Vos: There will be reforms to John Doe, GAB

Part 142 of 142 in the series Wisconsin’s Secret War

By M.D. Kittle | Wisconsin Reporter

MADISON, Wis. — Changes are coming to Wisconsin’s “John Doe” law and what many conservatives see as the partisan regulatory agency that spurred secret investigations into dozens of conservative groups, according to Speaker of the Assembly Robin Vos.

“Yes, we are going to make those changes period,” the Rochester Republican said Wednesday during a celebratory press conference with reporters a day after huge GOP wins in Wisconsin, and nationally.

Vos, addressing the press with state Rep. John Nygren, R-Marinette, who co-chairs the Legislature’s powerful budget-writing committee, touched on some of the majority party’s priorities in the next session, including programs to spur job creation and education reforms.

REFORMING DOE: Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, R-Rochester, on Wednesday pledged the Republican-controlled Legislature will reform Wisconsin’s John Doe law and the state Government Accountability Board.

On that agenda, reforming Wisconsin’s unique John Doe law, which Vos said has given even well-meaning district attorneys the opportunity to conduct “a witch hunt.”

“That’s not good for our democracy. That’s not good for our judicial system,” the speaker said. “… Now we see even the way the (John Doe-related) documents were released has become a political process.”

“If the goal is to take the investigation outside the political process, if anything our law is broken and needs to be fixed,” Vos added.

The law provides for investigations overseen by judges who are vested with extraordinary power to compel testimony from witnesses. Oftentimes, the investigations, led by district attorneys, are conducted in secret, with gag odors preventing probe targets from speaking publicly on penalty of being jailed.

Such was the case in the latest politically charged John Doe investigation into 29 conservative groups, launched nearly two years ago by Milwaukee County District Attorney John Chisholm, a Democrat.

The court-administered dragnet featured predawn, paramilitary-style raids on the homes several conservative targets, under suspicion of illegally coordinating with Gov. Scott Walker’s campaign Wisconsin’s bitter recall season.

Except there was no evidence any campaign finance crimes had been committed, according to the rulings of two judges, one of whom found the prosecutors’ theory on coordination “simply wrong.”

Before that, Chisholm’s office had spent nearly three years investigating former aides and associates of Walker when Walker served as Milwaukee County executive. The probe was launched just as the Republican was campaigning for governor in 2010.

That meandering investigation, which cost untold tax dollars, ended with the conviction of six people, four of those convictions having nothing to do with the original scope of the investigation. Perhaps the feather in Chisholm’s cap, the conviction of former Walker assistant Kelly Rindfleisch on a felony count of misconduct in office is under appeal on charges the DA’s office violated Rindlfeisch’s Fourth Amendment rights with broad, general warrants.

“I have a strong passion to make sure people’s civil liberties are protected,” Vos said. “Just because someone is charged that doesn’t mean they are guilty. Just because someone is under suspicion, doesn’t mean they should be tried in the court of public opinion.”

The speaker pointed to the dumping of thousands of John Doe-related documents for public consumption, authorized by Milwaukee County Executive Chris Abele, a Democrat and unrepentant partisan, just a couple weeks before the election. Critics say the document dump, which occurred within a couple hours of the release of a Burke campaign ad attempting to tie Walker to the John Doe probes, was politically motivated.

Vos also said Wednesday the Republican-controlled Legislature, which picked up a bigger majority in the election, will make reform of the state Government Accountability Board a top priority in the next session.

Some of the reforms will include leftover business from last session, including expanding campaign donation limits and cleaning up campaign finance laws deemed unconstitutional by the U.S. Appeals Court for the 7th Circuit.

But Vos said the Legislature also must “fix” an agency he charges has its “thumb on the scale” of regulation.

“We have to have a process where the GAB is neutral and fair,” the speaker said.

GAB played an active role in the John Doe probes surrounding Walker, contracting two special investigators, one of whom went on to become the investigation’s special prosecutor.

State Sen. Tom Tiffany, R-Hazelhurst, has called for reforms to the GAB, created in 2007 in a bipartisan legislative act to be a nonpartisan watchdog of the state’s campaign and election laws.

Tiffany has attempted to get answers from the GAB on its expenditures related to the John Doe investigations. So has the state’s Legislative Audit Bureau. The GAB, with the support of Attorney General J.B. Van Hollen, has declined to open its books. The law that created the GAB, according to the attorney general, won’t allow for such legislative reviews.

“What gets me about this whole process is it appears we’re getting the runaround,” Tiffany told Wisconsin Reporter earlier this year. “It really leaves the impression that someone here has got something to hide. I don’t know if they do, but it sure looks that way.”

GAB spokesman Reid Magney declined to comment.