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Republicans unveil bill to limit John Doe probes (UPDATE)

Associated Press

MADISON, Wis. (AP) — Wisconsin Republicans unveiled a bill Thursday that would restrict the type of secret probe that prosecutors have used to investigate Gov. Scott Walker’s campaign and his former aides.

Under the bill, so-called John Doe probes could be used to investigate mostly serious physical and drug crimes but couldn’t be used to probe allegations of campaign finance violations or campaigning on government time. Investigations would be limited to six months, although prosecutors could get a six-month extension if a majority of the state’s chief judges agree. Secrecy orders would apply only to judges, prosecutors, court officials and investigators. Witnesses and the investigations’ targets would be allowed to speak publicly.

The bill’s chief Assembly sponsor, Rep. David Craig, R-Big Bend, said the changes would protect free speech rights and prevent meandering investigations. He stressed that prosecutors could still opt for the little-used grand jury process to investigate other crimes secretly.

“This bill provides a balance between constitutional rights and public safety,” Craig, Rep. Cody Horlacher and Sens. Tom Tiffany and Paul Farrow wrote in a memo to colleagues Thursday seeking co-sponsorship.

Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, R-Rochester, and Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald, R-Juneau, both helped develop the bill. A spokeswoman for Walker’s office didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment.

A spokesman for Senate Minority Leader Jennifer Shilling, D-La Crosse, declined to comment. Assembly Minority Leader Peter Barca, D-Kenosha, briefly mentioned the bill during a floor speech in the chamber Thursday, saying it would make it easier for corruption to occur in Wisconsin and that Republicans should focus on creating jobs instead.

John Doe investigations are similar to grand jury probes. Information is gathered in secret and tightly controlled. Since Walker took office in 2011, prosecutors in Milwaukee have used the process to investigate whether Walker’s aides and associates when he was Milwaukee County executive campaigned on government time and whether Walker’s 2012 gubernatorial recall campaign illegally coordinated with conservative groups.

The first probe, which ended in 2013, netted six convictions. Walker was never charged.

The coordination investigation began in 2012. That probe has been on hold since the judge overseeing it last year blocked subpoenas that prosecutors requested. The investigation is on hold as the state Supreme Court ponders two legal challenges to the probe and prosecutors’ request to reinstate the subpoenas. Oral arguments before the high court are scheduled for April.

Walker has shrugged off questions about that investigation as he mulls a 2016 presidential bid. But his fellow Republicans have vowed to reform the process.

Craig and the bill’s other sponsors have given their colleagues until Feb. 19 to sign on as co-sponsors. He said he wants to get the measure to a hearing quickly.

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