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John Doe probe perceptions vs. reality

Bill Lueders is the Money and Politics Project director at the Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism.

A recent column I wrote on the stalled John Doe probe into allegedly illegal campaign activities drew an impassioned email from a reader in Appleton.

“I read yet another column of yours criticizing Republicans for ‘coordinating’ during campaign season,” according to the email. “It seems this witch hunt by the Democratic Milwaukee DA has been one-sided. And media outlets such as yours feed into that one-sided witch hunt by encouraging it.”

Whoa.

The column did not criticize Republicans or anyone else for coordinating. It simply noted that Gov. Scott Walker and his supporters have declared that coordination between campaigns and outside groups engaged in issue advocacy is perfectly OK, a view two judges have endorsed, and I asked if that coordination still was occurring.

As for whether the investigation is a partisan witch hunt, that’s an assertion Walker and others have made repeatedly. It is no surprise people expect journalists to embrace that view as fact.

Journalists are not supposed to do that without proof. Yes, the probe was launched by a Democrat, Milwaukee County District Attorney John Chisholm. But the special prosecutor who leads it is a Republican who voted for Walker.

Moreover, I never encouraged, nor disparaged, the John Doe prosecutors. I believe most public officials are honorable and entitled to the presumption that they are acting in good faith. That’s an unpopular view, but I’m sticking to it.

The John Doe case is not a battle between good and evil but a dispute over what is and isn’t legal. The decisions the courts make reach will affect members of both parties.

As for why the probe focuses only on Republicans and their supporters, that’s a good question. The woman in Appleton, in further exchanges, said that “is something that I don’t think any reporter has asked.”

She added that she did not want her name associated with asking that question, saying she “wouldn’t want my home raided” by Chisholm, whom she said “will use strong-arm tactics against those whose ideology he does not agree with.”

Wisconsin Republican Gov. Scott Walker speaks May 3 in Milwaukee. Wisconsin prosecutors say they believe Walker acted criminally by coordinating the fundraising and spending of outside conservative groups. (AP file photo)

Wisconsin Republican Gov. Scott Walker speaks May 3 in Milwaukee. Wisconsin prosecutors say they believe Walker acted criminally by coordinating the fundraising and spending of outside conservative groups. (AP file photo)

So I kept the Appleton woman’s name out of it when I put her question to Chisholm and his attorney, Douglas Knott. Neither responded.

But the state Government Accountability Board, which approved the probe, asserted in a court filing that “an individual’s or an entity’s affiliation with a political party or cause plays no role in the GAB’s analysis” of whether laws may have been broken. The filing included extensive documentation of investigation and enforcement actions against Democrats and Republicans.

Former Wisconsin Supreme Court Justice Jon Wilcox is uniquely qualified to comment. His campaign paid $10,000 toward a $60,000 settlement over alleged coordination with an outside group that sent an issue-oriented mailing during his 1997 bid for re-election.

The state determined Wilcox was not personally involved. He won with 62 percent of the vote.

Wilcox agreed the coordination was illegal at the time but wondered, based on recent court rulings, if the rules have changed. Similarly, he said he doesn’t think the investigation into his campaign was politically motivated but isn’t sure the same can be said of the current John Doe probe.

“I think it’s much different,” Wilcox said, citing the probe’s length and the prosecution’s “high-handed” tactics, allegedly including early morning raids on people’s homes. “I can understand the concern that people have.”

In other words, Wilcox does not share my view that there is no reason to suspect partisan motives. But his take is fair-minded and measured. We could use more of that.

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