‘Easy target’: Kelly Rindfleisch breaks silence about John Doe probe

Part 38 of 38 in the series Wisconsin’s Secret War

STANDING UP: Kelly Rindfleisch,left, convicted of felony misconduct charges following a politically charged John Doe investigation, is breaking her silence in the case.

By M.D. Kittle | Wisconsin Reporter

MADISON, Wis. — After years of silence, Kelly Rindfleisch is speaking out.

In a recent interview with the Wall Street Journal, Rindfleisch, an aide to then-Milwaukee County Executive Scott Walker, recounted how she was snagged in a politically motivated secret investigation. Wall Street Journal reporter Collin Levy depicts her as an innocent “caught in the grinder of modern winner-take-all politics.”

Rindfleisch told Levy she’s certain she’ll suffer further “repercussions” for breaking her silence.

“They’ll figure out a way to do it,” Rindfleisch said of Milwaukee County District Attorney John Chisholm, a Democrat, and his assistant DAs. “But it’s going to be harder for them to try to do that. If they put me in jail, at least people will know exactly what they are doing.”

“I’m hoping that by telling my story I can wake people up to realize what’s happening,” Rindfleisch, who served as Walker’s former deputy chief of staff in Milwaukee County, told the Journal.

“What’s happening,” Rindfleisch and others claim, is that Wisconsin’s Democrats have successfully leveraged the Milwaukee County DA’s office and the state John Doe law to conduct opposition research into political opponents.

Milwaukee County Sheriff David Clarke has criticized the investigations and the prosecutors of partisanship.

“It appears to me that the prosecution out of Milwaukee County is becoming weaponized for political purposes,” Clarke has told Wisconsin Reporter.

Rindfleisch claims her legal battles with the Milwaukee County DA have devoured her personal finances and destroyed her emotionally.

“They did everything they could to financially devastate me,” she said.

Her attorney, Franklyn Gimbel, tells Wisconsin Reporter that Rindfleisch stands alone in fighting a “disproportionate foe,” spending taxpayer resources for which the DA’s office refuses to account.

The story is one of prosecutorial overreach and abuse of power, according to critics of the Milwaukee County DA-launched John Doe investigations. But the two court-administered dragnets have one common theme, according to Rindfleisch and several sources close to the investigations: The prosecutors’ ultimate target is Gov. Scott Walker.

In the first probe, investigators from the Milwaukee County DA’s office dramatically — some say politically — served a search warrant on the county executive’s office on Nov. 1, 2010, a day before Walker was elected governor. They seized the computer’s hard drive and searched Rindfleisch’s office, and had warrants to dig through her house and car.

“They took away my phone and kept me in my office against my will,” Rindfleisch told the Wall Street Journal.

Prosecutors came down hard on Rindfleisch. The 45-year-old Columbus resident is appealing her October 2012 felony conviction of misconduct in public office. She was found guilty of campaigning on the government clock for Brett Davis, a Republican candidate for lieutenant governor in 2010.

The recent court-ordered release of thousands of Rindfleisch’s emails and related documents show her communicating with Davis’ campaign. But Rindfleisch noted that she used her own computer, phone and email, although she didn’t leave the government building to do so. The emails further confirm what the John Doe concluded — that Walker wasn’t found to have been involved in any wrongdoing.

Gimbel said his client got caught doing what has gone on in politics since the birth of this nation.

“I think that Kelly has had more attention paid to her in the grand scheme of things than was justified,” said Gimbel, who has practiced law for more than 50 years. “She was not elected to an office. She wasn’t a high-priced government worker. She got caught in the switches, a violation of the rules in a practice that probably has been engaged in since going back to the time of George Washington.”

The latest probe, which Chisholm and crew opened in August 2012, targets at least 29 conservative organizations on a theory of illegal coordination between the groups and Walker’s campaign during Wisconsin’s unprecedented partisan recalls of 2011 and 2012.

As in the first John Doe, investigators in the second probe conducted pre-dawn raids at the homes and offices of targets, seized electronic equipment and other property, and have demanded political donor lists.

In January, the investigation’s presiding judge quashed subpoenas because the prosecution had failed to prove probable cause. Prosecutors have appealed that decision.

“This is political terrorism by the left perpetrated on the right,” one source close to the latest John Doe probe told Wisconsin Reporter this week.

Rindfleisch is a target in John Doe II, as the grand jury-style investigation has been billed.

She is appealing her conviction, as well as the six months in jail and three years of probation that come with it. She asserts the prosecution’s search warrants were overly broad.

Rindfleisch told the Wall Street Journal she was an easy target, that prosecutors tried to intimidate her into “providing speculation” that would implicate three of Walker’s closest political aides and allies.

One of those associates, Tim Russell, who also formerly served as deputy chief of staff to Walker in Milwaukee County, is now serving a two-year prison sentence for stealing more than $20,000 from a veterans fund that Walker started. Ironically, it was Walker himself and his staff who first brought their concerns about Russell to the DA’s office.

That’s how the politically charged investigation started. It moved circuitously from there over the next three years, driven by raids of the county executive’s office and charges that ultimately had nothing to do with Russell.

A civil rights complaint filed against John Doe prosecutors alleges the Milwaukee County district attorney and his prosecutors were bent on “turning peoples’ lives upside down in a politically motivated fishing expedition.” The lawsuit claims prosecutors “chose not to apply the same scrutiny to liberal individuals,” pointing out several examples of left-wing activities that were “materially identical” to the actions on the right that generated such vigorous investigations.

But prosecutors had a deal for Rindfleisch. If she cooperated and gave them usable dirt on Walker, they would “look favorably” on her situation, Rindfleisch told the Wall Street Journal.

Gimbel said his client received limited immunity in exchange for evidence that incriminated others.

“My advice to her was to be honest. Apparently her honesty and their expectations did not coalesce,” Gimbel said.

Milwaukee County Assistant DA Bruce Landgraf said in a sentencing memo that Rindfleisch had provided precious little information “deemed useful by prosecutors.”

“(I)t is my judgment that her loyalties rested and continue to rest” with GOP allies, Landgraf wrote.

Meanwhile, Rindfleisch’s appeal slogs on. Gimbel said his client is still waiting for the state’s response to a brief he filed nearly a year ago. The prosecutors have asked for several extensions, the most recent requested two weeks ago.

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