By Jason Stverak
Last week, TheBlaze TV’s For the Record featured an investigation into a taxpayer-funded, politicized attack on supporters of Wisconsin’s Republican Gov. Scott Walker led by Democrats in the Milwaukee County District Attorney’s office.
These John Doe investigations ― by definition intended to be confidential ― have been made into a highly publicized political witch hunt attempting to drag Walker’s name through the mud. When politicians abuse the system by which they are supposed to be held accountable, it makes honest reporting all the more important.
BIG TARGET: Gov. Scott Walker has weathered the storm launched by Democrat-led John Doe investigations.
For the Record’s look at John Doe abuse featured the investigative work of Watchdog.org’s Matt Kittle, who has followed these criminal investigations that spanned three years and made a mockery of a unique Wisconsin legal process designed to help hold criminals accountable.
John Doe investigations allow law enforcement agencies ― generally a district attorney’s office ― to investigate whether a crime has taken place and whether a person should face charges. Unlike a standard criminal proceeding, the state does not need to have probable cause ― rather the John Doe is designed to help the state gather evidence to establish probable cause. The investigation is overseen by a judge, who has the power to subpoena witnesses, issue complaints, and appoint a special prosecutor.
Because John Doe investigations can be launched without the probable cause needed to launch a standard criminal proceeding, the process is rife for abuse, as they can create the public image of guilt around someone the state doesn’t even have enough evidence against to charge.
Partially for this reason, secrecy is essential to the John Doe process, as it allows witnesses to testify freely and prevents innocent people from having their reputation soiled without probable cause. When a John Doe case is taken public, it’s easy for the media to jump to conclusions ― and that’s exactly what the Milwaukee DA’s intention was.
Regardless of the grounds the DA’s office had to bring a John Doe investigation against a handful of former Walker aides, the purpose of the investigation always was politics. After Democrats failed to defeat Walker at the ballot box or stop his reforms in the Legislature, they decided to bastardize the state’s judicial system, waste the time of judges, and force taxpayers to pick up the bill for what essentially was opposition research for the state party.
During the first John Doe investigation, which conveniently unfolded during the 2012 recall campaign against Walker, a steady stream of confidential information was “mysteriously” leaked to local and national media, most of which painted Walker in a negative light and much of which was entirely false. It included a bogus report that the governor would be indicted (which just so happened to be reported on MSNBC on the night of the recall). After defeat in recall, Democrats moved on to a second John Doe investigation, which subpoenaed national conservative groups that dared to speak out in support of the governor. Many of these inappropriate and harassing subpoenas were quashed by a judge for lack of probable cause, but not before Democrats had used this supposedly secret information for fundraising purposes.
By turning solemn judicial proceedings into a political dog-and-pony show designed to bait the media and steer fundraising dollars into Democratic coffers, the Milwaukee DA’s office brought shame upon their state and the legal profession. But the state’s legacy media should share in this shame, as it happily reported the “leaks” as news, without bothering to question the source and its political agenda.
John Doe may not have made the Wisconsin media into sheep, but it exposed many of the state’s traditional news outlets as more interested in a salacious story than accurate investigative reporting.
The work of independent news bureaus ― like Kittle’s for Wisconsin Reporter and TheBlaze TV’s For the Record ― was indispensable in blowing the whistle on these sham investigations. The Romans once questioned who would watch the watchmen, and in Wisconsin, neither law enforcement nor the legacy media seemed up to the task.
Jason Stverak is president of the Franklin Center for Government and Public Integrity and publisher of Watchdog.org.
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