Vos: Wait until John Doe in ‘rearview mirror’ before revisiting law


By M.D. Kittle and Ryan Ekvall | Wisconsin Reporter

MADISON, Wis. – Concerned about so-called John Doe law in Wisconsin? Don’t look for any changes in the immediate future.

A Republican lawmaker told reporters there’ll be no review of Wisconsin’s controversial John Doe law until the latest politically charged secret investigation is wrapped up.

“I don’t want to get in the way (of the investigation),” said Robin Vos, R-Rochester, responding to a Wisconsin Reporter question at a Tuesday press conference Tuesday.

Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, R-Rochester.

Instead, Vos, speaker of the Republican-controlled Assembly, said he would “let this investigation go wherever it’s going to go (so) that there is no appearance of anything being done outside the process.”

But to many conservatives, the latest secret investigation into dozens of conservative organizations already has the appearance of a politically motivated probe. Many on the right have described it as a witch-hunt intent on bringing down Republican Gov. Scott Walker, the bane of public unions and their Democratic Party.

On Friday, Judge Jeffrey Peterson, the presiding judge in the court-sanctioned dragnet, quashed several subpoenas issued to conservative groups. He also ordered that law enforcement officials return property seized from targets of the campaign-finance probe.

Peterson ruled that at least some of the subpoenas “do not show probable cause that the moving parties committed any violations of the campaign laws,” according to a copy of the opinion obtained by the Wall Street Journal.

The probe, which began nearly two years ago, was launched by the Democrat-led Milwaukee County District Attorney’s office. Sources have told Wisconsin Reporter that investigators were digging for evidence of coordination among dozens of conservative groups and the Walker campaign during Wisconsin’s historic recall elections.

Sources have told Wisconsin Reporter of pre-dawn raids in which investigators seized electronic devices, emails, documents and other information.

“If things were done wrong, they (the targets of the investigation) should be prosecuted,” Vos said. “But we now know the only things that have been done wrong that have been proven is that the subpoenas weren’t done correctly and that they really didn’t have probable cause.”

The speaker said leadership still needs to sit down with legal counsel and talk about its “options.”

One option, Vos said, is replacing the John Doe system of investigation – with its secret powers to subpoena evidence and testimony – with the more public grand-jury system found in many other states.

“They (the other states) utilize the grand jury system where instead of having a single judge make the decisions in secret at least they (prosecutors) have to go in front of citizens and convince citizens they have to do it (bring charges),” Vos said. “Some people have talked to me about saying maybe we should have other ways to have a similar process happen, one that’s more inclusive as opposed to just the legal system but letting citizens, who ultimately could be on a jury, do something like that.”

“We’ve had no discussions as to whether that’s a good idea or a bad idea,” Vos said.

Wisconsin’s John Doe laws have been around since the state’s territorial days.

What remains unchanged is that John Doe judges are invested with awesome powers in determining the direction and scope of the investigations – including whether they are conducted in secret. Witnesses and potential targets of the probes have dramatically reduced rights.

“Any witness examined under this section may have counsel present at the examination but the counsel shall not be allowed to examine his or her client, cross-examine other witnesses, or argue before the judge,” according to Wisconsin law on John Doe proceedings.

Due process does not require that a John Doe witness be advised of the nature of the proceeding. Nor are prosecutors required to tell the witness that he or she is a target of the investigation, according to court cases upholding the statute. And if the probe is secret, those involved are compelled not to speak about it, on penalty of contempt of court charges.

Vos said he’ll wait until the latest John Doe is in the “rearview mirror” before entertaining those discussions.

“But if things are done in a way that ultimately don’t result in the fairest outcome for anybody involved, I’d like to look and see if we can do them (John Doe investigations) smarter,” he said.

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

Contact Ryan Ekvall at rekvall@watchdog.org

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