MacIver News Service | July 10, 2017
By M.D. Kittle
[Madison, Wis...] The long-running state Department of Justice investigation into leaked court-sealed documents from Wisconsin's infamous John Doe investigation appears to be focusing on employees at the state Ethics Commission.
It remains unclear, however, whether Attorney General Brad Schimel is ready to file charges in the case he launched nearly seven months ago.
While the DOJ has been silent on the status of the case, MacIver News Service has learned the state has retained outside legal counsel to represent the Ethics Commission in connection with the agency's probe into the "unauthorized disclosure" in September of court documents to the British publication The Guardian.
Katie Ignatowski, Gov. Scott Walker's chief legal counsel, late last week authorized the contract with attorney Samuel S. Hall of Milwaukee-based Crivello Carlson, according to the Ethics Commission legal contract.pdf signed on Friday.
The state will pay Hall's professional legal services at a blended rate of $175 an hour.
On June 27, the Ethics Commission requested Ignatowski appoint a special counsel to "assist our agency in the Department of Justice investigation of the release of John Doe documents," a letter accompanying the contract states. "Because the Department of Justice is involved in the investigation, they have declined our request for representation and advised us to contact the Governor's office for assistance in obtaining counsel."
Walker had to remove himself from the matter. The governor's campaign was targeted along with dozens of conservative groups in the partisan campaign finance investigation. The state Government Accountability Board, the Ethics Commission's predecessor, was an integral partner in the probe that the state Supreme Court in 2015 ordered shut down.
"This request is submitted with the recommendation and approval of Ethics Commission Chairperson David Halbrooks and Vice Chairperson Katie McCallum," wrote commission administrator Brian Bell. "No litigation has been initiated at this point in time, but Wisconsin Department of Justice investigators have requested interviews with Ethics Commission staff regarding their involvement in collecting and preserving records related to the John Doe investigation conducted by the Government Accountability Board in coordination with five district attorneys."
In December, the DOJ opened an investigation into the leak of 1,300-plus pages of John Doe-related court documents, published in September by liberal British publication, The Guardian. The printed story, picked up by mainstream publications nationally, amped up the "John Doe II" prosecutors' widely rejected investigation into alleged illegal campaign coordination between Walker's campaign and conservative allies during Wisconsin's bitter recall season.
There's been little reported movement in the probe since February, when, according to the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, the DOJ seized materials from the state Ethics Commission.
The Wisconsin Supreme Court two years ago this month declared unconstitutional the politically charged investigation, launched by highly partisan Democrat Milwaukee County District Attorney John Chisholm and carried out by his prosecutors, the GAB and the agency's hand-picked special prosecutor, Francis Schmitz. The 4-2 decision found that Schmitz's position was invalid and that the special prosecutor had perpetrated a "perfect storm of wrongs" against innocent citizens whose First Amendment rights were trampled during the multi-year John Doe investigation.
But multiple court findings that prosecutors did not have probable cause for their free speech investigation meant little to The Guardian and the publications that pushed a "criminal scheme" theme in painting Walker and right-of-center groups as campaign finance lawbreakers.
The documents leaked to The Guardian were sealed by the courts and strongly suggest that sources within or close to the investigation provided them to the newspaper.
As Wisconsin Watchdog has reported in its investigative series into the unconstitutional probe, experts say there is a small universe of people who had access to the documents, and that universe is almost exclusively populated by prosecutors, investigators and court officials.
"The records include handwritten notes on the motion of an unnamed movant (one of dozens of conservatives targeted in the probe), as well as an unsigned draft of an affidavit from John Doe special prosecutor Francis Schmitz," the publication reported.
Sources with knowledge of the leak have said there is other actionable intelligence - the time zone, date and exact time these documents were scanned. And the information includes the make and model of the copier used to scan them.
Earlier this year, the Journal Sentinel reported state Justice Department investigators reviewed documents in the Wisconsin Supreme Court's office.