Gov. Scott Walker has signed legislation sponsored by his fellow Wisconsin Republicans that could protect him and his colleagues from political investigations.
The legislation was quickly approved by the Wisconsin General Assembly and the Senate only days after it hit the floors of both chambers.
A spokesman for Walker said the governor signed the legislation because he supported “common-sense reforms that protect free speech and ensure transparency and accountability.”
Democrats say Walker only wants to make sure he never again faces the kind of scrutiny that was produced by investigations that the former GOP presidential candidate has seen over the past three years.
“Republicans should be less concerned about covering up Gov. Walker’s political scandals and more focused on helping hardworking Wisconsin families. This move is a gross abuse of political power at a time when we have a shrinking middle class, declining family wages and stagnant job creation in Wisconsin,” said Senate Democratic leader Jennifer Shilling.
“Rather than enabling more corruption and covering up Gov. Walker’s political scandals, we should be helping working families, investing in our communities and encouraging economic prosperity.”
Republicans and Democrats agree the legislation is designed to severely limit the kind of so-called “John Doe” investigations that prosecutors could conduct in Wisconsin.
John Doe investigations grant special powers to county and state prosecutors in Wisconsin to maintain the security of their work on cases, while at the same time compelling testimony from witnesses.
John Doe investigations were recently used by the Milwaukee County District Attorney’s Office to examine Gov. Walker’s time as the county’s executive, as well as his time as governor.
Six of Walker’s aides during his time as Milwaukee County executive were convicted as the result of the first John Doe investigation. The 2010 probe included allegations of theft from a veterans’ organization, along with misconduct in office.
The second John Doe investigation concerned the coordination between conservative political groups and Gov. Walker’s campaign to defeat a recall election called against him.
The investigation was stopped in May 2014 when U.S. Appeals Judge Frank Easterbrook ruled Wisconsin’s John Doe investigations were “screamingly unconstitutional.”
“It does seem to me an order saying you can’t tell your own story is a classic gag order and probably unconstitutional per se,” Easterbrook said.
No charges were ever filed against Walker or the political action groups.
Rep. David Craig (R) sponsored Assembly Bill 68 to limit John Doe investigations. He said it would be better if investigations involving politicians were conducted before a grand jury, rather than behind the veil of secrecy provided by a John Doe investigation.
“The John Doe proceeding is unique to Wisconsin and gives prosecutors incredibly powerful leverage against the accused and witnesses to a crime,” said Craig. “Because this is a special tool used against individuals who have not yet been charged with a potential crime, it should be reserved only for situations when secrecy is absolutely necessary to compel testimony.”
Craig’s legislation would only allow the use of John Doe investigations to investigate serious felonies and crimes that are savagely violent.
Even in those cases, secrecy orders, while they could apply to judges and prosecutors, could not be applied to witnesses or those targeted by the investigation.
Milwaukee County Prosecutor E. Michael McCann defended John Doe investigations and his office’s use of them in an op-ed published by the Journal Sentinel.
“For over 165 years, the John Doe statute has served our state well and has been particularly effective in recent decades in bringing to justice legislators and other public officials who have committed crimes in public office,” McCann wrote.
“Senate Bill 43/Assembly Bill 68 would leave the John Doe law in effect for many serious felonies, but would exempt from the reach of the law those very crimes that are often committed by legislators, others holding public office and the wealthy special interests unlawfully attempting to influence elected officials,” he added.
During a Milwaukee radio talk show interview, Craig vehemently denied the allegation his legislation was intended to protect politicians from criminal investigations.
Rep. Gary Hebl (D) has been an outspoken opponent of Assembly Bill 68, along with other GOP-sponsored legislation that would reorganize the Government Accountability Board and double campaign donation limits for candidates for state offices.
“Taken independently, these proposals seem like bad governance,” Hebl said. “But considered together, we see a clear pattern of corruption and an attempt to make it easier to cover up corruption, fraud, and abuse.”
“I don’t know how Republican supporters of this corruption package can look themselves in the mirror and honestly say they are honoring their oath with these votes – votes only meant to help the majority party stay in the majority,” Hebl said. “Republican members of the Assembly sent a loud and clear message this week: ‘Wisconsin is Open for Corruption.’”
GOP Assembly Speaker Robin Vos hardly wanted to validate Hebl’s opinion with a response. But Vos did issue a statement in which he said the legislation at question was all “about protecting free speech.”
“Democrats are stuck in hyperbole overdrive,” his statement said. “They’re misleading the public and refusing to accept federal law set forth by the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling on political speech.”