In John Doe Land, the left doesn’t illegally coordinate

Part 101 of 101 in the series Wisconsin’s Secret War

By M.D. Kittle | Wisconsin Reporter

MADISON, Wis. — As more light shines on the spiders in the left’s web of political coordination, one question increasingly begs to be asked: Where are the long, secret investigations into liberal organizations in Wisconsin?

Prosecutors in the politically charged John Doe investigation have spent years hunting conservatives in their secret probe, devoting more than a year and a half to investigating most of the right-leaning organizations in the Badger State.

The probe, launched in early September 2012 by Democrat Milwaukee County District Attorney John Chisholm, has labored under the theory that dozens of conservative groups may have illegally coordinated with Republican Gov. Scott Walker’s campaign during the state’s partisan recall election drives.

THE BIG QUESTION: With so much left-leaning money pumped into elections over the past few years, conservatives ask why there isn’t the same kind of scrutiny on liberal groups as there has been on right-leaning organizations.

The theory, to date dismissed by two judges, is that the groups may have violated state campaign finance law by running coordinated issue ads, viewed by prosecutors as akin to unreported in-kind contributions.

U.S. District Judge Rudolph Randa in May shut down the investigation and called the prosecutors’ assertions “simply wrong,” in large part because the ads were not express campaign messages, meaning they did not directly support or oppose one candidate or another.

Randa also denied the prosecutors’ motion to dismiss a federal civil rights lawsuit, which claims that prosecutors — including Chisholm, two of his assistant DAs, and John Doe special prosecutor Francis Schmitz — violated conservatives’ First Amendment rights.

As conservative activist Eric O’Keefe and his Wisconsin Club for Growth point out in the lawsuit, Chisholm and crew haven’t gone after liberal organizations with the kind of prosecutorial vigor they unleashed in two overlapping John Doe campaigns — disparate treatment painstakingly outlined in the 76-page complaint, filed in February in federal court.

The plaintiffs say they can point to “numerous other activities materially identical to the activities giving rise to the manifold branches of this massive investigation … within Democratic campaigns and among left-wing issue advocacy and independent expenditure groups.”

A few years after the recall campaigns began, the same liberal groups and plenty of new ones are working to promote left-led causes and candidates. The question is, have they coordinated, and if so, have they done so illegally — at least under the John Doe prosecutors’ interpretation of illegal coordination?

Chisholm and Schmitz repeatedly have declined to answer that question publicly. Schmitz did not return a voicemail from Wisconsin Reporter. He and the Milwaukee County prosecutors have said many times that they cannot discuss anything related to the John Doe investigation, due to the strict secrecy order imposed on all of the players.

But the prosecutors-turned defendants, in court filings denying the allegations against them, have sounded incredulous that anyone could hold suspect the motives of these long-serving public servants.

“It is simply astounding that plaintiffs could accuse lifelong law enforcement professionals of intentional misconduct in office and then seek to deny them the opportunity to have those claims challenged by appeal,” Chisholm’s attorney writes in the prosecutors’ response denying any wrongdoing.

As Randa pointed out, under U.S. Supreme Court decisions in recent years expanding political speech, there is nothing wrong with like-minded groups working together for the purpose of promoting their political ideas and goals.

John Doe prosecutors, it seems, have a different idea about what constitutes illegal coordination, however.

What kind of coordination is this?

Some of the nation’s largest labor unions were some of the heftiest donors to the recall campaigns against Republican senators and Walker. Big labor wanted to take out the man and the party that dramatically changed Wisconsin’s public employee collective-bargaining law, a citadel of organized labor’s success in the public sector.

The National Education Association, the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, and the Service Employees International Union dumped millions of dollars into the campaign to beat Walker.

In early April 2012, the SEIU “sent two contributions totaling $500,000 to the We Are Wisconsin PAC,” the galvanizing organization behind the recall movement that made direct donations to candidates and parties, according to the Center for Public Integrity.

We Are Wisconsin led all special interest groups in spending during Wisconsin’s recall season, pumping more than $14.4 million into the recall campaigns, according to the Wisconsin Democracy Campaign, a left-leaning group that tracks campaign expenditures and advocates for restrictions on campaign funding.

Less than a month before the June 2012 recall election, the Greater Wisconsin Committee, a liberal political supermarket made up of a political action committee, an independent expenditure fund, a 501(c)(4) “social welfare” organization, and a 527 special interest organization, picked up $1.3 million from We Are Wisconsin. It also took in $500,000 from AFSCME, and another $900,000 from the Democratic Governors Association to “fuel a final online, radio and TV ad push” in the closing days of the campaign, according to the Center for Public Integrity.

With so much money flowing in from the left and spent on a flood of issue ads, conservative targets of the multi-county John Doe investigation have found it more than peculiar that all of that campaign cash has apparently come out clean.

“… (T)he reason the (Government Accountability Board) and Democrat prosecutors selectively investigate and prosecute alleged campaign finance violations is because they can,” a conservative target of the probe told Wisconsin Reporter on condition of anonymity.

The source pointed to the legislation that in 2007 created the GAB, the state agency that oversees election and campaign finance law. Included in the legislation was a provision that required all charges of campaign finance violations be prosecuted by the district attorney of the county where the alleged violator resides.

It is to the sole discretion of the board and the DA to determine whether to investigate a case.

In the case of the John Doe probe in Milwaukee County, as was so often the situation in Democrat-controlled Dane County, prosecutors opted to investigate conservative groups and, by all accounts, mostly left liberal organizations alone.

Campaign finance and elections expert Hans von Spakovsky, too, questions why John Doe prosecutors haven’t targeted liberal groups seemingly working in concert for the same purposes. He said conservative groups under the John Doe spotlight were involved in issue advertising, where unions and other organizations were directly engaged in the recall campaigns.

“If these are a group of objective investigators looking at this, they would say, ‘We need to look at the groups working directly on an election, not the groups working on bringing issues to the public eye,’” he said.

“The fact that investigators did not … really makes it look like this was totally a partisan pursuit,” said von Spakovsky, senior legal fellow at the Washington, D.C.-based Heritage Foundation’s Edwin Meese III Center for Legal and Judicial Studies and former member of the Federal Election Commission.

The response from the left and critics of the court-upheld idea that money counts as speech has been that special interest advertising is a gauzy veil over direct support of or opposition to a candidate, spending that requires disclosure under campaign laws.

But thwarting such speech hasn’t held up at the U.S. Supreme Court, or lower courts for that matter. In May, the 7th Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals declared unconstitutional portions of state campaign finance laws restricting issue advertising.

The 88-page decision sides with Wisconsin Right to Life Inc. and its state political action committee, which sued to block the enforcement of multiple state statutes and rules against groups that spend money for political speech independently of candidates and parties — so called issue advocacy groups.

John Doe prosecutors are hoping the 7th Circuit will overturn Randa’s preliminary injunction on the investigation, and the district court judge’s denial to dismiss the civil rights lawsuit. The plaintiffs seek to hit the prosecutors in their official and personal capacities, meaning the defendants could be made to personally pay for damages to O’Keefe and the club.

Is this what illegal coordination looks like?

Many of the same groups reportedly involved in Wisconsin’s recall campaigns are actively involved in Gamechanger Salon, a members-only Google group for movers and shakers in liberal activism, according to documents obtained through an open records request by conservative news outlet Media Trackers.

Members include senior members of NARAL Pro-Choice America, Planned Parenthood, the SEIU, the AFL-CIO, among dozens of other players on the left, Media Trackers reported.

“Two of the goals listed are(,) ‘Recruit 200 key community-based organizers, especially women and people of color,’ and(,) “Recruit 100 key diverse bloggers, movement journalists, and pundits,” according to the report.

Gamechanger has the self-described goal of creating a “more coordinated” movement for liberals across the country, according to Media Trackers.

Is a John Doe investigation in the offing?