Scott Walker's "John Doe" scandal, explained

The Wis. governor is being haunted by a corruption investigation ahead of the recall. Here's what you need to know

Published June 1, 2012 12:45PM (EDT)

The two-year-old corruption investigation into Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker reached a major inflection point just days before his recall election next week when it came out that Walker had transferred $100,000 of campaign money to his legal defense fund and seemed to acknowledge that he is the center of the probe.

In the final debate last night, challenger Tom Barrett repeatedly slammed Walker for his legal woes and for stonewalling the public. "I have a police department that arrests felons," the Democratic Milwaukee mayor said, "he has a practice of hiring them." He added, “I’ve been in public life for 28 years. No one on my staff has been charged with a felony, and I've never had a criminal defense fund.”

So what is the “John Doe” investigation?

The term does not apply to a single anonymous person, in this case, but rather it refers to a secret evidence-gathering investigation, much like a grand jury. The investigation has been led by a DA and judge in Milwaukee, who has the authority to compel testimony, issue warrants and carry other law enforcement actions.

The probe reportedly started with a single staffer who had worked for Walker when he was Milwaukee's county executive, but it has since grown much larger, touching almost everyone who has worked for Walker, and even the governor himself, and producing several arrests and convictions.

Documents made public last night show prosecutors requested the secret investigation after they found Walker’s office “unable or unwilling” to provide information. "It may be the county executive's office is reluctant to provide information to investigators due to a fear of political embarrassment," an assistant DA wrote to a judge in May 2010. Walker has maintained that he has cooperated with prosecutors all along, so the document casts doubt on his story of the proceedings. Asked about the stonewalling last night, he essentially called the report untrue.

Already, three aides who have worked for Walker have been charged, as have two of his appointees and a major donor. One aide pled guilty to two misdemeanor counts relating to work she did for Walker’s gubernatorial campaign on county taxpayers' dime.

Two appointees were arrested for allegedly embezzling $60,000 from a fund that was intended to be used for veterans. They used the money instead for Caribbean cruises, wedding expenses, Walker campaign barbeques and other Walker campaign activities, prosecutors claim. They are awaiting trial.

The donor, Wisconsin and Southern Railroad Co. CEO William Gardner, was convicted of violating state elections law with excessive donations to Walker's campaign. He was sentenced to two years probation last year.

There have also been FBI raids on the homes and offices of aides and the seizures of computers. At least 13 aides have been granted immunity in exchange for cooperating with the investigation.

Walker, thus far, has maintained that he is not the target of the investigation. But under Wisconsin law, politicians can only use their legal defense funds for themselves or their staffs, and Walker said this week that none of the money from the fund would go to his staff, suggesting it would be used only to defend himself. Democrats seized on the comment as an admission from Walker that he is personally a target.

Walker had already contributed $60,000 to the fund -- which comes from campaign donors whom he refuses to name -- before this week’s transfer, bringing his total legal war chest to $160,000. He claims the money is being used to help turn over documents to investigators, but some experts point out this amount of money suggests a more sophisticated legal defense representing hundreds of hours of attorney work. There are also email records suggesting that Walker was personally involved in trying to stem the bleeding when the first allegations came out.

Graeme Zielinski, the communications director of the Wisconsin Democratic Party, which has tried to make the investigation into a campaign issue, compared the investigation to a Hollywood crime drama. “If you’ve seen the org charts in ‘The Wire,’ or whatever, they’re going towards the head of the outfit, and Scott Walker is the head of the outfit.”

“Virtually every single person that has participated in his public life for the past 20 years is implicated in this thing, and at its rotten core is Scott Walker,” Zielinski told Salon. “Virtually every crime that has been committed or alleged has been done for the benefit of Scott Walker.”

Walker’s role in his aides’ illegal activity is difficult to determine, in part, because the county executive office allegedly set up a "secret email system" that was "routinely used by selected insiders within the Walker administration" to circumvent the state’s open records law, a criminal complaint charges. The router for the network was supposedly hidden in an armoire within feet of Walker’s desk.

“The idea that Scott Walker did not know what was going on in a ten person office ... is absurd. It’s not believable,” Zielinski said.

By Alex Seitz-Wald

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