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Right-Wing Front Group Poses as Journalists to Attack Investigation Into Political Money Laundering

Wisconsin's secretive right-wing political operators are nervous.

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The Franklin Center for Government & Public Integrity (through its  Wisconsin Reporter and Watchdog.org websites) has aggressively attacked the government’s "John Doe" probe into possible campaign finance violations during Wisconsin's 2011 and 2012 recall elections. Its media outlets have also published new information about the apparent targets of the investigation, but they have omitted an important detail: Franklin Center has close ties to individuals and groups that may be caught up in the John Doe probe.

The only name associated with the investigation led by the Milwaukee County's District Attorney's office, Eric O'Keefe, helped launch the Franklin Center's operations in 2009, and his Sam Adams Alliance group provided the majority of its startup budget. O'Keefe has  spoken publicly about being subpoenaed in his capacity as director of Wisconsin Club for Growth. Franklin Center's  Director of Special Projects John Connors, and the Executive Assistant to the President Claire Milbrandt, also have close ties to a group reportedly involved in the probe. Its former Director of Operations and General Counsel, James Skyles, worked with another group active in the Wisconsin recalls.

Franklin Center's  Wisconsin Reporter has written 16 stories so far that are highly critical of the anti-corruption probe and prosecutors (calling its series  "Wisconsin's Secret War"), but these latest revelations raise questions about whether the outfit has a conflict of interest in its coverage.

"It does sound like a conflict-of-interest situation that minimally ought to be disclosed, whenever stories are written," said Robert Drechsel, Director of the Center for Journalism Ethics at the University of Wisconsin School of Journalism and Mass Communications. "Particularly if the reporting in question is being done by an entity that holds itself out as nonpartisan and as doing the same kind of journalistic work being done by any traditional journalism institution."

Franklin Center Attacks John Doe, Citing Unnamed Sources

After Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reporter Dan Bice  first reported on the new "John Doe" investigation -- a secret inquiry unique to Wisconsin that is " just like a grand jury except no jury," led by special prosecutor Francis Schmitz, a former federal counterterrorism prosecutor with  Republican credentials -- interest was high, but thanks to the John Doe's strict secrecy rules, details were hard to come by.

The Franklin Center/ Wisconsin Reporter quickly filled the void.

Wisconsin Reporter launched its "Wisconsin's Secret War" series in October, citing unnamed sources to  reveal that Wisconsin Club for Growth, Americans for Prosperity, and Republican Governors Association  had received subpoenas, and describing details about "after-hours visits to homes and offices" and prosecutors' "demands for phone, email and other records." Thanks to those unnamed sources,  Wisconsin Reporter had a new platform, and used it to recast the John Doe investigation as "an abuse of prosecutorial powers" with "the apparent goal of bringing down Gov. Scott Walker." The Walker campaign and 28 other groups also reportedly received subpoenas.

"This is a taxpayer-funded, opposition-research campaign," an anonymous source told the  Wisconsin Reporter.

Wisconsin Club for Growth soon became the most prominent name associated with the John Doe after its director, Eric O'Keefe,  told the  Wall Street Journal editorial board that he had been subpoenaed, with the investigation allegedly looking into what the  Wall Street Journal called "illegal campaign coordination" between campaigns and independent groups. The group is also led by RJ Johnson, a top Walker advisor. 

CMD uncovered how in 2011, O'Keefe's Wisconsin Club for Growth  took in $12 million, some of it from dark money conduits like the Koch-connected  Center to Protect Patient Rights (CPPR) and the  Wellspring Committee, and in turn shuffled millions to other organizations that spent money on ads during Wisconsin's Supreme Court race and recall elections. (CPPR, which is connected to the billionaire Koch brothers, was  recently fined $1 million by California's elections board for its role in what the  Washington Post called "a series of money swaps and transfers through a network of politically active nonprofit groups" to avoid donor disclosure. California prosecutors called it "campaign money laundering").