Investigators: Walker’s office ‘obstructed’ probe of funds stolen from veterans charity

Dee J. Hall | Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism

Investigators in the closed John Doe probe argued in a federal court brief filed on Friday that Scott Walker’s county executive staff “obstructed” its efforts to investigate missing donations to a veterans fund. The court brief includes recently unsealed investigative records.

Walker’s office did not respond to a message left Friday evening asking about the allegations that his office failed to cooperate in investigating the veterans-fund thefts. In 2012, the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reported that a Walker spokeswoman denied that his office was uncooperative with the probe, and Walker has denied the allegation in the past.

On Friday, chief investigator David Budde and investigator Robert Stelter reaffirmed that the John Doe investigation began after one of Walker’s top staff reported funds missing from “Operation Freedom,” an annual event held by Walker’s office to thank veterans for their military service.

The prosecutors maintained that the secret probe was necessary only because Walker’s office “was uncooperative and obstructed the District Attorney’s Office’s efforts to obtain documentation of the County’s receipt and disbursement of donations from Operation Freedom.”

“As a consequence, the District Attorney’s Office was forced to petition a John Doe proceeding in order to have legal mechanisms to obtain relevant documentation from the County Executive’s Office,” they argued.

Two Walker associates — former Deputy Chief of Staff Tim Russell and former veterans’ commission member Kevin Kavanaugh — were convicted of stealing more than $70,000 in donations from Operation Freedom. Four others, including Walker’s former deputy chief of staff, Kelly Rindfleisch, were convicted on a variety of other charges.

The filing in U.S. District Court in Milwaukee also revealed that Archer and Walker’s then-campaign treasurer John Hiller were under criminal investigation five years ago for their actions involving the proposed lease of office space by Milwaukee County that would have benefited real-estate clients of Hiller’s who had donated to Walker’s gubernatorial campaign.

The Wisconsin State Journal reported in October that Archer had given Hiller inside information about a pending bid for office space and that Walker was aware of the activity. That report was based on thousands of pages of emails released from the investigation, which ended in 2013

Milwaukee County ultimately decided not to rent the additional office space, and no one was ever charged in connection with the 2010 request for proposals.

“A Democratic district attorney who’s looked at this issue for two years 20 months ago … closed that case because he didn’t find any reason to go forward. I think that speaks volumes,” Walker told the Wisconsin State Journal at the time.

A new look

The documents filed Friday came in response to allegations Archer made in a lawsuit filed July 1 in Milwaukee County Circuit Court alleging that prosecutors led by Chisholm have engaged in a “continued campaign of harassment and intimidation” against Archer and other Walker supporters.

But the newly released documents reveal that the criminal investigation into the activities of Walker and his staff began before he was elected governor in 2010.

Archer’s lawsuit claims she was subjected to unwarranted investigation, including a Sept. 14, 2011, “raid” of her Madison home, as retaliation for her work with Walker on writing Act 10. Walker introduced the bill in February 2011 shortly after taking office.

But Budde and Stelter provided John Doe records unsealed July 10 by John Doe judge Neal Nettesheim showing the investigation into Archer’s activities began months before Walker’s surprise introduction of the bill that sparked weeks of protests at the Capitol.

The federal court filing on Friday also revealed new information about the now-closed investigation into the activities of Scott Walker and his staff when he was the Milwaukee County executive.

Although the investigation initially was launched to probe the missing veterans funds, prosecutors repeatedly enlarged it as they came across illegal campaign activity by Walker staffers, possible bid rigging and improper campaign contributions. Walker was never charged.

The records show Archer’s Milwaukee County office was searched in December 2010 for evidence that she had worked on Walker’s gubernatorial campaign while on county time and at her county office on “multiple occasions over a sustained period of time” when she served as director of the County Department of Administrative Services.

The filing also included a tape recording made of Archer’s interactions with officers during the search of her home, which was conducted by the FBI and members of the Milwaukee County and Dane County district attorneys’ offices. The recording was not available online late Friday.

In their brief, Budde and Stelter revealed that the Archer investigation involved not only possible bid rigging and suspected illegal campaign activity but also possible violations of the state open records law, which Walker secretly attempted to repeal retroactively while drafting the 2015–17 biennial budget. The brief said a criminal complaint was drafted naming Archer “and others” with two counts of conspiracy to commit misconduct in public office and one count of solicitation to commit misconduct in public office, but Chisholm’s office decided not to file it.

“While the District Attorney’s Office ultimately decided not to issue the draft criminal complaint, it reflects the good faith basis all defendants had in investigating Archer’s conduct for Milwaukee County,” the two argued.

The filing also showed that two weeks after the search of her home, Archer signed a proffer letter in which she agreed to provide information to the district attorney’s office of  “criminal activity in the Milwaukee area and elsewhere” in exchange for a promise that the interview would not be used directly against her in any criminal or civil proceeding.

The prosecutors being sued by Archer for alleged harassment want the case moved to U.S. District Court in Milwaukee. The prosecutors told U.S. District Judge Lynn Adelman that the lawsuit belongs in federal court because the allegations involve alleged federal civil-rights violations.

A second John Doe investigation into coordination between Walker’s recall campaign and conservative political groups was halted in July by the Wisconsin Supreme Court’s conservative majority, all four of whom had received a total of about $8 million in donations from the conservative groups under investigation. In Justice Michael Gableman’s majority ruling, he denied that coordination between campaigns and dark money groups was ever illegal, despite U.S. Supreme Court rulings to the contrary.