The Wisconsin Government Accountability Board, the agency tasked with administering and enforcing the state’s ethics and campaign finance laws, has a message: We don’t do John Doe investigations.
That’s surprising given what the public knows thanks to numerous media reports from outlets as diverse as Wisconsin Watchdog, the Wall Street Journal, conservative talk radio, and others. In 2013, the GAB teamed up with the Milwaukee County District Attorney’s office and other DA offices as part of a massive probe into conservative non-profit groups. The GAB was at the center of the investigation, paying staff to execute search warrants and manage the probe in conjunction with a select team of Milwaukee-based law enforcement officials.
The investigation was run as a John Doe probe, and thanks to abuses of that process in this instance, lawmakers recently enacted John Doe reform legislation. One major reform provision requires state and local agencies participating in John Doe investigations to maintain a careful record of costs and either create or release that record upon request.
On November 20, state Rep. David Craig (R-Big Bend) sent a letter to the GAB asking for “all records regarding the costs of the investigation and proceedings for the John Doe case that has been widely reported as ‘John Doe II,'” the request was an effort to use the newly enacted John Doe reforms to get a handle on just how much taxpayer money the GAB used to wage war on conservative groups.
Later that same day, GAB head Kevin Kennedy, who coordinated his war on conservatives with former Obama administration IRS employee Lois Lerner, wrote to Craig that “The Government Accountability Board has no records regarding the cost of any John Doe investigations because the Board does not conduct John Doe investigations.”
Kennedy went on to say all records regarding any John Doe probe would be held exclusively by the Milwaukee County District Attorney’s office.
Craig didn’t buy this argument, and wrote a letter reiterating what the public knows about the GAB’s involvement in the secretive war on right-of-center organizations. Kennedy, however, only responded with a lengthy defense of secrecy, arguing that the GAB has never conducted a John Doe probe and is exempt from state open records law for any investigation it may conduct.
Here’s how Kennedy explains that the GAB’s participation in the John Doe does not equal conducting or leading a John Doe investigation:
“Members of the GAB and staff were admitted to a John Doe investigation, a decision made by the [Milwaukee County] district attorney conducting the John Doe investigation and the John Doe judge without the agency’s prior knowledge for the purpose of sharing John Doe information with the GAB.”
But Kennedy is lying when he claims the GAB merely shared information with the special prosecutor or Milwaukee-based investigators who were working the case.
Under Kennedy’s leadership, the GAB retained the services of Dean Nickel, an investigator, and had Nickel hand deliver GAB-crafted subpoenas in the John Doe investigation to various parties under scrutiny. Just how much the GAB paid Nickel and other staff for work on the John Doe II is not known.
On December 20, 2014, the Wisconsin State Journal reported that documents in a lawsuit between John Doe targets and the GAB note that the, “GAB has hired four investigators and devoted significant additional staff time to conduct the probe.”
According to e-mails of GAB staff involved in the John Doe probe obtained by Wisconsin Watchdog, on December 12, 2012, David Robles of the Milwaukee County DA’s office used his personal Gmail address to send GAB employee Shane Falk (at his personal Gmail address) information about the John Doe probe in an official capacity. Other e-mails and records show the GAB contemplating and actively assisting and helping guide and direct the “John Doe II” probe.
How long it will take before the GAB fully releases its costs associated with the John Doe remains to be seen, but judging from the tone of Kennedy’s letters to Rep. Craig, it may take a lawsuit.