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Essay: John Doe

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Lawyers arguing on both sides of the John Doe investigation were in Chicago Tuesday as prosecutors sought to restart the investigation, which was brought to a halt in May.  

At issue is the future of the probe into alleged illegal campaign coordination.  Lake Effect essayist Avi Lank says not everything about the case is currently up for debate.

One fact soars above all others in the coverage of the second John Doe investigation into the attempted recall of Governor Walker – no one disputes the underlying facts. Neither the governor nor any member of his team deny that in the run up to the 2012 election, Walker and his top aides were raising money both for his campaign committee and other groups that support his policies and performance, and that they were telling donors the donations could be made secretly. Coordination between campaigns and outside groups is illegal, but instead of arguing about the facts, Walker’s team is arguing about the law.

Walker continuously reminds voters that judges have put a stop to the investigation, citing in part First Amendment concerns. The John Doe prosecutors still think a law may have been broken, and they have appealed those rulings, asking permission to resume the probe. As with all legal questions, a court will have the final say. But there is irony in trying to keep secret who donated to help Walker fight the recall, and under what circumstances. When I and thousands of other signed petitions that lead to the recall, great efforts were made to make sure our names were easily available to the public.

Fair enough -- we were citizens expressing our opinion on a matter of public interest. But when, according to John Doe papers that have been made public, a mining company interested in starting operations in Northern Wisconsin gave $700,000 to Walker's supporters to fight the recall, and that of some state senators a year earlier, the law allows the information to remain private. Walker says he does not remember being aware of the contribution and that in any event he favored the mine. That implies the donation would not have influenced his actions. Could be.

But in decades of covering business, I never ran across a for-profit organization that spent hundreds of thousands of dollars merely to support what it saw as the public good. Walker, reportedly, wanted to settle the John Doe before all this information became public, but some of his backers persuaded him not to, believing they had a good legal test case to end laws that forbid coordination between a candidate and outside supporters. Walker acquiesced to their views, and the result was that the donor information became public. Another irony.

When the US Supreme Court decided that corporations could give unlimited amounts of money to political campaigns, it also hinted that disclosure of the donations could be legal. At the moment the law makes no such demand, although the most recent poll of Wisconsin voters by the Marquette University Law School shows overwhelming support for such disclosure. The public is right. The law should be changed to require political ads to list their real donors. Then, voters in a recall would know who wants its target to stay as well as those who signed the petition asking that he be let go.

Avrum D. Lank was an award-winning reporter and columnist at the Milwaukee Sentinel and Journal Sentinel for more than 35 years. He lives in in Whitefish Bay and is a regular contributor to Lake Effect.