Where are the attack dogs on the right?
One way to measure the seriousness of the ongoing John Doe investigation nibbling away at Scott Walker is to consider how quiet Republicans and conservatives have gotten. The investigation headed up by Milwaukee County District Attorney John Chisholm has already arrested three former aides to Walker. More are expected to be charged, and the investigation seems to be inexorably climbing up the chain of command toward Walker. But conservatives aren’t exactly rushing to condemn Chisholm.
Walker insists he did nothing wrong. But the indictments raise many questions about his judgment. For starters, consider the kind of staff he was hiring. Two longtime Republicans told me privately they viewed Tim Russell as ethically challenged and someone to avoid. Russell, it turns out, was fired in 1993 from a job with the Wisconsin Housing and Economic Development Authority for improperly charging the agency for his stay at a hotel. The John Doe charged him with embezzling $21,000 from a veterans support organization. But he has been a longtime Walker confidante, working on his campaigns and as a deputy chief of staff when Walker served as county executive.
Then there is Kelly Rindfleisch, who was threatened with prosecution and granted immunity in the legislative caucus scandal a decade ago. This is a person with long experience illegally working on political campaigns while being paid by government. Yet she gets hired by the Walker Administration and is apparently never told not to campaign; instead it looks like she was hired for that purpose. The complaint says Walker’s chief of staff, Tom Nardelli, was unaware of her hiring when she showed up on her first day of work.
The timing of her employment, as liberal blogger Cory Liebmann has noted, “stinks to high heavens.” Rindfleisch was hired to work for Walker at the county at the beginning of his run for governor. She left the county less than two weeks after Walker was elected governor. And though county workers must reside in the county, the complaint notes that Rindfleisch established residency by staying a few days a week at the West Allis home of Jim Villa, a longtime Walker associate who had worked as his chief of staff.
Although employed full time by the county, Rindfleisch told people she was working half time on political campaigns. She was in constant email contact with Walker’s gubernatorial campaign and also doing work for Brett Davis, who was running for Lt. Governor, was Walker’s preferred running mate (but lost the GOP primary), and now works for the Walker administration in Madison. Rindfleisch sent some 1,600 emails to people regarding political campaigns and fundraising.
Then there was Darlene Wink, who worked for Walker as his constituent services coordinator, but working on his gubernatorial campaign. After her campaign activities were found out and she resigned, Walker wrote an email to Russell telling him “we can’t afford another story like this” and warning about such activities. But as James Wigderson, the rare conservative who has written about the John Doe (but not very helpfully for Walker), has asked: Why was this warning done privately rather than on official county email? “Another tough question to be answered,” Wigderson notes.
The investigation’s bombshell is that a “secret email system” was “routinely used by selected insiders within the Walker administration” for county business, as the complaint states. “It had to be set up with the express purpose of getting around open records requests and doing illegal campaign activity from the county executive’s offices,” Wigderson writes.
The complaint says the system was set up by Russell and notes that his office was less than 25 feet from Walker’s. As I said, the momentum of the investigation seems to be moving in an upward direction toward Walker.
Wink has already cut a deal with prosecutors to testify about the destruction of digital evidence, which would be yet another crime. (It’s always the cover-up that gets politicians.) Rindfleisch, liberal blogger Bill Christofferson predicts, could be next to take a plea bargain.
Then there is the role of Davis, the candidate for Lt. Governor, and Cullen Werwie, who was running his campaign. Both got hundreds of emails from Rindfleisch while she was working for Walker at the county and would have had to know she was illegally campaigning on county time. Werwie has already been given immunity in the John Doe, so he must have some damaging testimony to offer.
In a bipartisan slap at Walker, both Wigderson and Christofferson have called on Walker to fire Werwie, who is the governor’s press secretary, and Davis, who is Walker’s state Medicaid director. My guess is Walker will reject that advice: Why push away two people who seem to be in a position to offer more information to Chisholm?
Is it possible Walker’s gubernatorial aides are also operating a secret email system? State Administration Secretary Mike Huebsch told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel that to his knowledge there was no such system, not the most ringing denial.
If I were Walker, I would be very afraid of where this investigation is going.
Will This Impact the Recall Election?
Last week Gov. Walker gave his State of the State address and never mentioned his more important accomplishments: curtailing the collective bargaining rights of public employees and requiring them to make significant contributions to their benefits. In response, Assembly Minority Leader Peter Barca did his best to trash Walker but mentioned not one word about collective bargaining or benefits givebacks.
Why this strange shyness by both sides? Polls show the public supports benefits cuts for public employees. So Democrats instead talk about “power grabs” and cuts to education. But the polls also show voters are divided and probably slightly opposed to ending collective bargaining rights. So Walker never mentions this in letters to voters asking for campaign donations.
All this reticence is good for Walker but bad for Democrats. They have taken the unusual step of attempting to recall a sitting governor, something that’s almost never happened in American history. Independent voters will not vote to recall the governor because he cut education funding or because he didn’t deliver all the jobs he promised, which Senate Minority Leader Mark Miller offered as the reason for a recall. If Democrats can’t convince a majority of voters that Walker acted in a highhanded fashion by killing collective bargaining – if they don’t even campaign on the real reason they launched a recall – how can they expect voters to agree with them?
Right now, I’d say the only chance to recall Walker is the John Doe investigation. You can expect Democrats to make an issue of Walker’s judgment, of his willingness to surround himself with aides who are charged with illegal conduct. There is a now an ethical cloud looming over Scott Walker, and that suddenly provides what some voters might see as justification for a recall election. My prediction: You may see super PACs supporting Walker who will run ads accusing Chisholm of a politically motivated investigation. This is a nationally important election, and the amount of money – and questionable ads by both sides – could be off the charts.
Republicans may ultimately regret having done all they can to stall this recall. It just provides more time for more indictments and revelations in the John Doe investigation, none of which are likely to help Scott Walker’s cause.
Last night Milwaukee Public Television ran Brien Farley’s two-hour documentary on Milwaukee conservative talk radio, Liberty or Lies. I was one of the folks he interviewed. Farley is a conservative and Waukesha resident and apparently sees his film as the antidote to Milwaukee Magazine’s December 2008 feature, “Secrets of Talk Radio.”
The funny thing is that little of what ran in that feature is contradicted in this show. Farley is certainly sympathetic to talk radio, but he does a great job of threading together powerful quotes from both critics and supporters. What Farley has done – and done very well – is closest to what daily newspapers routinely do, getting comments from both sides on an issue. It is nothing like the talk radio medium he wants to defend, which only presents one side, as its defenders readily concede.
A further irony is this show is running on public television, which conservatives often point to as a “liberal” medium. Yet it ran a program sympathetic to talk radio.
The reality is that mainstream media, despites it’s many faults, show its biases at the edges and in subtle ways. Talk radio’s antidote is a sledge hammer of one-sided commentary that supposedly balances the scales.
The show is posted online and will be repeated on Feb. 4, 10:30 p.m. on Channel 36.
-The most interesting omission in the show was Mark Belling, who apparently chose not to be interviewed. That’s too bad, as he would have been interesting.
-The show also suggests that Milwaukee is a rare city in having two top-rated conservative talk radio hosts (Belling and Charlie Sykes). That is a big factor in local elections as you have all this free broadcasting help for Republican candidates and no counterpart for Democrats.
-And are the Bucks hatching a trade for Stephen Jackson? The Sports Nut tells all.