Jeffrey Phelps / AP
Published Thursday, June 19, 2014 | 11:03 a.m.
Updated Thursday, June 19, 2014 | 3:53 p.m.
MADISON, Wis. — Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, a potential 2016 Republican presidential candidate, took part in a nationwide criminal scheme to coordinate fundraising with conservative groups, prosecutors said in court documents unsealed Thursday.
No charges have been filed against Walker or any member of his staff. And both sides are arguing in court over whether the activities are covered by election laws. The documents for the first time put Walker himself at the center of an investigation into campaigns in 2011 and 2012.
The papers were filed in December as part of an investigation into fundraising involving Walker and his campaign, the Wisconsin Club for Growth, the state Chamber of Commerce and other groups.
The investigation began in 2012 as Walker, who rose to fame by passing a bill that effectively ended collective bargaining for most public workers, was facing a recall election. But the probe has been on hold since May, when a federal judge ruled it was a breach of Wisconsin Club for Growth's free-speech rights and temporarily halted it.
State prosecutors said in the December filing that Walker, former chief of staff Keith Gilkes, top adviser R.J. Johnson and campaign operative Deborah Jordahl discussed illegal fundraising and coordination with national political groups and prominent Republican figures, including GOP strategist Karl Rove.
"The scope of the criminal scheme under investigation is expansive," lead prosecutor Francis Schmitz wrote in a Dec. 9 court filing objecting to an attempt by Walker's campaign and other conservative groups to quash subpoenas. "It includes criminal violations of multiple elections laws" including filing false campaign-finance reports, Schmitz wrote.
Walker suggested that the documents mean little or nothing, given that his campaign's position has already prevailed twice in court.
"I'm not asking people to take my word for it, or political allies," the governor said. "I'm saying look at two independent judges, at both the state and federal level, who did not buy those arguments and were rather aggressive in telling those folks to stop proceeding with that because they didn't think it was right."
The uproar over the collective-bargaining law led to the recall, which Walker won, making him the first governor in U.S. history to ever defeat a recall.
"The evidence shows an extensive coordination scheme that pervaded nearly every aspect of the campaign activities" during 2011 elections that decided control of the state Senate and the 2012 recall election, Schmitz said in the December filing.
Under Wisconsin law, third-party political groups are allowed to work together on campaign activity, but they are barred from coordinating that work with actual candidates. The Wisconsin Club for Growth has argued the prohibition does not apply to them because they do not specifically tell people how to vote, or run ads with phrases like "vote for" a certain candidate. The federal judge who halted the investigation and the judge overseeing it both agreed with that argument.
Prosecutors, including Schmitz and Milwaukee County District Attorney John Chisholm, have appealed the matter to the 7th Circuit Court of Appeals. Chisholm is a Democrat, and Schmitz has described himself as a Republican who voted for Walker.
Both men have declined to comment about the probe, which is sanctioned under a law that allows prosecutors to compel people to testify and turn over documents, but bars them from discussing the matter publicly.
Prosecutors say the national Club for Growth raised concerns about potential illegal coordination with the Wisconsin group and Walker's campaign as early as 2009. A spokesman for the national group declined to comment.
Johnson, in addition to being Walker's top campaign strategist, was also an adviser for the Wisconsin Club for Growth.
Neither he, nor Gilkes or Jordahl immediately returned messages seeking comment left by The Associated Press.
While he eyes a run for president in 2016, Walker is seeking re-election this year against likely Democratic nominee Mary Burke. Both Gilkes and Johnson are working on his re-election campaign.
It's been known for months that the investigation focused on allegations of illegal coordination between the Wisconsin Club for Growth, Walker's campaign and other conservative groups. But until Thursday, it was not clear that prosecutors saw Walker as having a central role.
Wisconsin Club for Growth attorney Andrew Grossman said the public has the right to see the documents.
The papers show how prosecutors "adopted a blatantly unconstitutional interpretation of Wisconsin law that they used to launch a secret criminal investigation targeting conservatives throughout Wisconsin," Grossman said Thursday in an email. "Sunlight is the best disinfectant, and this is a story that needs to be told to prevent more abuses and to hold ... prosecutors accountable for violating the rights of Wisconsinites."
Prosecutors have defended the investigation as a legitimate probe into whether Wisconsin's campaign-finance laws were violated and denied that they were on a partisan witch hunt.
An attorney for prosecutors, Sam Leib, said the filings show that prosecutors were legally justified in their actions and "the process continues."
Associated Press writer Dinesh Ramde contributed to this report from Brookfield, Wisconsin.