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Politics & Government

Wisconsin Moves Toward Ending John Doe Probes into Political Activities

Supporters of a bill to restrict secret John Doe investigations, insist prosecutors went overboard in looking for wrongdoing surrounding Gov. Walker. So an Assembly committee advanced limits on Thursday, with all Republicans voting in favor and all Democrats against.

Prosecutors spent more than two years secretly investigating aides and associates of Walker, starting while he was Milwaukee County Executive. What resulted, were charges against about a half-dozen people for offenses such as campaigning on government time. Republican Rep. Jim Ott says the process was an abuse of Wisconsin’s John Doe law.

“The investigation went on for years in Milwaukee, and they never did really come out with any charges, high level charges for campaign corruption and then when you look at the abuses that were perpetrated by this law, invading people’s homes at six o’clock in the morning, taking their children’s computers,” Ott says.

Ott says the lengthy probe consumed an unjustified level of resources and funding, so he supports the GOP plan to prevent such episodes. The bill would only allow John Does only for certain felonies - not for offenses related to elections or campaign finance.

“Because they don’t really rise to the level of things like murder and drug trafficking and serious crimes, and basically, other state governments have no problem handling campaign and election violations under the grand jury system or under our regular statutes,” Ott says.

The bill would also limit John Doe investigations to six months – with a possible six-month extension, and the legislation restrict probes to the original complaint. In the case of the one the DA launched into Walker’s county office, it started with a report of stolen money and then grew. Democratic Assemblyman Evan Goyke says that’s the point of the process, one thing can lead to another.

“Where there was smoke, there was fire, and what it did was led to different avenues and different crimes. These are all tangled webs,” Goyke says.

Goyke says politicians should not change the law, simply to protect their own backsides.

“If this is a valuable tool to prosecute murderers and rapists, as the chairman has said, and as I’m sure the bill author agrees because his bill maintains this tool for those crimes, then it is just as valuable for us, to prosecute us and the crimes that politicians find themselves the target of,” Goyke says.

Both Assembly and Senate committees have now advanced changes to Wisconsin’s John Doe law. Leaders had halted the issue, while the state Supreme Court considered the second John Doe into Gov. Walker’s recall campaign activities. Last month, the court ended the probe, calling it an unconstitutional attack on free speech rights.