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Walker’s former aide pleads to 1 felony count (UPDATE)

Associated Press

Kelly Rindfleisch leaves the courtroom Thursday with her attorney, Frank Gimbel, after pleading guilty to charges she conducted campaign work as an aide to Gov. Scott Walker when he was the Milwaukee County executive. (AP Photo/Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel, Mark Hoffman)

MILWAUKEE (AP) – One of Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker’s former top aides pleaded guilty to a single count of felony misconduct Thursday in a deal with prosecutors to settle allegations she did campaign work on the taxpayers’ time.

Kelly Rindfleisch entered the plea during a hearing in front of Milwaukee County Circuit Judge David Hansher. She first tried to plead no contest, a legal maneuver that allows a defendant to essentially plead guilty without admitting to the crime. But the judge said he wouldn’t accept such a plea in a public misconduct case and Rindfleisch changed the plea to guilty.

“Are you pleading guilty because you’re guilty of the offense?” the judge asked her.

“Yes, your honor,” Rindfleisch replied.

A gaggle of reporters chased Rindfleisch and her attorney, Frank Gimbel, down the courthouse corridor as they left. Gimbel repeatedly told them neither of them wanted to talk, finally snapping as he and Rindfleisch ducked into an elevator, “What part about no comment don’t you understand?”

Rindfleisch, 43, served as Walker’s deputy chief of staff during Walker’s tenure as Milwaukee County executive in 2010. Prosecutors accused her of working on Republican Brett Davis’ lieutenant governor campaign on county time using a secret email system. They charged her with four counts of felony misconduct in office, punishable by up to 14 years in prison and $40,000 in fines. Her trial was set to begin Monday. Her attorney, Frank Gimbel, had subpoenaed Walker to testify.

Gimbel reached a deal with Milwaukee County Assistant District Attorney Bruce Landgraf this week, though, that called for her to plead to one count and Landgraf to drop the remaining three.

Landgraf also agreed not to seek restitution and promised to recommend jail time and probation rather than prison. He pledged not to recommend any specific probation or jail term, saying he would leave that up to the judge.

In Wisconsin, county sheriffs run jails, which typically house inmates serving less than a year. Jail inmates also have more opportunities for work-release privileges. The state runs prisons, which house convicted criminals serving longer sentences under tighter security. Most people convicted of felonies receive prison sentences.

Hansher set Rindfleisch’s sentencing for Nov. 19. Judges aren’t bound by prosecutors’ sentence recommendations, leaving Hansher free to adjust Rindfleisch’s sentence. He could conceivably hand down the maximum penalty of three-and-a-half years in jail and $10,000 in fines, although that’s highly unlikely.

Landgraf said after the hearing he thought Rindfleisch’s deal sent a message to public workers that if they campaign on the taxpayers’ time they will be prosecuted.

Rindfleisch is one of six Walker associates charged in a secret investigation Milwaukee prosecutors launched into Walker’s office.

Kevin Kavanaugh, whom Walker appointed to the county Veterans Service Commission, went to trial Monday on charges he embezzled about $42,000 from veterans groups. That proceeding is expected to stretch into Friday.

Darlene Wink pleaded guilty in February to two misdemeanor charges of political solicitation by a public employee. Prosecutors accused her of working on Walker’s gubernatorial campaign while she was supposed to be doing her job as a county constituent services coordinator. She’s scheduled to be sentenced on Nov. 21.

Walker himself hasn’t been charged with any wrongdoing. Landgraf told reporters he issued a subpoena calling on Walker to testify in Rindfleisch’s case, too, but he released the governor from it several days ago because he didn’t think Walker had any information that would bolster the state’s case.

“This case was never about Scott Walker,” he said. “It was always about Kelly Rindfleisch.”

Rindfleisch’s deal makes no mention of whether she will be required to testify against anyone else as the investigation continues. Still, Landgraf said he may call her to testify in Tim Russell’s case. Russell, who served as Walker’s county deputy chief of staff and in various other positions in the county executive’s office, has been charged with stealing more than $21,000 from a nonprofit organization Walker asked him to head.

As a convicted felon, Rindfleisch can’t possess a firearm or vote until she fulfills whatever sentence Hansher hands down. Gimbel asked Hansher not to enter the conviction until Nov. 7 so Rindfleisch could vote in the Nov. 6 elections. Hansher refused, saying he if granted that request he’d have to do it for everyone.

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