling. Marquette University in Milwaukee polls the state monthly on key political topics. Since news of anti-Walker bias in the district attorney’s office emerged, public confidence in the probe has eroded to the point that is seen more as a partisan issue than a legitimate law enforcement action.
It will likely be very difficult for Democrat District Attorney John Chisholm to take any further action in the investigation before the recall election without being viewed by the public as a major participant in a partisan battle over the Wisconsin governorship. His failure to stop illegal leaks, and the ongoing missteps of those who work for him, have placed him in a public position few prosecutors would envy.
This report by Brian Sikma, communications director for Media Trackers in Wisconsin.