Second ‘John Doe’ Probe of Gov. Scott Walker on the Ropes

AP Photo/Morry Gash
AP Photo/Morry Gash

Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker has been hounded by not one, but two open-ended “John Doe” probes of his campaign finances, which invited criticisms of politically-motivated abuse by Democrat officials as they ground pointlessly along for years.

The first of those investigations went belly-up months ago, and now the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel reports that the second one is just about ready to start pushing up daisies.  Given Walker’s new prominence as a potential 2016 presidential candidate, Democrats won’t want to let these little crusades die completely – if nothing else, they would love to be able to describe Walker as “embattled” or “controversial” because he’s “under investigation” – but it’s pretty clear they’re on life support.

Actually, it seems like the Journal-Sentinel is straining to find ways to avoid performing last rites over the motionless remains of Probe Number 2:

The John Doe probe into Gov. Scott Walker’s campaign is not dead, but it may be mortally wounded.

U.S. District Judge Charles Clevert recently put a halt to key avenues of the investigation into whether Walker’s campaign illegally coordinated with conservative groups. Clevert’s ruling prohibits investigators and regulators from enforcing campaign finance laws involving ads that fall short of telling people how to vote.

But his ruling — in an unrelated case — leaves untouched the law prohibiting coordination between campaigns and interest groups that tell people to vote for or against a specific candidate.

Conservative groups have mounted an intense political and courtroom strategy to quash the investigation —the second of two John Doe investigations involving Walker’s campaigns. The latest probe has been stalled since last year when the judge overseeing it blocked subpoenas and found that the activity being investigated was not illegal.

Conservative commentators declared that Clevert’s ruling leaves no doubt that the secret probe is dead.

Rick Esenberg, founder and president of the Wisconsin Institute for Law & Liberty, a libertarian public interest law firm financed largely by Walker’s political boosters, said it seemed to him like the investigation was over but he couldn’t be sure because of the secrecy of the proceedings.

“It’s hard to talk definitively about anything done in secret,” he said.

Nothing else in the article supports the claim that the investigation isn’t quite dead yet; Mr. Esenberg has it right when he contends that the heavy layers of secrecy created by Wisconsin’s bizarre “John Doe” laws are the only reason anyone can pretend there’s still a future for the anti-Walker crusade.

The judicial ruling mentioned by the Journal-Sentinel effectively paralyzed these John Doe wild hunts by shutting down their investigative machinery, banning prosecutions, blocking referrals for criminal investigation, and holding parts of Wisconsin’s campaign finance law unconstitutional.  The monster probe is face-down in the dirt, bleeding shredded subpoenas from those “mortal wounds.”

Democrats are quoted whining about the “very aggressive litigation tactics” of the probe’s targets; what that means in practice is that the targets pushed back against ridiculously heavy-handed tactics, which gave prosecutors an unlimited license to intimidate conservative donors while the targets were legally gagged from discussing the proceedings and won an unbroken string of devastating victories.  Prosecutors, on the other hand, never managed to actually prosecute anyone.  The odds that the state Supreme Court will pull the stake out of John Doe’s heart are seen as minimal even by the law’s supporters.

All that remains is vague speculation that years of effort might have left prosecutors secretly hoarding some tiny bit of evidence that would support an as-yet-undefined legal theory that some form of illegal coordination between Walker’s campaign and nominally independent conservative groups took place.  There appears to be precious little to show for a long-running investigation that was given nearly unlimited power and virtually zero accountability while conducting a hair-splitting safari to suss out legal technicalities… an operation that had the very beneficial (to Democrats) side effect of hounding conservative groups out of the Wisconsin political scene.  In the end, it wasn’t enough to keep Governor Walker from winning another resounding re-election victory, and it probably won’t amount to much of an obstacle for his presidential ambitions, if he should choose to pursue them.