By M.D. Kittle | Wisconsin Reporter
MADISON, Wis. – In the wake of growing concerns about the legality of a secret John Doe probe into conservatives, two Republican lawmakers say it’s time to “turn over some rocks and do a thorough review” of the state Government Accountability Board – particularly examining the agency’s role in the politically charged investigation.
“After seeing these activities in conjunction with the John Doe, I think this government needs to review GAB, get some answers, and consider reforms, if necessary, in the next legislative session,” he said.
A CLOSER LOOK: Two Republican lawmakers say they want a review of the Government Accountability Board, the state’s campaign and elections watchdog, in light of growing concerns over the agency’s involvement in a politically charged John Doe probe into conservatives. PHOTO: AP
The accountability board, which oversees Wisconsin campaign and election laws, has been tight-lipped about its involvement in the five-county investigation into dozens of conservative organizations. But court documents in recent months have shed more light on the GAB’s role, beginning with its shadowy contracted investigator, Dean Nickel
GAB’s role efforts first came to light in November, when the Wall Street Journal reported on court records it had obtained that showed Nickel, former head of the state Department of Justice’s Public Integrity Unit, signed off on the affidavits asserting probable cause for search warrants. In the early morning hours of Oct. 3, 2013, law enforcement officials pounded on doors of the homes of multiple conservatives around the state, in what sources have described to Wisconsin Reporter as “paramilitary-style raids.”
Investigators seized business papers, computer equipment, phones and other devices. During these very bright, very noisy raids, these conservatives, targeted in a secret John Doe probe launched by a Democrat district attorney, were “restrained under police supervision and denied the ability to contact their attorneys,” according to a federal judge’s order this week.
Nickel, along with Milwaukee County District Attorney John Chisholm, two of his assistant DAs, and John Doe Special Prosecutor Francis Schmitz, are defendants in a civil rights lawsuit brought by conservative activist Eric O’Keefe and the Wisconsin Club for Growth, both targets of the nearly three-year probe.
U.S. District Court Judge Rudolph Randa this week – on two separate occasions – issued a preliminary injunction shutting down the John Doe. Randa’s ruling raises serious questions about the prosecutors’ probe, their potential abuse of power, and their understanding of campaign finance law.
Last month, Nickel filed documents in the U.S. District Court Eastern District of Wisconsin in Milwaukee claiming that the GAB authorized the John Doe probe.
Nickel said the accountability board approved the five-county probe on a 5-to-nothing vote. He said such approval, plus substantial evidence gathered refutes the “witch-hunt theory” by the Wisconsin Club for Growth.
Prosecutors have pursued a theory that the conservative organizations illegally coordinated with Gov. Scott Walker’s campaign during Wisconsin’s partisan recall campaigns. Randa said their interpretation is “simply wrong.”
State Rep. Dave Craig, R-Town of Vernon, who along with Tiffany is proposing a thorough review of the GAB, told Wisconsin Reporter that too much disturbing information about the John Doe probe and the accountability board’s role in it has surfaced in recent months.
“When you’re reading of people having their homes basically ransacked, of investigators scaring these people’s children, that’s something we should be concerned about,” he said. “My concern is, has the law been complied with?”
Beyond the civil liberties’ concerns, Craig and Tiffany say, are the fiscal questions that GAB has not answered. How much is all this costing Wisconsin taxpayers?
Craig said that question was driven home in a Wisconsin Reporter investigative report on Nickel, noting the state is paying the contracted sleuth’s legal bills, but the public has no idea just what Nickel has done.
A state contract obtained by Wisconsin Reporter shows Madison lawyer Patrick J. Fiedler was appointed Nickel’s attorney. Fiedler is to be paid $175 per hour, at a blended attorney rate, which is hourly fee generally based on the average rate of two or more lawyers working on a case. The attorney’s bill cannot exceed $25,000, according to the contract, effective Feb. 7.
Asked whether his client possessed an investigator license or law enforcement certification, Fiedler told Wisconsin Reporter, “I don’t know the answer to that question one way or the other.”
A review of state records could find no proof that Nickel has an inspector’s license or certification to work as a law enforcement officer in the state.
“My biggest concern is, are they (the GAB) spending taxpayers’ dollars wisely?” Tiffany said. “What I understand, basically, is they have an open checkbook. “As fiscal hawk I don’t think any agency should have open checkbook. We need answers into the activities of Dean Nickel and how money is being spent by the GAB.”
The agency’s biennial budget for 2013-2015 is around $14 million.
As of Thursday, 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.
Between Aug. 16, 2013 and March, GAB made 25 separate payments, totaling $55,584.20,from its general funds– each transaction listed to “name withdrawn.”
The website explains why some Employee names are not listed for some transactions.
“The names of some state employees have been redacted to protect their safety and welfare. For example, there are undercover officers in the Division of Criminal Investigation, and including their name would blow the agents’ cover. These transactions have a vendor of ‘Name withdrawn’ listed instead.”
As conservative news organization Media Trackers reported earlier this year, for fiscal year 2013, the OpenBook database lists 15 transactions by the GAB to a “name withdrawn” in the contracted legal services category. The payments totaled $42,034.45.
GAB spokesman Reid Magney told Wisconsin Reporter that GAB would not comment on the lawmakers’ call for a review of the agency.
Magney on many occasions has said that state law prohibits the accountability board from talking about its investigative activities.
In April, he pointed to the state statute, which prohibits GAB from disclosing any information related to investigations. “Were I to respond, I could be charged with a felony and face nine months in jail, a $10,000 fine or both,” Magney said.
Tiffany asserts GAB’s investigations wouldn’t be impeded by the taxpayers’ right to know how the agency spends all of its money.
“It really appears that there’s something to hide,” he said. “We as a legislature must do something.”
Milwaukee County prosecutors, too, have refused to release the costs of their John Doe investigations into conservatives over the past four years. They have told Wisconsin Reporter those costs would be impossible to track.
Craig said taxpayer money spent must be reportable to the elected representatives of the people, particularly money used in secret investigations.
“For that to be thrown up as an obstacle, I say that part of the law does need to be changed,” Craig said. He said he wants to know whether there is a limitation on the amount of money that the GAB can spend, or if the agency has a blank check. Craig expects that answer by Friday.
But the representative insists he isn’t in a rush to change Wisconsin’s unique John Doe law, which features an investigative procedure that is much like a grand jury process, without the benefit of a jury of peers. One judge invested with extraordinary power to compel witness to testify presides over the probes, which often are conducted through strict secrecy orders.
State Sen. Glenn Grothman, R-West Bend, last month told Wisconsin Reporter that he will work to change the law next legislative session, if he’s still in a position to do so.
“If I’m still in Madison and I am (still) chairman of the Judiciary Committee, I will look at the John Doe law,” he said, adding that he doesn’t support gutting the law, but amending it.
“I think there is a purpose for the John Doe, but I think it’s gone way over the top.”
Grothman is running for the 6th District Congressional seat being vacated by long-time U.S. Rep. Tom Petri, R-Fond du Lac.
Contact M.D. Kittle at email@example.com