‘Are these kind of armed pre-dawn raids standard operating procedure?’

Part 76 of 76 in the series Wisconsin’s Secret War

By M.D. Kittle | Wisconsin Reporter

MADISON, Wis. — John Chisholm, the Milwaukee County District Attorney and Democrat who launched a secret John Doe investigation into conservatives nearly three years ago, suggests prosecutor-sought raids on the homes of targets may well just be a figment of one man’s imagination.

In a court filing Wednesday, Douglas Knott, attorney for Chisholm and his two henchmen, Bruce Landgraf and David Robles, goes as far as placing quotation marks around words and phrases such as “raids” and “evidence.”

To the John Doe prosecutors’ knowledge, the “only ‘evidence’ in the record referencing these ‘raids’ comes from plaintiff O’Keefe’s declaration,” Knott wrote in a motion asking the 7th Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals to stay a federal district court’s order last month shutting down the probe.

‘RAID’ BY ANY OTHER NAME: Prosecutors in a politically charged John Doe investigation take issue with claims by conservative targets that homes were raided. They were, and very early in the morning, according to conservative targets.

Knott is, of course, referring to Eric O’Keefe, long-time conservative activist who, along with his Wisconsin Club for Growth, is suing Chisholm, his assistants, John Doe special prosecutor Francis Schmitz and contracted investigator Dean Nickel, on allegations that the prosecutors and their shadowy helper violated conservatives’ First Amendment rights.

The prosecutors-turned defendants, in perhaps one of the more condescending motions you’re likely to read, also ask the appeals court to stay the lawsuit until their appeal is heard.

They take a swipe at O’Keefe’s credibility, saying that in his lawsuit O’Keefe “claimed that he somehow ‘learned’ in the Fall of 2013 — through some unknown means — that unidentified ‘armed sheriff deputies arrived at several (unidentified) homes across the state, shining floodlights on them.” Knott adds the parenthesis, presumably to emphasize “unidentified,” in smothering his point.

“Regardless of the veracity of O’Keefe’s claim, or the reliability of its unidentified sources, it is clear that these unidentified ‘raided’ homes did not include his own,” the attorney rights.

Several sources close to the investigation, including some targets, said Chisholm and crew are underselling a horrific series of raids in an unwarranted investigation that has turned their lives into a “living hell.”

“Is Chisholm suggesting that search warrants were not executed by armed deputies during the early morning hours of Oct. 3, 2013 at his direction?” one source with knowledge of the raids asked.

“Is he suggesting that evidence collected from those raids including paper files, computers and other electronic devices were not confiscated and delivered to his office at the Milwaukee County Courthouse immediately following the raids? Is he suggesting that copies of electronic devices were not made under his direction and that inventories of the information collected are not maintained by his office? Is he suggesting a slip of paper with Francis Schmitz’s name and Milwaukee County Courthouse phone number were not left with targets of the raids?” said the source, who requested anonymity, fearing the prosecution’s retribution on targets.

“I don’t know about John Chisholm, but I call that an aggressive approach, bright lights, denial of counsel and threat of prison for disclosing the nature of the raid, not-withstanding,” the source added.

In his ruling shutting down the probe, U.S. District Court Judge Rudolph Randa details what O’Keefe described in the civil rights lawsuit.

The homes of R.J. Johnson, Deborah Jordahl, and several other conservatives across Wisconsin were rudely awakened by the bright floodlights of law enforcement vehicles in what sources have described as “paramilitary-style” predawn raids.

Deputies pounded on doors, executed search warrants, seized business papers, computer equipment, phones and other devices. During these very bright, very noisy raids, these conservatives were “restrained under police supervision and denied the ability to contact their attorneys.”

Several sources with knowledge of the secret investigation have confirmed the account, some adding that law enforcement officials entered the rooms of the targets’ children, taking property belonging to family members.

All of it was done in the name of possible campaign finance violations. The John Doe procedure, similar to a grand jury investigation without the benefit of a jury of peers, is a court-administered dragnet. One judge is vested with extraordinary powers to compel witnesses to testify and, if necessary, grant warrants to raid homes.

The John Doe prosecutors, since at least August 2012, have operated under the theory that a reported 29 conservative organizations illegally coordinated with Gov. Scott Walker’s campaign during Wisconsin’s partisan recall elections of 2011 and 2012.

Randa and John Doe presiding Judge Gregory Peterson have expressed concerns about said theory; Peterson quashed several subpoenas because prosecutors had failed to show probable cause, and Randa criticized the prosecutors for a theory that the judge said is “simply wrong.”

Randa and Peterson got backup from the 7th Circuit, which last month declared unconstitutional sections of campaign finance law that deal with special interest advertisements, the kind in which groups like Wisconsin Club for Growth are engaged.

One source who spoke to Wisconsin Reporter also on condition of anonymity, has a broader question for Chisholm and crew.

“The real question for Mr. Chisholm and Government Accountability Board Director Kevin Kennedy is this: Are these kind of armed pre-dawn raids standard operating procedure when investigating potential campaign finance violations?”

The answer seems to be no.

As O’Keefe points out in his lawsuit, conservatives appear to be the only targets of such lengthy and meandering John Doe investigations. Several left-leaning organizations who arguably were engaged in many of the same political activities as the conservative groups, by all accounts, have not been subject to John Doe probes, and certainly not armed “raids” of their property.

Chisholm’s attorney goes on to throw the deputies involved in the raid under the squad car.

The court filing notes that the sheriff deputies are not listed as defendants in the civil rights suit.

“If those unidentified persons feel that the unidentified sheriff deputies violated their rights in any manner, they may vindicate their rights in the proper forum, wherever that may be,” Knott writes in the motion.

A legal expert with knowledge of the investigation says the suggestion that the raids were the sole responsibility of law enforcement agents on the ground doesn’t square with reality.

“While there are tactical considerations related to scheduling matters, the level of force, what kind of force you put on targets, is very much coordinated,” the legal expert said.

One civil rights attorney and former long-time police officer contacted by Wisconsin Reporter pointed to a case, Pembaur v. City of Cincinnati, decided by the U.S. Supreme Court in the mid-1980s. In that case, the high court ruled the county and city could be held liable under civil rights statutes after sheriffs deputies attempted to serve search warrants on individuals in a physician’s office.

“All of this involves issues of fact, not law. This will all come out during discovery,” the attorney told Wisconsin Reporter.

And O’Keefe’s lead attorney in the civil rights lawsuit, David B. Rivkin Jr., has said he’s looking forward to “wide-ranging” discovery.

“We plan to serve discovery questions on a number of other people because we strongly suspect the defendants are not the only people whose fingers have been involved in driving this investigation there,” Rivkin said. “There may well be other individuals in the Wisconsin political establishment who have their finger on this.”

Contact M.D. Kittle at mkittle@watchdog.org