—By Andy Kroll
February 7, 2012- A dark cloud hangs over Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker.
A "John Doe" investigation launched in May 2010 has embroiled former Walker staffers and appointees from his time as Milwaukee County executive, his job before winning the governorship in November 2010. The investigation, led by Milwaukee County District Attorney John Chisholm, has led to home raids targeting former staffers with close ties to Walker and numerous felony charges for election law violations, embezzlement, and misconduct in office.
Walker says he has "fully cooperated" and "will continue to cooperate" with the John Doe probe. The governor is confident he won't be implicated, he told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel last September, because he held himself to high standards learned from his parents. "Certainly, they got me to the rank of Eagle Scout, and I continue to have that kind of integrity," he told the paper.
What's a John Doe investigation, anyway?
Here, "John Doe" doesn't refer to one person. It is a secret legal proceeding akin to a grand jury investigation in which a prosecutor secretly gathers information on a number of individuals to find out if crimes were committed. A John Doe probe must be green-lit by a judge; in this case, according to court records, former appeals court judge Neal Nettesheim approved an investigation on May 5, 2010.
As part of a John Doe investigation, witnesses may be granted immunity from prosecution if they agree to testify under oath. If it's learned that a witness didn't tell the truth, however, he or she could face charges. Court records list six individuals who have been granted immunity in the investigation, including Cullen Werwie, Walker's chief spokesman; Rose Ann Dieck, a fixture in Milwaukee County Republican politics; and Kenneth Lucht, a lobbyist for Milwaukee-based Wisconsin and Southern Railroad Co.
Why does the scandal matter?
The probe looms large over Walker at a time when he's trying to defend himself for a well-organized, popular recall campaign to oust him from office. Walker raised $12.1 million in 2011, a chunk of which will fund ads arguing that he's an honest, fair, job-creating governor. Yet the John Doe investigation could undermine Walker's standing with the public, experts say. "It will already be a campaign issue but how much voters focus on it is yet to be seen," notes Charles Franklin, a political scientist at the University of Wisconsin. "Certainly it is not what a candidate wants to be happening during an election."