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Lawmakers push committee to review John Doe investigations

By BRYNA GODAR
Associated Press

MADISON, Wis. (AP) — Republican lawmakers are pushing a bill that would allow them access to documents from closed John Doe investigations involving Gov. Scott Walker.

The bill would create a legislative committee with oversight of law enforcement, granting it subpoena power and the ability to access records from secret John Doe investigations once closed.

There have been two John Doe probes involving Walker, one looking into whether his aides engaged in illegal campaigning when he was Milwaukee County executive, the other examining whether his recall campaign in 2012 coordinated illegally with outside conservative groups.

The first investigation resulted in six convictions of people linked to Walker. The second was halted in the summer of 2015, with the state Supreme Court saying the campaign and groups had not violated campaign finance laws.

Republicans have called that second probe a political witch hunt and passed legislation last year to limit John Doe probes to certain felonies, including rape, armed robbery, murder and other serious crimes. The probes could no longer be used to look into political misconduct.

Bill author Rep. David Craig, R-Big Bend, said he now wants the Legislature to be able to review the documents involved in that case to determine whether it was handled properly.

“John Doe II, there are a lot of serious allegations that are out there right now,” Craig said.

He said the Legislature should be able to review the facts before casting judgments on the proceedings. John Doe investigations are unique to Wisconsin and allow investigators extraordinary powers to compel testimony and keep the probes secret.

The committee created under the bill would also have power to review new surveillance technologies and military weapons used by Wisconsin law enforcement agencies.

“What we’re talking about is areas of law enforcement that are separate from the view of the Legislature,” Craig said.

Craig said in a public hearing in an Assembly committee Wednesday that police are dealing with a rapid progression of surveillance technologies, such as drones, that have the potential to invade privacy.

“The Legislature needs to know so we can have informed decisions and policy-making,” Craig said.

Police, sheriffs and deputies spoke against the bill in the hearing, highlighting concerns about the committee’s subpoena power and about the committee’s adherence to open records laws, especially in the case of ongoing criminal investigations.

Wisconsin Professional Police Association Executive Director Jim Palmer said law enforcement is not opposed to the intent of the bill to have legislative oversight, but about what the bill does as written.

Craig said he is open to changes from law enforcement to meet some of their concerns. He said the intent is that anything currently shielded from public view would be shielded from the public under this bill too.

To pass this session, the bill would have to pass committee and both houses in the next few weeks. Craig was uncertain whether that will happen but said he will try to get it through.

“The Legislature should know what’s going on,” he said. “That’s our job.”

Assembly Speaker Robin Vos’ office did not reply to an email inquiring about the bill’s prospects. Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald’s office said it would have to advance through the process “fairly rapidly” to pass this session.

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