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Charlie Sykes: Sykes Writes

Chisholm's Political John Doe

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From the beginning, Milwaukee County DA John Chisolm had adamantly denied that there is any political agenda behind the 2-year old "secret" John Doe probe into former aides to Scott Walker's former county staffers. Even as his fellow Democrats turned the Doe into the centerpiece of their recall campaign against walker, Chisolm insisted that the probe itself was non-political.

When it turned out that 43 staffers in his own office had signed petitions to recall Walker, Chisholm denied any suggestion of a partisan taint. (You might remember that story here.)

When the probe's chief investigator, David Budde, was found with a 'Recall Walker" sign in his front yard and a union blue fist in his window, Chisholm brushed off the appearance of bias and leaped to Budde's defense.  "They have the right, under state law, and in this case, county civil service rules, to express their political views as does any other citizen."

He also defended the Doe: "Any decisions related to the John Doe investigation are based on the evidence and not on the political views of any member of this office or their families."

Which brings us to the DA's remarkable document dump last month. Using the occasion of the sentencing of one of Walker's former aides, Kelly Rindflesich as the pretext, assistant DA Bruce Landgraf laid out what Wispolitics called a " laundry list focusing on alleged coordination between Walker’s 2010 guv campaign and his old Milwaukee County staff."  

While the allegations of meetings and emails predictably generated the desired media headlines, it's far from clear whether they constituted any sort of legal or even ethical violations.

Said Walker: "Having those sorts of discussions clearly is not illegal and if anything, for all the talk last week about the caucus stuff 10 years ago, it's actually just the opposite of that because it's not having taxpayer-funded positions do that work. It's making sure that they're not."

So why did Chisholm's office do the dump?

Since Rindflesich was not charged with working on Walker's gubernatorial campaign on county time, (she was actually charged with working on the lt. guv campaign of Brett Davis) the decision to lay out the evidence gathered in the "secret" probe raised more than a few eyebrows.

"Legal observers," noted Wispolitics, "say Landgraf’s approach to the sentencing hearing was somewhat unusual, but effective in putting into the public eye new allegations on the guv."

Here is why it was unusual. The DA's presentation had only a sketchy relationship to the legal issue at hand (the sentencing). It was however clearly intended to influence public opinion and to damage both Walker his staffers who were not charged and were therefore not in a position to defend themselves.

Put another way: the attack on Walker and his aides was less legal than it was political. Chisolm's office has been smarting from questions about the probe's motives and perhaps even more so from suggestions that it had been much ado about nothing. So the dog and pony show may have been Chisolm's way of justifying himself, while taking the governor down a peg. But in order to do so, he had to use evidence gathered in a "secret" proceeding to make his point.

That raises questions about his political agenda as well as legal ethics.

Here is the interesting analysis from the weekly report:

It also leaves legal observers trying to read the tea leaves of Landgraf’s motivations with three theories emerging. One is that after more than two years of conducting the John Doe, this is all prosecutors have on Walker so they decided to drop it all in open court to dirty up the guv a little after failing to pull together anything that will stick. Those in that camp take the document dump as another sign the John Doe is winding down.

A second theory is prosecutors think the guv broke the law, but they are either unsure of being able to win a conviction or afraid to take him on.

The third is that there’s more to come and prosecutors wanted to fire a warning shot across Walker’s bow while also softening up the public to the idea that their guv -- or at least some close to him -- could be in hot water.

"Dirty up the guv"? "Fire a warning shot"? "Softening up the public"? 

Either John Chisholm simply does not know how political his probe has become. Or he simply no longer cares. 

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