They were law-abiding. They didn’t buy or sell drugs. They weren’t violent. They weren’t a danger to anyone. Yet there were cops — surrounding their house on the outside, swarming the house on the inside. They even taunted the family as if they were mere “perps.” As if the home invasion, the appropriation of private property, and the verbal abuse weren’t enough, next came ominous warnings. Don’t call your lawyer. Don’t tell anyone about this raid. Not even your mother, your father, or your closest friends.
This was the on-the-ground reality of the so-called John Doe investigations, expansive and secret criminal proceedings that directly targeted Wisconsin residents because of their relationship to Scott Walker, their support for Act 10, and their advocacy of conservative reform.
It all began innocently enough. In 2009, officials from the office of the Milwaukee County executive contacted the office of the Milwaukee district attorney, headed by John Chisholm, to investigate the disappearance of $11,242.24 from the Milwaukee chapter of the Order of the Purple Heart. The matter was routine, with witnesses willing and able to testify against the principal suspect, a man named Kevin Kavanaugh. What followed, however, was anything but routine. Chisholm failed to act promptly on the report, and when he did act, he refused to conduct a conventional criminal investigation but instead petitioned, in May 2010, to open a “John Doe” investigation, a proceeding under Wisconsin law that permits Wisconsin officials to conduct extensive investigations while keeping the target’s identity secret (hence the designation “John Doe”).
John Doe investigations alter typical criminal procedure in two important ways: First, they remove grand juries from the investigative process, replacing the ordinary citizens of a grand jury with a supervising judge. Second, they can include strict secrecy requirements not just on the prosecution but also on the targets of the investigation. In practice, this means that, while the prosecution cannot make public comments about the investigation, it can take public actions indicating criminal suspicion (such as raiding businesses and homes in full view of the community) while preventing the targets of the raids from defending against or even discussing the prosecution’s claims.
Why would Chisholm seek such broad powers to investigate a year-old embezzlement claim with a known suspect? Because the Milwaukee County executive, Scott Walker [the same person who had reported the embezzlement to the DA for investigation – ED] , had by that time become the leading Republican candidate for governor. District Attorney Chisholm was a Democrat, a very partisan Democrat. Almost immediately after opening the John Doe investigation, Chisholm used his expansive powers to embarrass Walker, raiding his county-executive offices within a week. As Mr. O’Keefe and the Wisconsin Club for Growth explained in court filings, the investigation then dramatically expanded: Over the next few months, [Chisholm’s] investigation of all-things-Walker expanded to include everything from alleged campaign-finance violations to sexual misconduct to alleged public contracting bid-rigging to alleged misuse of county time and property. Between May 5, 2010, and May 3, 2012, the Milwaukee Defendants filed at least eighteen petitions to formally “[e]nlarge” the scope of the John Doe investigation, and each was granted. . . . That amounts to a new formal inquiry every five and a half weeks, on average, for two years.
This expansion coincided with one of the more remarkable state-level political controversies in modern American history – the protest (and passage) of Act 10, followed by the attempted recall of a number of Wisconsin legislators and, ultimately, Governor Walker. Political observers will no doubt remember the events in Madison — the state capitol overrun by chanting protesters, Democratic lawmakers fleeing the state to prevent votes on the legislation, and tens of millions of dollars of outside money flowing into the state as Wisconsin became, fundamentally, a proxy fight pitting the union-led Left against the Tea Party–led economic Right.
At the same time that the public protests were raging, so were private — but important — protests in the Chisholm home and workplace. As a former prosecutor told journalist Stuart Taylor, Chisholm’s wife was a teachers’-union shop steward who was distraught over Act 10’s union reforms. He said Chisholm “felt it was his personal duty” to stop them. Meanwhile, according to this whistleblower, the district attorney’s offices were festooned with the “blue fist” poster of the labor-union movement, indicating that Chisholm’s employees were very much invested in the political fight. In the end, the John Doe proceeding failed in its ultimate aims.
But with another election looming — this time Walker’s campaign for reelection — Chisholm wasn’t finished. He launched yet another John Doe investigation, “supervised” by Judge Barbara Kluka. Kluka proved to be capable of superhuman efficiency — approving “every petition, subpoena, and search warrant in the case” in a total of one day’s work. If the first series of John Doe investigations was “everything Walker,” the second series was “everything conservative,” as Chisholm had launched an investigation of not only Walker (again) but the Wisconsin Club for Growth and dozens of other conservative organizations, this time fishing for evidence of allegedly illegal “coordination” between conservative groups and the Walker campaign. In the second John Doe, Chisholm had no real evidence of wrongdoing.
Yes, conservative groups were active in issue advocacy, but issue advocacy was protected by the First Amendment and did not violate relevant campaign laws. Nonetheless, Chisholm persuaded prosecutors in four other counties to launch their own John Does, with Judge Kluka overseeing all of them. Empowered by a rubber-stamp judge, partisan investigators ran amok. They subpoenaed and obtained (without the conservative targets’ knowledge) massive amounts of electronic data, including virtually all the targets’ personal e-mails and other electronic messages from outside e-mail vendors and communications companies. The investigations exploded into the open with a coordinated series of raids on October 3, 2013.
These were home invasions, including those described above. Chisholm’s office refused to comment on the raid tactics (or any other aspect of the John Doe investigations), but witness accounts regarding the two John Doe investigations are remarkably similar: early-morning intrusions, police rushing through the house, and stern commands to remain silent and tell no one about what had occurred.
At the same time, the Wisconsin Club for Growth and other conservative organizations received broad subpoenas requiring them to turn over virtually all business records, including “donor information, correspondence with their associates, and all financial information.” The subpoenas also contained dire warnings about disclosure of their existence, threatening contempt of court if the targets spoke publicly. For select conservative families across five counties, this was the terrifying moment — the moment they felt at the mercy of a truly malevolent state.
The very existence of First Amendment–protected expression was deemed to be evidence of illegality. The prosecution simply assumed that the conservatives were incapable of operating within the bounds of the law. Even worse, many of the investigators’ legal theories, even if proven by the evidence, would not have supported criminal prosecutions. In other words, they were investigating “crimes” that weren’t crimes at all.
With the investigations now bursting out into the open, some conservatives began to fight back. O’Keefe and the Wisconsin Club for Growth moved to quash the John Doe subpoenas aimed at them. In a surprise move, Judge Kluka, who had presided over the Doe investigations for more than a year, recused herself from the case. (A political journal, the Wisconsin Reporter, attempted to speak to Judge Kluka about her recusal, but she refused to offer comment.) The new judge in the case, Gregory Peterson, promptly sided with O’Keefe and blocked multiple subpoenas, holding (in a sealed opinion obtained by the Wall Street Journal, which has done invaluable work covering the John Doe investigations) that they “do not show probable cause that the moving parties committed any violations of the campaign finance laws.”
In international law, the Western world has become familiar with a concept called “lawfare,” a process whereby rogue regimes or organizations abuse legal doctrines and processes to accomplish through sheer harassment and attrition what can’t be accomplished through legitimate diplomatic means.The John Doe investigations are a form of domestic lawfare, and our constitutional system is ill equipped to handle it. Federal courts rarely intervene in state judicial proceedings, state officials rarely lose their array of official immunities for the consequences of their misconduct, and violations of First Amendment freedoms rarely result in meaningful monetary damages for the victims.
Conservatives have looked at Wisconsin as a success story, where Walker took everything the Left threw at him and emerged victorious in three general elections. He broke the power of the teachers’ unions and absorbed millions upon millions of dollars of negative ads. Yet in a deeper way, Wisconsin is anything but a success. There were casualties left on the battlefield — innocent citizens victimized by a lawless government mob, public officials who brought the full power of their office down onto the innocent. Governors come and go. Statutes are passed and repealed. Laws and elections are important, to be sure, but the rule of law is more important still. And in Wisconsin, the rule of law hangs in the balance — along with the liberty of citizens.
David French is an attorney, a writer, and a veteran of the Iraq War.