Play Live Radio
Next Up:
Available On Air Stations
Politics & Government

State Lawmakers Take Up Restrictions to John Doe Investigations


It could be a long, contentious week in the Wisconsin legislature. Lawmakers are expected to take up bills that could affect them as elected politicians.

One proposal would double the amount of money people could contribute to campaigns; another would overhaul the board that oversees elections and ethics.

On Tuesday, the Assembly and Senate will vote on a plan to outlaw John Doe investigations into political activities.

John Does are secret investigations that examine whether someone may have committed a crime. Prosecutors here used the process to convict aides to Gov. Walker, while he was Milwaukee County Executive, for campaigning on county time.

That probe led investigators to launch a second into whether the Walker campaign illegally coordinated with conservative groups during his 2012 recall election. This July, the state Supreme Court ruled that the second probe was an infringement on free speech rights.

In the meantime, Republican state Sen. Tom Tiffany drafted a bill banning John Does into political activities. He accused Milwaukee County District Attorney John Chisholm and the state ethics agency of overstepping bounds.

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

Fellow Republican state Sen. Van Wanggaard supports the changes. He says there are other tools prosecutors may use in order to compel testimony. For instance, district attorneys could convene grand juries. They also are secret investigations but require jurors to decide whether somebody has committed a crime.

“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 he did all of it without the John Doe. The John Doe process is just a tool,” Wanggaard says.

Several Democratic lawmakers gathered at Milwaukee City Hall on Monday to blast the proposed changes to the law. State Rep. Evan Goyke says the John Doe has been an effective tool in weeding out corruption.

“The Republicans maintain this tool for gang members and murderers and sexual assailants but they don’t think politicians should be covered. They don’t think that John Doe should be used for electioneering or bribery in office and that is absurd,” Goyke says.

Goyke says he expects his arguments to fall on deaf ears in the Republican-controlled legislature. Former Milwaukee County District Attorney E. Michael McCann also opposes changes to Wisconsin’s John Doe law.

“In the last 20 years there have been hundreds of John Doe proceedings led by district attorneys across Wisconsin. To my best knowledge, not one grand jury has been used and why is that? Because John Does are much more effective, they’re efficient, they’re competent and much less onerous on the citizenry and much less expensive for the county,” McCann says.

McCann used the John Doe in the 1990s to help convict several legislators from both parties for raising campaign money from their offices in the State Capitol. The John Doe probe is unique to Wisconsin.

Related Content