7 Facts About the Lies, Distortions and Paranoia From the Right-Wing Cabal Defending Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker
Editor’s note: This article is based on reporting by Brendan Fischer and the Wisconsin-based Center for Media and Democracy.
If you want further evidence of just how paranoid, partisan and ideologically twisted the defenders of Wisconsin’s union-busting Republican Governor Scott Walker are, consider the latest revelations from the campaign corruption probe that’s getting ready to squeeze a guilt plea from Walker.
First and foremost, the police investigations into Walker’s campaign lawlessness have been led by several elected Republican prosecutors in five Wisconsin counties. That, of course, is exactly the opposite of the line peddled by the Walker-defending Wall Street Journal editorial page—until it turned on Walker this month after hearing his lawyers were seeking a legal settlement.
At the heart of the vast right-wing propaganda tirade has been the claim that out-of-control government prosecutors have raided homes and conducted other civil liberty-crushing affronts to ensnare Walker. But as the seven following facts, taken from recent court documents reveal, those are not just paranoid accusations, they’re deliberate lies.
1. The home of Walker’s top defender wasn’t raided. The description of alleged raids of private homes in Wisconsin's to investigate an illegal web of campaign money laundering has captured the imagination of Republicans across the country as supposed evidence of its political motivations. But in recent court filings, prosecutors note that the individual challenging the awkwardly named “John Doe” investigations in federal court, Wisconsin Club for Growth (WCFG) director Eric O’Keefe, never had his home raided or searched. He only received a subpoena to disclose WCFG records from 2009 to now.
The search warrants were instead executed on the homes of Wisconsin Club for Growth "consultant" (and top Scott Walker campaign advisor) R.J. Johnson and his business partner Deborah Jordahl. This is where the partisan attack verbiage parts ways with the facts, because at least one so-called "raid" that has caused so much consternation among Republicans happened under the supervision of elected Republican sheriffs and prosecutors.
2. Prosecutors leading the probe include elected Republicans. The investigation into Scott Walker breaking election laws has several phases, because the behavior of Walker’s team became increasingly egregious. It began when he was Milwaukee County executive and obtained convictions from Walker staffers who broke laws barring county officials from campaigning while at work. That first “John Doe” investigation has since grown into a look at other electoral money laundering. It is now a state-sanctioned, five-county effort. Five district attorneys from both the Republican and Democratic parties are leading "parallel" investigations in their counties. This is the consequence of a 2007 law pushed by Republican legislators that requires campaign finance violations be prosecuted in the counties where defendants reside.
The Johnsons' home and the offices of Johnson's consulting firm, R.J. Johnson and Associates, are located in Randolph, Wisconsin, which spans Columbia and Dodge counties. The county sheriffs and district attorneys in both counties are Republicans. O’Keefe omitted the Republican prosecutors (not to mention the Republican sheriffs) from his federal lawsuit alleging the investigation was motivated by the Democrats' political animus.
3. The Wall Street Journal editorial page’s source lied. Court proceedings in John Doe cases are supposed to be kept confidential, like their anonymous name implies. But O’Keefe has been leaking selective elements of the story to the Wall Street Journal’s editorial page, but only those elements that throw mud on the Democratic prosecutors, omitting the Republicans. And that same dishonest line is echoed in their lawsuit to defend Walker.
O'Keefe only named Milwaukee County District Attorney John Chisholm, a Democrat, and Special Prosecutor Francis Schmitz, whose party affiliation had been unknown but who has since told the court that he is a Republican and voted for Walker. O'Keefe also omitted the Iowa County prosecutor who started the proceeding against him—which, state prosecutors argue, means that the lawsuit can't stop the probe into O'Keefe.
4. The devil isn’t just in the details, it’s in the detailer. Good prosecutors are supposed to put politics and personal feelings aside and follow the facts as best they can to get to the truth. To attack elected prosecutors who are doing that as political hacks is more than sleazy. The public can often lose track of what’s going on in political corruption cases because the lawyers and counter lawsuits defending the accused intentionally seek to create confusion. But what’s emerged from the legal record thus far—facts stated by judges and other statements made under oath and penalty of perjury—show exactly who’s lying, paranoid, deflecting and sullying the entire process. It’s Walker’s team, the very people under investigation for breaking anti-corruption laws.
The revelations about the "raid" are part of recent filings from Chisholm in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit in Chicago, as part of an appeal of Judge Rudolph Randa's May 6 order halting the multi-prong criminal probe. Randa, as the Center for Media and Democracy first uncovered, is a regular attendee at judicial junkets funded by the Koch family foundations and the rightwing Bradley Foundation.
Despite heated rhetoric about "armed raids," there is no evidence that the tactics used in the search were improper in the context of a criminal investigation. In other words, the police were doing their jobs, and doing them properly.
"Generally speaking, if you're looking for documents, you don't call people up and say, 'We're coming to get your documents; be sure to clean up your hard drive,' just like you don't call people up to say, 'We're coming to get your heroin so you have time to flush it down the toilet,'" James Tierney, a former Democratic Maine attorney general who now studies state attorneys general at Columbia Law School in New York, told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.
According to court papers, the principal complaints about the Johnson search appear to be that deputies used bright searchlights outside of the home and that the Johnsons were not allowed to observe the search, neither of which is out-of-bounds for a criminal search warrant.
5. Funny, the probe’s targets were not random. Only in campaigns and elections can people who are directly running the show think they are entitled to evade responsibility for their actions. One investigation target, R.J. Johnson, is a "consultant" with the Wisconsin Club for Growth, has been regularly quoted as its spokesperson, and has long been a top Walker campaign advisor. In other words, he’s not a bystander.
“In the political world, R.J. Johnson and I have worked together for more than two decades," Walker writes in the acknowledgements to his book Unintimidated. Walker's campaign paid Johnson's firm more than $130,000 between July 2009 and January 2012, according to campaign filings. As Lisa Kaiser of the Shepherd Express has described, "a closer read of Walker’s book reveals that Johnson was advising the new governor at the same time Johnson was defending Club for Growth in the press."
Quoting from the book, Kaiser notes:
“Not long after the unions made their announcement [on Feb. 18, 2011], my chief political strategist, R.J. Johnson, took me aside and said, ‘Governor, you’re in trouble,’” Walker wrote in Unintimidated about his dismal poll numbers.
Later, Walker claims that he was getting “killed in the air wars with the unions vastly outspending us in paid advertising. The situation was so bad that my chief political advisor, R.J. Johnson, called the Wisconsin airwaves a ‘no-fly zone’ for us, such was the union saturation.”
Although campaign finance statements show that Walker’s payments to Johnson stop in January 2012, Johnson appears in Walker’s book on the night he won his recall in June 2012. It seems that Walker’s wife, Tonette, wouldn’t believe that Walker won the election until Johnson, watching the voting results in Walker’s 'war room,' confirmed it.
“She threw her arms around him and sobbed,” Walker wrote. “All the pressure of the past 18 months came spilling out. Then R.J. started crying, too.”
6. A right-wing federal judge confirmed the dirty truth. In early May, Judge Randa issued a ruling that stunned Wisconsin’s political establishment: he ordered the John Doe investigation stopped, told the Club for Growth it no longer had to cooperate with the cops, and ordered prosecutors to destroy their evidence files. Not only was that ruling immediately appealed, it was also seen as exceeding the federal court’s jurisdiction and being political and corrupt.
In his extraordinary May 6 decision, Randa described the roles of O’Keefe and Johnson within WCFG accurately. He confirmed what they did for Walker, but just didn’t like the fact that it happened to violate state campaign finance laws intended to prevent political money laundering.
Randa wrote, "O’Keefe raised funds nationwide to support issue advocacy in favor of [Act 10], and Johnson took an active role in creating WCFG‘s communications and, where appropriate, advising WCFG to direct funding to other organizations that would be better suited to publish communications strategically advantageous to advancing the Club‘s policy goals."
CMD first documented this network this past November, describing how in 2011 O’Keefe's WCFG took in $12 million, some of it from dark money conduits such as the David Koch-connected Center to Protect Patient Rights and the Wellspring Committee. In turn, it shuffled millions to other organizations that spent money on ads during Wisconsin’s Supreme Court race and recall elections. WCFG engaged in a similar money shuffle in 2012.
Randa also wrote, "According to prosecutors, R.J. Johnson controlled WCFG and used it as a 'hub' to coordinate fundraising and issue advocacy involving [Walker's campaign] and other 501(c)(4) organizations such as Citizens for a Strong America, Wisconsin Right to Life, and United Sportsmen of Wisconsin."
7. Newspapers unmask the rest of the GOP propaganda machine. Politics at this level usually involves small tight-knit circles—because those on the inside cannot trust outsiders. Thus, it’s no surprise that Johnson's wife Valerie was also involved, serving as treasurer of Citizens for a Strong America. That is one of the nonprofits almost entirely funded by Wisconsin Club for Growth in 2011 and 2012. According to the Journal Sentinel, Valerie Johnson "posted two notes on her Facebook page shortly after the raid citing the constitutional amendment protecting against unconstitutional searches and seizures."
Notably, this small right-wing cadre had very high-stakes targets. With financial backing from WCFG, Citizens for a Strong America was a top spender on the 2011 Wisconsin Supreme Court race, and also spent an undisclosed amount on Senate recall races. It also acted as a WCFG conduit to funnel millions more to other nonprofits that engaged in the state’s 2011 recall elections that came after Walker and the GOP-run legislature gutted collective bargaining for most state employees. (CMD began investigating Citizens for a Strong America in 2011.)
The political money trail can be numbing to follow, but that’s exactly what the players trafficking in money, power and influence want. That’s how the system puts them at an advantage over ordinary citizens and is implicitly corrupt. That landscape—of front groups and political money laundering—has been the way Walker and right-wing Republicans have tried to consolidate their power after Walker was not removed from office in the 2011 recall elections.
For example, in 2011 Citizens for a Strong America provided 90 percent of the funding for Wisconsin Family Action, which spent around $850,000 on Senate recall races that year. Citizens for a Strong America also entirely funded the United Sportsmen of Wisconsin in 2011, a group with close Republican ties that became the subject of controversy in 2013 when it won and then lost a $500,000 taxpayer grant to promote hunting in the state, despite little experience with such activities. United Sportsmen's leadership overlapped with that of David Koch's Americans for Prosperity (and CMD's reporting on the group irked AFP's chief operating officer Luke Hilgemann).
Needless to say, the front groups also included fake news organizations. The president of Citizens for a Strong America is John Connors, who is also director of special operations at the Franklin Center for Government and Public Integrity. The Center’s Wisconsin Reporter website has written an astounding 80-plus stories thus far attacking the John Doe investigation in a series it calls "Wisconsin's Secret War." Connors was working with Americans for Prosperity the same year he registered the Citizens for a Strong America website, and began directing the funds that came into the group from WCFG. He also registered the Watchdog.org web domain.
The prosecutors—elected and members of both parties—are not dumb: they see this web. Connors' Citizens for a Strong America has been subpoenaed in the John Doe, but Franklin Center/Wisconsin Reporter has not disclosed its ties to Connors or Citizens for a Strong America in its John Doe reporting. That is the same censorship as what was leaked to the Wall Street Journal editorial page.
Additionally, Franklin Center/Wisconsin Reporter was first launched with funding from O'Keefe's Sam Adams Alliance, which the website also fails to regularly note. And if any more evidence of the political incest is needed, Connors is also tied to the groups funded by Citizens for a Strong America, having worked as a consultant with Wisconsin Family Action and having registered the domain name for United Sportsmen.
Walker’s Political Future At Stake
At age 46, Walker could have a long political future ahead of him. The GOP sees him as a possible U.S. senator or presidential contender. As a result, the way he handles the campaign corruption investigation is a big deal—and the prosecutors know that. The recent round of court filings show that prosecutors had sought to keep the probe secret to avoid publicity "because the individuals involved in this investigation are well placed.”
They were right to have been concerned. The prosecutors also know they are being targeted and smeared by leaks, innuendo and accusations in the media by Walker’s defenders. It’s ironic; the prosecutors can’t reply or respond because that would undermine their professionalism as investigators. Meanwhile, Walker’s team gets the benefit of shaping public opinion by being able to throw the first punch in the press without rebuttals.
Just weeks after prosecutors first issued subpoenas in the investigation, the O'Keefe- and Connors-linked Franklin Center/Wisconsin Reporter quoted unnamed sources with "proximity to the investigation" to break the news on some of the groups that had been subpoenaed. It sought to recast the criminal probe as a "taxpayer-funded, opposition-research campaign.” Franklin Center/Wisconsin Reporter has gone on to write 80 more stories (and counting) without disclosing its close ties to those under investigation.
A few weeks later, O'Keefe violated the secrecy order surrounding the John Doe investigations and spoke with the Wall Street Journal editorial board, which revealed more information about the investigation and asserted that the John Doe was a "Political Speech Raid." The national right-wing outlet has since written around 10 editorials on the John Doe, including two more recently to try to deter Walker from reaching a settlement in the investigation.
Others have also jumped into the fray. Right-wing commentator George Will used his Washington Post column to attack the probe last month. Will is on the board of directors of the Bradley Foundation, which in 2005 awarded him a $250,000 "Bradley Prize." Bradley's president and CEO, Michael Grebe, was Walker's 2010 and 2012 political campaign chair. If any more evidence is needed of how this cabal operates, Bradley also gave $480,400 to the Franklin Center between 2010 and 2012, $380,400 of which was described as focused on "state-based reporting efforts in Wisconsin."
Walker, who is up for re-election this fall, may indeed be seeking a settlement to clear the legal air—and presumably claim no wrongdoing. But based on how his team has attacked the John Doe probe since its earliest phases and then gone on to embrace political money laundering, it appears they have no intention of honoring any rules other than what they feel it takes to stay in power.