FOR MOST PEOPLE in Wisconsin the long-running duel over so-called John Doe investigations into activities related to Gov. Scott Walker and the recall elections falls into that catch-all category of “it’s just politics.”
That’s a sad commentary on the state of democracy in America, with bad behavior shrugged off by citizens who’ve come to expect it from the political class. Thank you, Republicans. Thank you, Democrats.
We think people ought to be paying more attention than that in the wake of revelations first published in the Guardian last week, based on hundreds of pages of leaked documents, heretofore secret, related to the investigation.
THE DOCUMENTS REVEAL the seamier side of activities that were being investigated before the Wisconsin Supreme Court ordered the John Doe shut down. That decision currently is being appealed by prosecutors to the U.S. Supreme Court, where the matter is due for consideration Sept. 26.
Here’s a sample of what the documents contain:
• Secret donations, many solicited directly by Walker, were being deliberately channeled to the Wisconsin Club for Growth — because the amounts were unlimited and donors’ names could remain secret — to finance coordinated recall-related messaging and advertising buys. The owner of a company that had produced lead for paint made donations totaling $750,000 to bolster Republican candidates. The governor and legislature pushed through changes aimed at retroactively protecting the lead paint industry from lawsuits by families whose children were harmed by lead poisoning.
• The mining firm Gogebic Taconite made secret contributions of $1.2 million to the Club for Growth’s political activities. Subsequently, Walker and the legislature passed mining legislation intended to streamline the process and dilute environmental rules for the company’s proposed northern Wisconsin development.
• When it appeared Wisconsin Supreme Court Justice David Prosser might lose his re-election bid in the spring of 2011, Republican operatives communicated in an email string about “messaging ‘widespread reports of election fraud’” to create doubts about the legitimacy of the vote count. Operatives suggested enlisting conservative talk radio hosts to spread false allegations.
THERE’S MORE, BUT readers get the picture. These reports are serious eyebrow-raisers deserving more scrutiny.
One might think key figures would feel a need to respond to information revealed in the documents. Not exactly.
A former Republican state Assembly speaker, Scott Jensen, who wrote “stories should be solicited by talk show hosts,” responded to an inquiry for comment from the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel: “The British newspapers (the Guardian) are world famous for printing illegally obtained information. I am disappointed that is now the standard at the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.”
Current Assembly Speaker Robin Vos and others are calling for an investigation to identify and prosecute whoever leaked the documents. Attorney General Brad Schimel, a Republican, has indicated the Department of Justice is looking into doing so.
Milwaukee County District Attorney John Chisholm, a Democrat, also supports an independent investigation but insists it should include both current and past leaks.
Walker, seeming to be irritated by reporters’ questions when he was asked for comment during a visit to Rock County, said everything he did was legal.
FIRST, IT’S TRUE that leaking documents from the John Doe is a crime. But leaking documents to the press is an old story, and can be an important one when it comes to monitoring government accountability. Without leaked documents the Pentagon Papers, which revealed government deceptions in Vietnam, would never have seen the light of day. Without leaked documents there would have been no Watergate accountability at the top. Leaks can serve the public interest.
It also should be noted documents from the John Doe cases have been leaked before, notably to the Wall Street Journal editorial page, which mounted an attack on prosecutors bringing the investigation. There were no calls coming from the legislature to investigate those leaks.
Behind-the-scenes maneuverings can be ugly, if not illegal, in politics. And big money buys access and favors. Don’t take our word for that, take Donald Trump’s: “When you give, they do whatever the h--- you want them to do.” If nothing else this John Doe investigation and related leaks have cast a bright light on the intersection of secret money and the politicians who benefit and may feel beholden to the givers.
All of which probably explains why such a fierce battle has been waged to shut down the investigation.
And, in our opinion, why the U.S. Supreme Court should allow the investigation to resume.