Target of secret John Doe probe is fighting back and speaking out

Part 129 of 129 in the series Wisconsin’s Secret War

By M.D. Kittle | Wisconsin Reporter

MADISON, Wis. – On the eve of the one-year anniversary of sweeping raids in Wisconsin’s politically charged John Doe investigation into conservative activists, Eric O’Keefe, one of the targets of that probe, is going public in a big way.

Speaking at length for the first time O’Keefe, a director of the conservative Wisconsin Club for Growth, tells Wisconsin Reporter he was shocked by the prosecutors’ tactics: predawn, paramilitary-style raids on the homes of conservatives, and the confiscation of their papers and electronic equipment.

“We ran a meticulous political operation; not only did we comply with Wisconsin’s laws – we were over-compliant, as we knew that Kevin Kennedy (director of the state Government Accountability Board) was hostile to WCFG as well as independent political speech in general. So we ran only issue ads — and none pertained to the elections for governor.”

O’KEEFE SPEAKS: Conservative activist Eric O’Keefe is talking in detail about life under the John Doe investigation.

O’Keefe said he was even more surprised to learn that he was not alone among the targets – that the investigation launched by Democrat Milwaukee County District Attorney John Chisholm included not just Wisconsin Club for Growth, which advocates for free markets and limited government, but also at least 28 other conservative and free-market organizations.

“So I was stunned in two respects: One, that they would suggest we had violated the law; and secondly, because the subpoena was so sweeping and extensive that it showedthe prosecution had already conducted a sweeping domestic spying operation on my activities,” O’Keefe said.

“I recognized that this created both a crisis among friends and allies, and a challenge to illuminate the risks to our freedom of powerful prosecutors and obtuse campaign laws,” he said of his legal battles to push back against the prosecutors on what has become a nationally defining political speech issue.

The prosecution has operated under a “legal theory” that the groups may have illegally coordinated with Gov. Scott Walker’s campaign during the state’s partisan recall season of 2011 and 2012, a theory debunked by two judges so far, including the presiding John Doe judge.

Issue ads are generally protected forms of political speech, and not subject to the kind of constraints that express ads, those that directly support or oppose a candidate. The prosecutors, assisted, and some say directed, by the accountability board, the agency that oversees campaign finance and election laws, insists that issue ads are effectively transformed into express ads if there is coordination between the campaign and the advocacy groups – an in-kind contribution as it were.

Presiding John Doe Judge Gregory Peterson earlier this year quashed several subpoenas in the investigation, ruling that the prosecutors did not have probable cause to show that a crime had been committed. In May, a federal judge wrote that the prosecutors’ theory was “simply wrong.”

Read more coming up Friday in Wisconsin Reporter’s special report detailing the impacts of the John Doe investigation.