By SCOTT BAUER
MADISON, Wis. (AP) — A former close aide to Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker and a Walker appointee were arrested on embezzlement charges Thursday as part of an ongoing criminal investigation centered on people who served during Walker’s tenure as Milwaukee County executive.
A third person, who worked six months for the state Department of Public Instruction until being fired Thursday, was charged with child enticement in a case the county prosecutor said was discovered while investigating the others.
The arrests of former Walker aide Tim Russell and Kevin Kavanaugh, Walker’s appointee to the Milwaukee County Veteran Service Commission, come more than a year and a half after the investigation into county personnel began. The third person arrested, Brian Pierick, is Russell’s longtime partner.
The charges against Russell and Kavanaugh involve embezzlement of money donated to help relatives of veterans killed or wounded in action. Some of the money was used to pay for a trip to Atlanta for Walker’s staff member to meet with one-time presidential candidate Herman Cain, the complaint said.
Milwaukee County District Attorney John Chisholm said the investigation is ongoing.
Chisholm, a Democrat, said the investigation was not initiated by his office but by Walker’s then chief of staff Tom Nardelli. Nardelli told prosecutors that about $11,000 seemed to be missing from the annual Operation Freedom event at the Milwaukee County Zoo designed to honor military families.
Chisholm said Nardelli wanted the district attorney to look into the local Purple Heart group, which coordinated the event with the county and where Kavanaugh was treasurer.
According to the criminal complaint, Kavanaugh embezzled at least $42,232 from the Military Order of the Purple Heart between 2006 and 2009. The complaint said he and his wife had credit card debt exceeding $40,000. John Leonard, national adjutant of the Springfield, Va.-based Military Order of the Purple Heart, said the first he heard of the investigation was Thursday when an Associated Press reporter sent him the criminal complaints.
Kavanaugh took the money from donations that included more than $28,000 given by former state Rep. Mark Gundrum, the complaint said. Gundrum, who Walker appointed as a state appeals court judge last year, donated his legislative salary to the group while serving on active military duty in Iraq.
Russell, who worked on and off in Walker’s county administration between 2002 and 2010, also was involved with Operation Freedom. In 2009, Walker transferred control of the Operation Freedom event to a private entity controlled by Russell called the Heritage Guard Preservation Society.
The complaint said Russell stole at least $21,000 from that group and used it to pay, at least in part, for vacations to the Caribbean and Hawaii. The money also was used to pay for a trip to Atlanta in December 2010 where Russell met with Cain and his chief of staff to discuss policy issues and the possibility of Cain getting in the presidential race, the complaint said.
Russell also is charged with taking $3,000 from the campaign fund of Milwaukee County Board candidate Chris Kujawa in 2007 and stealing $550 from the campaign fund of county board candidate Larry Spicer in 2010.
Russell’s attorney, Mike Maistelman, said his client is innocent. Kavanaugh’s attorney did not immediately return a message.
Russell, 48, and Kavanaugh, 61, each face up to 10 years in prison and fines up to $25,000 if convicted of the most serious felony embezzlement charges.
Russell was released on a $20,000 signature bond after pleading not guilty to the misdemeanor charge Thursday. His preliminary hearing on the felony embezzlement charges was set for Jan. 23. Kavanaugh also was released on a $20,000 signature bond and his preliminary hearing set for Jan. 13.
The arrest of a close Walker aide raises more questions about the extent and direction of the county’s investigation as Walker faces a possible recall election motivated by anger over his push to effectively end collective bargaining rights for public workers.
Walker said in a conference call with reporters that he was “extremely disappointed” with the charges against Russell and Kavanaugh. He also reiterated past assertions that he has not been contacted by prosecutors about the ongoing investigation.
Walker emphasized it was his then-chief of staff who alerted investigators to concerns about Kavanaugh’s handling of money for the Purple Heart group, but said he had no idea Russell was allegedly doing anything illegal.
The Wisconsin Democratic Party, which is helping to organize the recall effort against Walker, seized on news of the arrests saying it raises serious questions about Walker’s management and judgment.
“He owes the people of Wisconsin an explanation for his role in these alleged bad acts,” Democratic Party Chairman Mike Tate said in a statement.
Pierick had worked as an office operations assistant at the state Department of Public Instruction dealing with education for homeless children and youth since October, but was fired Thursday.
Department spokesman Patrick Gasper would not say why Pierick was fired, but said it could be done without cause because it was within his six-month probationary period. Gasper said he worked as a secretary and had no contact with children.
The complaint alleges Pierick tried to entice a 17-year-old boy into his van to have sex. He could face up to 25 years in prison and a $100,000 fine on the most serious charge he faces.
A message seeking comment was left at Pierick’s home in Sun Prairie. He was assigned a public defender who did not immediately return a message left late Thursday.
Chisholm didn’t take questions Thursday citing the ongoing investigation, but said his office adhered strictly to its “legal and ethical obligations.”
“We go where the evidence leads us and partisan politics plays no role in any decisions made by this office,” Chisholm said.
The arrests follow more than a year of raids on the homes of former Walker aides and much speculation about the how close the probe, being conducted as a secret John Doe investigation, will get to Walker.
Witnesses in John Doe investigations can be compelled to testify under oath about potential criminal matters but state law prohibits anyone involved in such secret proceedings from talking publicly about them.
Walker’s spokesman Cullen Werwie and Milwaukee County Republican Party official Roseann Dieck have been granted immunity in the investigation, which already has resulted in one conviction.
William Gardner, president and chief executive officer of Wisconsin & Southern Railroad Co., was sentenced to two years’ probation in July after being found guilty of exceeding state campaign donation limits and laundering campaign donations to Walker and other Wisconsin politicians.
Walker’s campaign returned the $43,800 in donations Gardner had given him.
Associated Press writer Carrie Antlfinger also contributed to this report from Milwaukee.