Free Man Walker: Federal Court Gives WI Gov Big Win

Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker shakes hands with supporters after a campaign rally at Dane Manufacturing in Dane, Wis., Tuesday, April 15, 2014. Walker officially launched his re-election campaign Tuesday with a series of rallies across Wisconsin. (AP Photo/Wisconsin State Journal, M.P. King)MADISON, Wis. (AP) — Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker emerged with a major victory this week when a federal court halted a secret investigation into his 2012 recall campaign and conservative groups that supported him, ruling the probe was a breach of free-speech rights. The decision could boost his re-election campaign and better his prospects for a possible 2016 presidential run.

While prosecutors filed an appeal Wednesday to overturn the injunction, those who have followed this case and an earlier John Doe probe that focused on former Walker aides and associates said the ruling is a clear vindication for the Republican and his allies.

"This will give credence to his presidential aspirations when critics might say 'You were wrapped up in these John Does,'" said Milwaukee attorney Mike Maistelman, who has represented Democratic and Republican elected officials in a variety of cases. "Walker and his spin doctors around him are going to say this was a political endeavor and that argument was backed up by the federal court."

Under Wisconsin law, prosecutors can launch John Doe investigations that are overseen by judges and conducted largely in secret. Prosecutors can compel people to produce documents and give testimony, as well as forbid them from talking about the investigation.

Walker, who has said little given the secrecy order, was traveling around Wisconsin on Wednesday and was scheduled to be available for questions following an afternoon appearance in Milwaukee. His expected Democratic opponent for re-election, former Trek Bicycle Corp. executive Mary Burke, had no immediate comment.

Walker made a national name for himself by taking on public sector union collective bargaining in 2011. The following year, he became the first governor in U.S. history to win a recall election — despite the first John Doe investigation being an issue during the campaign. That investigation lasted three years and ended in 2013 with six convictions, including three of his former aides. Walker was interviewed but never charged.

His political opponents have been keeping a close watch on the second probe, at the heart of which was political fundraising and spending during the 2011 and 2012 recall elections. And it's taken on even greater significance as Walker considers a 2016 presidential run. Foes, including American Bridge 21st Century, a political action committee funded by liberal billionaire George Soros, have tried to paint Walker as too scandal-ridden to be trusted.

The investigation focused on alleged illegal coordination between and among Walker's recall committee and "all or nearly all right-of-center groups and individuals in Wisconsin who have engaged in issue advocacy from 2010 to the present," according to Tuesday's ruling by U.S. District Judge Rudolph Randa.

Randa issued a preliminary injunction in favor of the conservative Wisconsin Club for Growth, finding that the investigation into alleged illegal campaign coordination was an infringement on the conservative group's free speech rights.

"The plaintiffs have been shut out of the political process merely by association with conservative politicians. This cannot square with the First Amendment and what it was meant to protect," wrote Randa, who is based in Milwaukee and was appointed by President George H.W. Bush in 1992.

One of the targets of the investigation is Walker campaign adviser R.J. Johnson, who allegedly controlled a "hub" of issue-ad groups in 2011 and 2012 in coordination with Walker's campaign. Johnson did not immediately return an email or message left on his cellphone Wednesday.

Milwaukee District Attorney John Chisholm, a Democrat, led the investigation. His attorneys issued a statement decrying the ruling, saying the original complaint has no merit and should be dismissed.

"No citizen of the State of Wisconsin is above the law or the investigation of potential violation of the law, which includes laws relating to campaign finance," the statement said.

The ruling left Walker allies jubilant, and if it stands, will remove a liability for Walker's re-election campaign and as he looks ahead to 2016.

Republican state Assembly Speaker Robin Vos called the halted investigation a "vindication of what we've been saying all along."

"And that is that this has been unfortunately much more about a political agenda as opposed to fact-finding and looking for some sort of smoking gun," he said.

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