The campaign of Gov. Scott Walker, the Republican Party of Wisconsin and more than two dozen conservative political groups are the targets of a secret Milwaukee County probe, the Wall Street Journal is reporting.
The newspaper reported that “some 29” organizations were being targeted, and it quoted Eric O’Keefe, an official with Club for Growth Wisconsin, as saying his group was among them.
“In recent weeks,” the newspaper reported, “special prosecutor Francis Schmitz has hit dozens of conservative groups with subpoenas demanding documents related to the 2011 and 2012 campaigns to recall Governor Walker and state legislative leaders.”
The Wall Street Journal opinion piece marks the first time that a named source has identified a target of the probe, which began in February 2012 but came to light just last month. Such “John Doe” investigations often involve secrecy orders issued by a judge that bar witnesses or participants from divulging the nature or even the existence of the probe.
The report, published Friday, detailed two subpoenas.
One demanded “all memoranda, email .... correspondence, and communications” between an unnamed target and “some 29” conservative groups, including Wisconsin and national nonprofits, political vendors and party committees.
The other demanded “all records of income received, including fundraising information and the identity of persons contributing to the campaign.”
Mike McCabe, executive director of the Wisconsin Democracy Campaign, told the State Journal that based on the report, the investigation appears to be zeroing in on whether so-called issue ad groups illegally coordinated with political campaigns to help boost candidates.
McCabe said issue ad groups — which operate on both the right and left — can raise and spend as much money as they want without disclosing their donors, so long as they don’t specifically advocate the election or defeat of a specific candidate.
But political campaigns are subject to certain financial limitations, and all donors must be disclosed.
Any issue ad group caught working directly with a candidate’s campaign would “run afoul of the law,” McCabe said.
Email and phone messages left with O’Keefe Saturday were not returned. Messages left with Club for Growth Wisconsin’s Sun Prairie office over the past two weeks, including Saturday, also have not been returned.
R.J. Johnson, a Club for Growth official who also has been a campaign adviser to Walker, declined comment about the John Doe probe when reached by phone by the State Journal late last month.
“I have nothing to say about that. I’m going to leave it at that,” Johnson said.
Asked if he was under a secrecy order, Johnson said, “I’m ending this conversation now” and hung up.
An email left with a Walker campaign spokesman also wasn’t returned Saturday.
Walker has previously refused to discuss the investigation or whether anyone on his staff or campaign has been contacted by prosecutors, calling it a “sidebar issue.”
The newspaper also reported that the campaigns of “legislative leaders” were being targeted.
However, late last month, the State Journal quoted three of the four top leaders as saying they had no knowledge of the probe.
A spokesman for Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald, R-Juneau, told the State Journal last month that he had no comment “at this time.” Fitzgerald was recalled but easily won re-election in 2012.
According to the Wall Street Journal, the targeted groups include Friends of Scott Walker, the state Republican Party, Wisconsin Manufacturers & Commerce, Club for Growth Wisconsin, Americans for Prosperity-Wisconsin, Wisconsin Family Action, American Crossroads and the Republican Governors Association.
Attempts to reach the state Republican Party, the Republican Governors Association and Americans for Prosperity were not successful Saturday.
According to the Wisconsin Democracy Campaign, spending in the 2011 and 2012 recall elections by groups mentioned in the article include:
• Right Direction Wisconsin PAC (Republican Governors Association): $9.4 million
• Club for Growth Wisconsin: $9.1 million
• Wisconsin Manufacturers & Commerce: $4.7 million
Americans for Prosperity/MacIver Institute for Public Policy: $4.5 million
The liberal Center for Media and Democracy has tracked millions of dollars that has flowed among these groups in Wisconsin.
In an interview Saturday, the group’s general counsel, Brendan Fischer, described it as a “dark money shell game” in which thousands and in some cases millions of dollars from anonymous donors are moved from one organization to another with the goal of influencing elections.
— State Journal reporter Dennis Punzel contributed to this report.Corporate LobbyistsDemocracy SquareWisconsin WaveDemocracy SquareDemocracy SquareWisconsin Wave