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Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, a potential 2016 Republican presidential candidate, took part in a nationwide criminal scheme to coordinate fundraising with conservative groups.
That’s according to prosecutors in court documents unsealed this week. 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 investigation into fundraising involving Walker and his campaign, the Wisconsin Club for Growth, the state Chamber of Commerce and other groups began in 2012. Walker, who rose to fame by passing a law 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.
Marge Pitrof, news director at WUWM in Milwaukee, joins Here & Now’s Jeremy Hobson to discuss the controversial court case.
JEREMY HOBSON, HOST:
Well, from Iraq, now to Wisconsin. Prosecutors in that state alleged that Republican Governor Scott Walker participated in an illegal effort to coordinate fundraising and spending between his campaign and outside groups as he fought off recall efforts in 2012. The prosecutors claim the governor's recall campaign directed the political spending of some of these outside groups and violated limits and disclosure rules. Walker survived the recall effort, and he's running for reelection this November. He is denying the allegations which were made public when court documents were released yesterday.
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GOVERNOR SCOTT WALKER: I think there will be political opponents of ours who will try to make this out to something it's not. Again, if you're an objective viewer of this - if you're a voter who's undecided, who's looking at this objectively - again, I ask people to look at the facts. The facts are pretty clear.
HOBSON: Marge Pitrof is news director at WUWM. That's part of the HERE AND NOW contributor's network. She's with us from Milwaukee. Marge, welcome to you.
MARGE PITROF, BYLINE: Thank you very much.
HOBSON: Well, tell us more about these allegations. What do prosecutors claim Governor Walker did?
PITROF: Well, we don't know everything prosecutors believe because the investigation has been taking place in secret. It's called the John Doe probe. But from the court documents released Thursday, prosecutors allege that Governor Walker and other aids and outside groups illegally coordinated campaign activity leading up to the recall election against Walker in 2012. Under Wisconsin law, candidates and independent third-party political groups can't collaborate on certain campaign activities, like funneling outside money into campaigns or campaign ads. And prosecutors believe Walker and top aids created a scheme, as it's called, to direct third-party money toward his campaign and that of nine Republican state senators who were also facing recall.
HOBSON: Well, what outside groups are we talking about?
PITROF: Well, the one at the heart of the John Doe is the Wisconsin Club for Growth, the conservative funder. It's the one that's been working to stop the John Doe, claiming its First Amendment rights are being violated. And it's been a big supporter of Governor Walker over the years. Others the document mentions in Wisconsin are Wisconsin Right to Life and the business group Wisconsin Manufacturers in Commerce. And the national groups whose names showed up in the document are Americans for Prosperity and the Republican Governors Association.
HOBSON: So why were the court document that contained these allegations released?
PITROF: Well, the Wisconsin Club for Growth asked that they be released to show what it believes is a witch hunt by prosecutors. And of course, prosecutors did not object to the release of the documents. A couple unnamed parties in the last few days tried to halt the release, but, obviously, they failed on Thursday when they were made public.
HOBSON: Now no charges have been filed against Governor Walker - we should make that clear - or any members of his staff. Is there any sense that there will be charges filed against him going forward?
PITROF: It's so hard to know. The group suing to halt this John Doe claims it didn't do anything illegal. It did not mention, it said, in any of the ads it ran during the recalls to vote for or against someone. And two judges have called for a halt in the investigation - one on the state level, the other on the federal level. Both say they don't see any evidence that the Wisconsin Club for Growth violated the law. And the federal judge said that it appeared to him that the group found a loophole in the law to do what it did in 2012, whatever that was.
HOBSON: Marge, Scott Walker is known - not just in Wisconsin, but nationally - in part because of the recall and what preceded it involving unions. Are these allegations hurting him at all in Wisconsin?
PITROF: You know, I don't think people understand the technicalities of the case. Both sides are portraying this now as a political issue. Walker is saying people are out to get him because he clamped down on public unions in 2011 and that the DA, who initiated the John Doe, is a Democrat. And his main opponent in the race for governor later this fall is inferring that Walker isn't trustworthy. But the latest poll that came out in Wisconsin - Walker's main challenger, a businesswoman, Mary Burke - she and he are tied. And he's an incumbent. She wasn't really known to voters before a few months ago.
HOBSON: So it's going to be a tight race this year?
PITROF: Once again.
HOBSON: Marge Pitrof, news director at WUWM in Milwaukee, part of the HERE AND NOW contributor's network. Marge, thank you so much.
PITROF: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.