MADISON, Wis. (AP) — With salacious felony child enticement and embezzlement charges swirling around former close associates, Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker is doing his best to stay above the fray and hope an ongoing criminal investigation doesn’t hit any closer to home.
The charges come less than two weeks before organizers of an effort to recall Walker from office plan to turn in more than 500,000 signatures to trigger the election.
The prosecutor leading the investigation refused to take questions when he laid them out, making clear the probe is ongoing.
That’s got to make Walker nervous.
It also sends a signal other charges may be coming.
While the allegations did ensnare people close to Walker — one of those charged with embezzlement was his former deputy chief of staff while he was Milwaukee County executive and the other was a Walker appointee — to date the governor himself has not been charged with any wrongdoing.
“At this stage, there is a good bit of distance there,” said Charles Franklin, a visiting professor of law and public policy at Marquette Law School. “That said, the question is where does the investigation go? Does it come even closer than to close associates?”
Walker is optimistic the investigation, which centers on people who served during Walker’s time leading the county, won’t have much effect on voters.
“In terms of the recall, obviously anyone can try and twist things, but I — in the end — think people will realize it was my office at the time that brought this to the attention of the district attorney’s office,” Walker said Thursday.
Walker’s then-chief of staff did alert investigators in 2009 to concerns about missing money tied to an annual veterans recognition event. But Walker said he had no idea his aide Tim Russell also was allegedly stealing. Russell’s longtime domestic partner, Brian Pierick, also was charged with felony child enticement after phones and computers seized showed he was trying to lure a 17-year-old into his van.
One of the user names prosecutors said either Russell or Pierick used to download suspected child pornography was “Walker04.”
Wisconsin Democratic Party Chairman Mike Tate said Friday that Walker was conducting a “master class in obfuscation” with how he has portrayed the investigation and his involvement with it.
“This criminal corruption probe is circling closer and closer to the office of Scott Walker,” Tate said.
At the very least, the news is a distraction as Walker faces a recall effort just one year into his first term.
He has become a national conservative hero for taking on public sector unions and winning. On the morning the charges were announced, Walker was touting the concessions he forced during an appearance at Washington-based conservative think tank the American Enterprise Institute for Public Policy Research.
Walker, who reported raising more than $5 million last year with about half of it coming from outside Wisconsin, also expressed confidence he would prevail in the recall.
“I don’t plan on losing,” Walker said at the event. “But I’m not afraid to lose.”
Walker has been running television ads defending his agenda ever since recall petitions hit the streets. At least up to now, the other side has not hit him directly on the ongoing investigation.
That could change.
The key question will be where the investigation stands closer to the election, said Franklin, the law professor who also is the founder of pollster.com.
“I don’t think this is a tipping point for voters looking ahead to the recall,” Franklin said. “But I think as we get closer to the recall, especially independents and folks who are not signing things, it’s at that point that all of the pluses and minuses of candidates start to come in.”
Milwaukee County District Attorney John Chisholm, a Democrat who is leading the investigation, said politics doesn’t play a role in his actions.
“We go where the evidence leads us and partisan politics plays no role in any decisions made by this office,” Chisholm said.
The three people charged Thursday are:
— Russell: Walker’s former deputy chief of staff, he was a close associate of Walker’s holding various positions within the county executive’s office between 2002 and 2010. Russell did not follow Walker to Madison following his election as governor in 2010. Russell faces embezzlement charges related to his alleged stealing of more than $21,000 in money from a nonprofit organization that Walker asked him to head.
— Kevin Kavanaugh: Walker appointed Kavanaugh to the Milwaukee County Veteran Service Commission. It was in his role as treasurer of the local Military Order of the Purple Heart that prosecutors allege he stole $42,232 in donations between 2006 and 2009.
— Pierick: Russell’s longtime domestic partner, Pierick became part of the investigation after prosecutors seized Russell’s phones and computers and found evidence that Pierick was attempting to solicit minors for sex. He faces child enticement charges.
While not as closely associated with Walker as the others, Pierick had donated $250 to Walker in 2005 and volunteered to help with his campaigns. At one time Pierick was listed as the registrant of Walker’s current campaign website. He was replaced by Russell, whose name was removed by the campaign Wednesday.
Walker’s campaign spokeswoman Ciara Matthews said Pierick never had any role with the campaign and the work of transferring the website domain name to someone other than Russell had been ongoing “for some time.”
Pierick was hired in October to work at the state Department of Public Instruction but he was fired without cause Thursday, which is allowed because he was within the six-month probationary window.
Russell is repeatedly mentioned in the Pierick criminal complaint but he was not charged with anything related to child enticement. The complaint says user names associated with images of suspected child pornography found on Pierick’s phone included names such as “TRussell” and “Walker04.” The complaint said the accounts were created by Russell or Pierick or both.
Russell’s attorney has said his client is innocent. Messages seeking comment from Kavanaugh and Pierick were not immediately returned. Online court records did not list a current attorney for Pierick and Kavanaugh’s attorney did not immediately return a message.