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John Doe Changes Draw Heated Debate at Wisconsin's Capitol

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Wisconsin might change its John Doe law. John Does are secret investigations that examine whether someone has probably committed a crime.

In recent times, prosecutors here used the process to convict aides to Gov. Scott Walker while he was Milwaukee County executive. A second John Doe had been underway, examining whether Walker’s 2012 recall campaign illegally coordinated with conservative groups. Judges have halted that probe, at least temporarily.

Emotions ran high at a public hearing before a senate committee on Wednesday. Wisconsin Republicans have grown increasingly frustrated with the John Doe process. Particularly, with the probe Milwaukee County District Attorney John Chisholm launched into Gov. Walker’s 2012 recall campaign. Republican Sen. Tom Tiffany accuses Chisholm, a Democrat, of abusing the process.

“A district attorney in this state who is obsessed with getting involved with the political process, in league with the head of the Government Accountability Board,” Tiffany says.

The GAB reportedly assisted with the John Doe. Sen. Tiffany’s bill would allow John Doe investigations only for serious felonies. It would also limit probes to six months, unless most chief judges across Wisconsin grant an extension.

And the proposal would prevent reserve judges from presiding over the John Does. Reserve judges monitored both investigations with links to Gov. Walker. Democratic state Sen. Lena Taylor defends Chisholm’s persistence.

“His statements were over the top in suggesting that a district attorney was obsessed with anything other than trying to get the law upheld,” Taylor says.

Taylor says it would also be difficult and costly to get 10 chief judges together, to consider a John Doe extension.

Another person critical of the bill is former Milwaukee County District Attorney E. Michael McCann. He used the John Doe in the 1990s to convict several legislators, of both parties. McCann says the bill before lawmakers remove crimes that have sent some elected leaders to prison.

“The key public crimes the bill removes from investigation by a John Doe are: bribery of public officers and employees, misconduct in public office, all violations of campaign finance laws,” McCann says.

McCann says the bill could also prohibit the use of the John Doe to investigate other crimes such as arson, corporate theft and heroin deaths. When it comes to political crimes, Republican state Sen. Van Wanggaard says prosecutors can use other means to investigate.

“I would point you toward Steve Biskupic, our former U. S. attorney who prosecuted corruption of nine police officers, four Milwaukee aldermen, a state senator and other public officials on corruption charges and all of those were done without the John Doe. The John Doe process is just a tool,” Wanggaard says.

Another tool is a grand jury. It is also a secret investigation but one that requires jurors to decide whether someone has likely committed a crime. As for the bill that would alter Wisconsin’s John Doe law, a Senate committee will vote, Thursday.

Marti was a reporter with WUWM from 1999 to 2021.