John Doe special prosecutor’s bill still shrouded in secrecy

Part 75 of 75 in the series Wisconsin’s Secret War

By M.D. Kittle | Wisconsin Reporter

MADISON, Wis. — Wisconsin taxpayers are footing the bill for the special prosecutor in a politically charged, multi-state John Doe investigation into conservatives.

But nobody with any knowledge of the special prosecutor fund will say just how much taxpayers are paying for the services of Francis Schmitz.

REGARDING SCHMITZ: Artist rendering of what we believe Francis Schmitz, special prosecutor in a secret probe targeting conservatives, looks like.

One legislative aide who assists the Legislature’s powerful Joint Finance Committee fears the Legislature just “threw money” at the state Government Accountability Board, which oversees state campaign and election law. The aide told Wisconsin Reporter, “Nobody wanted to be the person to not give (the GAB) money.”

Now, in the wake of several lawsuits filed against Schmitz, Milwaukee County District Attorney John Chisholm, two of his assistant DAs, and a shadowy GAB-contracted investigator, lawmakers are demanding answers to questions about the secret activities of Schmitz and the accountability board.

Nearly a month after state Sen. Tom Tiffany, R-Hazelhurst, and State Rep. Dave Craig, R-Town of Vernon, called for a “thorough review” of the GAB, Tiffany said he’s coming up with more questions than answers.

“I think the information that has come out over the last few weeks has bolstered the case that the Legislature needs to do a full review of GAB statutory authority,” Tiffany said.

The Legislative Audit Bureau is in the process of reviewing the GAB’s finances, with an audit scheduled to be released “in spring 2014” — presumably within the next few weeks.

Until then, there are plenty of questions about Schmitz’s compensation.

In its response to Wisconsin Reporter’s open records request on May 9, the state Department of Administration offered its standard response, that it has “no responsive records” in the matter. It’s not that the records don’t exist; it’s that DOA doesn’t have to say anything to taxpayers about them.

“As you are undoubtedly well aware, anything dealing with an alleged John Doe investigation is normally sealed in accordance with the law under Wis. Stat. 968.23(3),” DOA legal counsel Gregory D. Murray wrote in a letter to Wisconsin Reporter. “Therefore, to the extent any such alleged contracts or communications did in fact exist, we would be complied to deny your request pursuant to Wis. Stat. 19.35.(1)(a).”

John Doe prosecutors and the GAB have repeatedly declined to provide cost estimates of the investigation; in fact, they’ve declined to talk at all about the probe, citing its secrecy order.

A lawsuit filed last week in Waukesha County Circuit by Eric O’Keefe and the Wisconsin Club for Growth, among many conservative targets of the nearly three-year John Doe investigation, claims GAB had no authority to participate in the probe and in so doing has cost Wisconsin taxpayers “significant expense.”

“Since at least August of 2012, the GAB has spent and continues to spend substantial resources in furtherance of the proceeding,” the lawsuit asserts. “To date, the GAB and its staff have obtained and examined hundreds of thousands of documents in connection with the John Doe proceeding.”

GAB has appointed at least two special investigators, including Dean Nickel and Schmitz, and issued more than 30 subpoenas throughout Wisconsin and across the country to conservative-leaning groups, Internet service providers and financial institutions, according to the lawsuit.

“Furthermore, on information and belief, the GAB continues to employ Mr. Schmitz as a special investigator for the GAB, providing him an office and paying him to pursue John Doe II on behalf of the GAB,” the lawsuit asserts.

In 2014 alone, GAB has spent at least $55,000 in connection with the investigation, including paying both Dean Nickel and Schmitz as special investigators, according to the complaint.

The agency’s biennial budget for 2013-2015 is around $14 million.

As of last month, the agency has spent $2,038,041.21, the vast majority of that, $1,550,073.04, on professional and contractual services, according to OpenBook Wisconsin, the state expenditure tracking website.

GAB has a fund for special prosecutors that is fixed. Sources tell Wisconsin Reporter the fund was about to dry up and that payment to prosecutors was being deferred. Legislative aides for the Joint Finance Committee say there have been no “13.10” requests, or special requests for funding by GAB in recent months.

The John Doe investigation was bound by a court-administered secrecy order, at least until a federal judge last month ordered the probe shut down. Prosecutors and officials from the accountability board still hold to the terms of the secrecy order, which had come with the threat of jail time for violators.

State taxpayers are shelling out tens of thousands of dollars for the legal defense of Schmitz, Chisholm and crew.

Tiffany said GAB director Kevin Kennedy has reached out to set up a meeting with the senator’s office. Tiffany said he’d like to see the GAB audit, and that he hopes the audit bureau has access to all of the information cloaked in secrecy.

“If they don’t, that’s certainly another item I will have to put on the list of reforms needed to be taken,” Tiffany said. “We need more transparency in this process.”

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

Rob Port is the editor of SayAnythingBlog.com, a columnist for the Forum News Service, and host of the Plain Talk Podcast which you can subscribe to by clicking here.

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