Documents released Thursday reveal that Wisconsin special prosecutor Francis Schmitz and his team are alleging that Gov. Scott Walker took part in a large “criminal scheme” during his successful bid to avoid being recalled. The alleged actions included the coordination of conservative groups who invested millions of dollars in order to assist both Walker and other Republican party members to avoid recall. The documents, initially filed in December 2013, are the result of an investigation, since blocked by a federal judge last month, into Walker’s efforts to avoid recall. Schmitz is acting for five attorneys, all of which represent liberal counties in Wis. It is not clear what, if any, legal ramifications Walker may face from the results of the investigation, but the decision to halt the investigation is currently being appealed. For his part, Walker is on the defensive and claims that he was involved in nothing illegal.
The initial investigation into possible election law violations involving Walker was shut down when the non-profit group, Wisconsin Club for Growth, filed its own lawsuit against prosecutors, accusing them of unfairly targeting the group with subpoenas and violating the group’s First Amendment rights. The presiding federal judge, U.S. District Judge Rudolph Randa, ruled in favor of the group, saying that the groups whose activities were organized by Walker were not engaged in political affairs, but were instead involved only in advancing their own causes. He also ruled that conservative groups do not have to participate in the investigation. A federal appeals court will now take up the difficult task of deciding if candidates can legally coordinate their campaigns with groups that are simply advocating an issue and not actively supporting or not supporting a particular candidate.
Prosecutors are investigating what they believe to be a “nationwide effort” to unite various groups whose backing was believed to be crucial for Scott Walker to win the recall. Walker is campaigning to be reelected this year and is said to be considering a run for president in the 2016 elections. Prosecutors claim that Walker’s involvement played an important role in the organization of the “criminal scheme” and included part of an e-mail sent by Walker on May 4, 2011, to Karl Rove, a noted Republican strategist, which outlined the operation, saying “We are running 9 recall elections and it will be like running 9 Congressional markets in every market of the state.” Rove has not commented to defend himself from involvement or to confirm knowledge of the email.
The groups involved include tax-exempt entities such as Citizens for a Strong America and the aforementioned Wisconsin Club for Growth, both of which contributed funds to fight recalls of Walker and Republican state senators. The prosecutor’s documents allege that two political consultants to Walker’s campaign raised funds for and coordinated the activities of various tax-exempt entities. It is also alleged that Keith Gilkes, the chief of staff for Walker, was actively involved in the process of the coordination of various groups during 2011 and 2012. Walker is accused of participating in the scheme by raising funds for the Wisconsin Club for Growth, which was acting as the link between the operation and the campaign.
Even if the investigation is allowed to proceed, proving that Walker illegally coordinated the groups is a difficult task. Election law experts contacted by the Washington Post failed to recall an instance in which such charges were actually prosecuted.
Wisconsin prosecutors are investigating Walker under state law, but the outcome of the case will be of high importance to all U.S. politicians and their campaign efforts, which must abide by all federal and state laws regarding the organization of deep-pocketed independent groups and political campaigns. After the Citizens United Supreme Court decision, various PAC’s and political groups sprung up, allowing party strategists to move from super PAC to campaign in order to present a united message. It is not uncommon for candidates to provide downloadable video on their campaign websites for groups to use in their own “independent” ads. \
Scott Walker appeared on “Fox & Friends” Friday morning to defend himself against the allegations, and referred to rulings by two prior judges that said his actions were not illegal. Politico reports that sources with media purchasing have told them that Walker has already signed up for TV time worth $250,000 over 12 days in order to defend himself from what he views as the “left and others trying to stir things up.” Although nothing has been proven in this case, detractors of Walker have been quick to jump on the information outlined in the newly-released documents, especially given that Walker’s race for a second full term as governor is very close. The final decision by Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals Judge Frank Easterbrook will be watched closely with regards to Walker’s campaign and the involvement Walker had in the “criminal scheme” as claimed by the prosecution, but will also have far-reaching implications in United States campaign finance law.
By Jennifer Pfalz