-By Daniel Bice
January 5, 2012- Three individuals – including a former top aide to Gov. Scott Walker – were charged Thursday with felonies as part of the ongoing John Doe investigation into Walker staffers.
Tim Russell, a longtime Walker campaign and county staffer, was charged with two felonies and one misdemeanor count of embezzlement. One source said the charges are tied to Operation Freedom, an annual military appreciation day held at the zoo.
In 2010, Walker's county administration had asked prosecutors to investigate what had happened to $11,000 raised in 2007 for the event.
Russell's attorney, Michael Maistelman, could not be immediately reached for comment.
Also charged Thursday was Brian Pierick, Russell's longtime partner and a staffer at the state Department of Public Instruction, and Kevin Kavanaugh, Walker's appointee to the Milwaukee County Veteran Service Commission.
Kavanaugh is charged with five felonies for theft and fraudulent writings by a corporate officer. He was the treasurer of the Milwaukee Purple Heart chapter at the time of the dispute over the $11,000 for Operation Freedom.
Pierick, 48, was charged with two felony counts for child enticement. He is an office operations assistant at DPI dealing with education for homeless children and youth, according to the agency's website.
Walker spokesman Chris Schrimpf had no immediate comment on the news but said the office would provide one later in the day.
"We're still looking at it," he said.
Russell, who was housing director for Walker at the county, is facing Class G and Class I felonies. A class G felony carries a fine of up to $25,000 and up to 10 years in prison or both. A class I felony carries a fine of up to $10,000 and up to three and a half years in prison or both.
In August 2010, authorities seized Russell's county computer just weeks before the gubernatorial primary.
A longtime political hand, Russell, 48, used to run former Gov. Tommy Thompson's Milwaukee office and had been with Walker since he ran for county executive in 2002. Russell did not get a job in the Walker administration in Madison.
Last year, Russell and Pierick had their Milwaukee residence foreclosed on, and the pair moved to the Madison suburb of Sun Prairie.
Milwaukee County District Attorney John Chisholm announced Thursday that his office would be making an announcement at noon about additional charges in the secret probe. Chisholm's office has been overseeing the investigation for more than 1 1/2 years.
Walker set up the annual Operation Freedom as a military appreciation day at the zoo for veterans, who got free admission and food. It was run through the county executive’s office.
Russell was the coordinator of the event and worked on it with Darlene Wink, another former Walker aide at the county who has been under investigation in the John Doe probe.
The Journal Sentinel reported in June 2010 that the district attorney’s office was investigating the finances of Operation Freedom after Walker’s office alleged an $11,000 shortfall in a dispute with the local chapter of the Military Order of the Purple Heart. The Purple Heart had acted as fiscal agent for the program in 2006, ’07 and ’08.
Later, in 2010, the financial end of the event was transferred to an entity known as the Heritage Guard Preservation Society, Russell told the newspaper in 2010. In 2009, an American Legion Post handled those duties.
The Heritage Guard Preservation Society was incorporated for a different purpose as a nonprofit in 2004. But Russell said in 2010 that the dormant firm was shifted to Operation Freedom.
The financing setup for the event drew ethics scrutiny in 2006, when two county Ethics Board members questioned the practice of county officials asking private companies for money for public programs, saying it raised conflict-of-interest questions. Walker said then that he was trying to save taxpayer dollars and that he’d resolve ethics concerns by asking a veterans organization to solicit funds for the event.
Walker got legal advice that the fundraising should be handled by a separate charitable entity.
In 2010, an official with the Milwaukee Purple Heart chapter said he thought the dispute over the $11,000 was resolved when the chapter paid $10,000 to the zoo for 2007. Russell said even with the zoo payment, there was still an $11,000 shortfall from 2007 receipts.
"Nobody’s making accusations about anything here," Russell said then. Bookkeeping errors could ultimately explain the shortfall, he said.