-By Bruce Murphy
January 31, 2012- Where are the attack dogs on the right?
One way to measure the seriousness of the ongoing John Doe investigation nibbling away at Scott Walker is to consider how quiet Republicans and conservatives have gotten. The investigation headed up by Milwaukee County District Attorney John Chisholm has already arrested three former aides to Walker. More are expected to be charged, and the investigation seems to be inexorably climbing up the chain of command toward Walker. But conservatives aren’t exactly rushing to condemn Chisholm.
Walker insists he did nothing wrong. But the indictments raise many questions about his judgment. For starters, consider the kind of staff he was hiring. Two longtime Republicans told me privately they viewed Tim Russell as ethically challenged and someone to avoid. Russell, it turns out, was fired in 1993 from a job with the Wisconsin Housing and Economic Development Authority for improperly charging the agency for his stay at a hotel. The John Doe charged him with embezzling $21,000 from a veterans support organization. But he has been a longtime Walker confidante, working on his campaigns and as a deputy chief of staff when Walker served as county executive.
Then there is Kelly Rindfleisch, who was threatened with prosecution and granted immunity in the legislative caucus scandal a decade ago. This is a person with long experience illegally working on political campaigns while being paid by government. Yet she gets hired by the Walker Administration and is apparently never told not to campaign; instead it looks like she was hired for that purpose. The complaint says Walker’s chief of staff, Tom Nardelli, was unaware of her hiring when she showed up on her first day of work.
The timing of her employment, as liberal blogger Cory Liebmann has noted, “stinks to high heavens.” Rindfleisch was hired to work for Walker at the county at the beginning of his run for governor. She left the county less than two weeks after Walker was elected governor. And though county workers must reside in the county, the complaint notes that Rindfleisch established residency by staying a few days a week at the West Allis home of Jim Villa, a longtime Walker associate who had worked as his chief of staff.
Although employed full time by the county, Rindfleisch told people she was working half time on political campaigns. She was in constant email contact with Walker’s gubernatorial campaign and also doing work for Brett Davis, who was running for Lt. Governor, was Walker’s preferred running mate (but lost the GOP primary), and now works for the Walker administration in Madison. Rindfleisch sent some 1,600 emails to people regarding political campaigns and fundraising.
Then there was Darlene Wink, who worked for Walker as his constituent services coordinator, but working on his gubernatorial campaign. After her campaign activities were found out and she resigned, Walker wrote an email to Russell telling him “we can’t afford another story like this” and warning about such activities. But as James Wigderson, the rare conservative who has written about the John Doe (but not very helpfully for Walker), has asked: Why was this warning done privately rather than on official county email? “Another tough question to be answered,” Wigderson notes.
The investigation’s bombshell is that a “secret email system” was “routinely used by selected insiders within the Walker administration” for county business, as the complaint states. “It had to be set up with the express purpose of getting around open records requests and doing illegal campaign activity from the county executive’s offices,” Wigderson writes.
The complaint says the system was set up by Russell and notes that his office was less than 25 feet from Walker’s. As I said, the momentum of the investigation seems to be moving in an upward direction toward Walker.
Wink has already cut a deal with prosecutors to testify about the destruction of digital evidence, which would be yet another crime. (It’s always the cover-up that gets politicians.) Rindfleisch, liberal blogger Bill Christofferson predicts, could be next to take a plea bargain.
Then there is the role of Davis, the candidate for Lt. Governor, and Cullen Werwie, who was running his campaign. Both got hundreds of emails from Rindfleisch while she was working for Walker at the county and would have had to know she was illegally campaigning on county time. Werwie has already been given immunity in the John Doe, so he must have some damaging testimony to offer.
In a bipartisan slap at Walker, both Wigderson and Christofferson have called on Walker to fire Werwie, who is the governor’s press secretary, and Davis, who is Walker’s state Medicaid director. My guess is Walker will reject that advice: Why push away two people who seem to be in a position to offer more information to Chisholm?
Is it possible Walker’s gubernatorial aides are also operating a secret email system? State Administration Secretary Mike Huebsch told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel that to his knowledge there was no such system, not the most ringing denial.
If I were Walker, I would be very afraid of where this investigation is going.