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Home / Legal News / Lawsuit over Walker-related probe to be argued (UPDATE)

Lawsuit over Walker-related probe to be argued (UPDATE)

By SCOTT BAUER
Associated Press

Q&A about court case
involving Gov. Scott Walker

MADISON, Wis. (AP) — The 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals is to hear arguments Tuesday to decide if prosecutors can eventually continue a “John Doe” investigation of Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker’s dealings with conservative groups during recall elections in 2011 and 2012. A judge in May halted the investigation, saying prosecutors misinterpreted campaign finance law.

Prosecutors are seeking to overturn that ruling, and dismiss the civil rights lawsuit seeking damages that was filed by the Wisconsin Club for Growth. No charges have been filed against the governor, who is in a tight re-election race and is seen as a potential 2016 presidential candidate.

Some frequently asked questions and answers about the case:

___ WHAT IS A JOHN DOE INVESTIGATION? It is the name given to investigations allowed under Wisconsin law that are conducted largely in secret and overseen by a judge. Prosecutors can collect evidence and compel people to testify, but the activity is largely shielded from the public. Thousands of pages of documents related to this investigation have become public as a result of this and other lawsuits that have been filed. Eric O’Keefe, the director of the Wisconsin Club for Growth, one of the conservative groups being targeted, also leaked information about the probe. A media coalition wants the entire record to be made public. That will also be argued Tuesday before the appeals court.

___ WHAT IS WALKER ACCUSED OF DOING? Prosecutors allege the Wisconsin Club for Growth acted as an illegal hub to coordinate fundraising for Walker and other conservative groups, including Citizens for a Strong America and Wisconsin Manufacturers and Commerce. Those efforts came during recall drives against him and Republican state senators in 2011 and 2012. Democrats launched the recall drive in retaliation for Walker’s passage of a law that stripped most public workers of nearly all their union rights.

___ WHAT ARE THE ARGUMENTS? Prosecutors contend that the conservative groups’ fundraising and spending in the recalls amount to in-kind campaign contributions that should have been reported to the state Government Accountability Board. Under state law, they argue, coordination between independent groups and campaigns results in the groups being considered campaign subcommittees, requiring the candidate to report their spending and contributions. But the Wisconsin Club for Growth argues that coordinating with candidates on issue advocacy — communications that don’t expressly ask a voter to elect or defeat a candidate — is legal and that the investigation is nothing more than a partisan witch hunt by liberal prosecutors determined to tarnish conservatives.

___ WHAT HAVE THE LOWER COURTS SAID? Reserve state Judge Gregory Peterson, who was overseeing the investigation, rejected the prosecutors’ arguments in January. He wrote that state law prohibits coordination by candidates and independent organizations for political purposes, if those purposes express advocacy — the term in political circles for messages that clearly seek a candidate’s election or defeat. But prosecutors didn’t show any such advocacy in the groups’ activities, Peterson wrote. That decision has been appealed by prosecutors. U.S. District Judge Rudolph Randa essentially agreed in May when he put a temporary stop to the investigation. He ruled that prosecutors have incorrectly interpreted state law to require that groups report spending on issue advocacy, which is broader and not directed at a particular candidate. Issue advocacy is protected by the First Amendment’s free speech guarantee and isn’t subject to regulation, Randa said. It’s the appeal of Randa’s ruling that is being argued Tuesday.

___ WHAT EFFECT HAS ALL THIS HAD ON THE ELECTION? Walker faces Democrat Mary Burke in the Nov. 4 election and three polls by the Marquette University Law School since May have shown them to be running about even. The July poll asked about the John Doe investigation. Of the 75 percent of registered voters who said they had heard about the probe, 54 percent said it was “just more politics” while 42 percent said it was “really something serious.”

— SCOTT BAUER, Associated Press

MADISON, Wis. (AP) — Prosecutors investigating Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker’s recall election campaign hope to convince a federal appeals court to eventually allow them to resume a probe of possible illegal fundraising and coordination with conservative groups.

The arguments Tuesday before the 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Chicago come two months before Walker — a Republican who is seen as a potential 2016 candidate for president — faces re-election against Democrat Mary Burke.

Walker made a national name for himself when he took on public sector unions in 2011 with his measure that effectively ended collective bargaining for most public workers. That fight led to the 2012 vote to recall Walker, which he won, making him the first governor in U.S. history to defeat a recall.

But he has been hounded by secret investigations, first of aides and associates before he became governor and now on his recall campaign and other conservative groups.

No one has been charged in the latest probe and prosecutors have said Walker is not a target. Walker and Republicans have dismissed the investigation as a partisan witch hunt, while Democrats say it has revealed serious questions about possible illegal activity by Walker and his backers.

Prosecutors, who opened the investigation in 2012, want the appeals court to reverse a preliminary decision halting the investigation in May and dismiss the federal civil rights lawsuit filed by the conservative Wisconsin Club for Growth and its director, Eric O’Keefe.

The appeals court was also scheduled to hear arguments over a media coalition’s request that all records in the case be made public.

Two Republican appointed judges and one Democratic appointee will hear the appeal, the court said Tuesday before arguments began. They are the 7th Circuit’s chief judge, Diane Wood, who was appointed by President Bill Clinton in 1995, along with Frank Easterbrook, appointed by President Ronald Reagan in 1985, and William Bauer, appointed by Gerald Ford in 1974.

Polls show Walker’s race with Burke is close and it isn’t clear whether the appeals court will rule before the Nov. 4 election. And even if the court allows the investigation to resume, a state judge who also blocked the probe in January could keep it on hold. The state ruling also is being appealed.

The case largely centers on the type of political activity being done by the conservative groups during the recall campaign and whether that work required them to follow state laws that bar coordination with candidates, requires disclosure of political donations and places limits on what can be collected.

Under Wisconsin law, third-party political groups are allowed to work together on campaign activity, but are barred from coordinating that work with actual candidates.

Prosecutors have said in court filings that they are looking into allegations of illegal campaign activity involving Walker, the Wisconsin Club for Growth, the state chamber of commerce and more than two dozen other conservative groups during the 2011 and 2012 recalls.

Special prosecutor Francis Schmitz described in court filings what he called a “criminal scheme” by Walker to evade campaign fundraising and coordination laws. An attorney for Schmitz subsequently said Walker was not a target of the probe and that no determination had been made to bring any charges.

The Wisconsin Club for Growth argues that coordinating with candidates on issue advocacy — communications that don’t expressly ask a voter to elect or defeat a candidate — is legal.

U.S. District Judge Rudolph Randa, in his May ruling halting the investigation, agreed with the Wisconsin Club for Growth. He said that prosecutors incorrectly interpreted state law to require that groups report spending on issue advocacy.

The Wisconsin Club for Growth lawsuit seeks both professional and personal damages from the defendants. The prosecutors argue they have immunity from being sued.

The probe comes after a previous secret investigation into former aides and associates of Walker’s when he was Milwaukee County executive. Six people were convicted on a series of charges including theft and misconduct in office as a result of that investigation, which ended in 2013. Walker was not charged.

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