"We cannot afford to differ on the question of honesty if we expect our republic permanently to endure. Honesty is not so much a credit as an absolute prerequisite to efficient service to the public. Unless a man is honest, we have no right to keep him in public life; it matters not how brilliant his capacity"
"The deterioration of every government begins with the decay of the principles on which it was founded."
-Charles de Montesquieu.
It's time to recognize the fact that these quotes represent the revolting state of affairs of the Wisconsin government at this moment. Every day we deny the gravity of the current situation, we lose a piece of what made this state great, and more importantly, we lose a part of ourselves.
Make no mistake, this is no longer about a policy debate. It is now simply a debate about ethics. A government which has lost the trust of its citizens is not long for power. In one short year, Wisconsin has gone from being a state renowned for open and clean government to one that is shabby and nefarious. This discussion has been done by many others before me, but not everyone has the same sources of information. As such, I feel compelled to examine what has happened in the short and tumultuous life of the Walker administration and the legislators that support him.
Actually, we need to start before Scott Walker was elected to the office of Governor, specifically in 1987. This was the year Walker ran for student body president at Marquette University. During that campaign, Walker was found to be in violation of campaign rules of the school, including engaging in door-to-door campaigning, which was strictly prohibited under Marquette's rules. Walker was ultimately described to be "unfit for presidency" by the Marquette Tribune. When the Tribune endorsed Walker's opponent, Walker's supporters destroyed as many copies of the newspaper as they could find. This is certainly not a distinguished way to run for student body president, and provides a small yet telling window into our Governor's character and willingness to play by the rules. Unfortunately, this incident received only cursory media attention during Walker's bid for Governor.
Fast forward to July of 2011. At that time, a staunch supporter and ally of Scott Walker, William Gardner, was sentenced in Milwaukee County Circuit Court for two felony charges related to violations of campaign finance law. Gardner was the majority owner of Wisconsin and Southern railroad, and during 2009 and 2010, he illegally funneled over $50,000 of company money to Walker's campaign through railroad employees. Gardner's scheme unraveled after his ex-girlfriend reported the activity to the Government Accountability Board. It was reported that Gardner and Walker met just days before Gardner's girlfriend notified the GAB, although Walker insisted later that he only spoke with Gardner about his "transportation philosophy."
Then, in September of 2011, agents of the Federal Bureau of Investigation executed a search warrant at the residence of Cynthia Archer, a high ranking official in Walker's Department of Administration described as having played an active role in the plan to eliminate the collective bargaining rights of public employees. Archer was, by all accounts, a top aide to Walker, and was present during that dinner Walker assembled to announce the collective bargaining bill to his cabinet. It was reported that during the FBI raid, agents seized a box of documents from Archer's home, and a hard drive from a computer that Archer had recently given to her neighbor.
From there, Walker's inner circle, both from his campaign organization and his county executive office staff, utterly unraveled. So far, six of Walker's closest allies and confidants have been arrested and charged with felonies. At least one of them is talking. Let me ask you, how many of your close friends have committed felonies on your behalf? Here is a description of the cast of characters, with more likely to come:
Wink served as Constituents Services Coordinator in the Milwaukee County Executive's office. Wink has entered a guilty plea to two misdemeanor counts of political solicitation by a public employee, and is currently cooperating with prosecutors in the John Doe investigation. While employed with Walker's office, Wink posted numerous comments on political blogs promoting Scott Walker for Governor. Even more troubling, Wink, while paid by the Milwaukee County taxpayers, actively worked on Scott Walker's campaign, including organizing gala fundraisers while on duty. One of the people Wink communicated with regarding these fundraisers was none other than Reince Priebus, chairman of the Republican National Committee. More on Mr. Preibus later on in this post...
If there was any doubt as to Wink's knowledge of the fact she was breaking the law, an email Wink sent to Tim Russell (see below) puts this to rest. In 2009, Wink sent an email to Russell asking how she could erase a document from an online chat session. Wink remarked to Russell "I just am afraid of going to jail - ha! ha!"
When Wink's online posting during work hours was exposed in 2010, she resigned from her position in Walker's office. In response to this, Scott Walker sent an email to Tim Russell about Wink and her situation. Walker stated:
"I talked to her at home last night. I feel bad. She feels worse. We cannot afford another story like this one. No one can give them any reason to do another story. That means no laptops, no websites, no time away during the work day, etc."There are two striking things about this email. First is that when Walker sent this email to Russell, Russell was no longer working in the County Executive's office, and was instead working for another county department. Additionally, Walker sent this email from his campaign account, not his county email account. The second striking thing is the tone of the email itself: no surprise, no outrage, no denial. In my opinion, it is proof that Walker knew what was occurring in his office on his behalf.
Russell was Walker's Deputy Chief of Staff in the Milwaukee County Executive's office until 2010. According to the criminal complaint, Walker transferred control of Operation Freedom , a veterans charity event , in 2009 to a corporation controlled by Russell. Russell is alleged to have embezzled thousands of dollars that were supposed to go to veterans and their families.
If this wasn't enough, Russell is alleged to have set up an entire secret shadow email system in the county executive's office. This system was allegedly 25 feet from Walker's office. The purpose of the system was to allow persons working in Walker's office to secretly work on Walker's gubernatorial campaign while being paid by taxpayers. The criminal complaint alleges multiple persons in Walker's office engaged in this activity utilizing the system that Russell built.
Russell has been charged with two felonies and a misdemeanor regarding his activity.
During 2010, Rindfleisch served as Walker's Deputy Chief of Staff in the County Executive Office, after Russell vacated the position. During her employment, on taxpayer time, Rindfleisch sent over 1,000 Walker campaign emails through Russell's secret email system.
Amazingly, Walker claims not to know who hired Rindfleisch as Deputy Chief of Staff, a top level position in his administration.
Pierick was Tim Russell's partner, and an aide to Scott Walker's campaign. Pierick was also the operator of Scott Walker's campaign website, ScottWalker.org. During the investigation into Russell's illegal activities, prosecutors discovered evidence that Pierick was engaged in sexually explicit conversations with a minor, and was trying to entice the minor to participate in sexual activity. Pierick has been charged with Child Enticement and Causing a Minor to Expose Sex Organs.
Kavanaugh is a close personal friend of Walker's and was Walker's appointee to Veteran Service Commission. Kavanaugh is also accused of embezzling tens of thousands of dollars from veterans charities, and is facing numerous felony charges.
It is important to note that a significant amount of this illegal activity was committed in order to benefit Walker and his campaign for Governor. These people were some of his closest allies, and flagrantly violated the law on behalf of Scott Walker, yet he claims no knowledge of any of this. As a former prosecutor, I find this claim preposterous. Even in the light most favorable to Scott Walker, it is indisputable that Walker routinely surrounded himself with people who had absolutely no qualms about committing felonies to benefit him. Let me ask you again, how many of you have several close friends that have committed felonies on your behalf?
Yet, while the John Doe investigation is distressing, it merely reflects the fact that Governor Walker has surrounded himself with a band of criminals. The fix for that is relatively easy: prosecute the offenders and recall Walker from the position he has so utterly denigrated. I can tell you this: I have known John Chisholm, the Milwaukee County District Attorney, for years. We went to law school together, and served as junior assistant District Attorneys together in the Milwaukee DA's office. John is absolutely beyond reproach when it comes to ethics and character, period. If anyone can get to the bottom of this sordid mess, it is John and his staff.
To me, however, the recent redistricting fiasco is perhaps even more troubling, and has broader implications for the political landscape in Wisconsin.
Less than a week ago, it came to light that the Republican legislators had been meeting secretly, outside the walls of the Capitol, to prepare Wisconsin's new voting districts. The new maps that came out of these districts were designed to heavily favor Republicans in elections for the next decade. Even more shocking was the fact that these meetings had taken place at the law office of Michael, Best, and Friedrich, a stunning violation of the requirement of open government established in the Wisconsin Constitution. In a revelation which defies description, all but two of the Republican lawmakers signed a confidentiality agreement, a pact of secrecy, saying that they would not publicly discuss what occurred in these meetings. Furthermore, talking points were prepared directing legislators to ignore public comments on the redistricting process, as these comments would be inconsistent with what was discussed in the secret meetings. Basically, the message was "ignore what we tell the public, because it won't be the same as what we told you in secret." These revelations prompted outrage from the Democratic legislators and civic-minded Wisconsinites concerned about the growing lack of ethics and transparency in Wisconsin's government.
The redistricting scandal is also just the latest black mark on the law firm of Michael, Best and Freidrich, one of the largest and most powerful firms in Wisconsin. Remember, this was the firm that provided thousands of dollars of free legal representation to Supreme Court Justice Michael Gabelman during an ethics complaint filed against Gabelman regarding his campaign practices when he ran for the Supreme Court. Gabelman failed to disclose this free legal representation, as did the attorneys from Michael Best. In what seems to me to be a clear violation of judicial ethics, Gabelman continued to rule on cases that came before the Supreme Court involving Michael Best without recusing himself or disclosing the conflict of interest to the opposing parties. Michael Best was, most notably, the firm that defended Act 10 regarding the open meetings lawsuit, a case in which Gabelman ruled in favor of Michael Best's position.
In the current redistricting scandal, Michael Best attorneys had been retained, to the tune of $400,000 taxpayer dollars, to represent all of the Wisconsin Senators in drawing the new voting maps. In actuality, it appears the firm was working only for the Republicans, as Michael Best's Democratic lawmaker clients were totally unaware of these meetings or the secrecy pact drafted by the attorneys and signed by those present. After this story broke last week, a furious Sen. Jon Espenbach sent Michael Best two letters requesting, as their client, to see the case file regarding the redistricting matter. As a lawyer, I can tell you this appears to be an incredible breach of trust and duty to a client in favor of another client. It is the definition of a conflict of interest, and like the Gabelman mess, went totally undisclosed until now. I fully expect that the attorneys involved in these scandals will at some point be called to explain their actions in front of the Office of Lawyer Regulation, and possibly law enforcement entities as well.
By the way, here's another fun fact about Michael, Best and Freidrich: Reince Priebus, chairman of the Republican National Committee, is a partner at Michael Best. He is currently on leave from the firm to serve as the RNC chair. Yes, the same Reince Preibus with whom Darlene Wink communicated on taxpayer time. Oh, the tangled web...
There are other smaller examples of the growing abandonment of ethics by the Wisconsin GOP. Last year, WISC TV 3 did a story regarding private contractors doing road work in Wisconsin instead of public agencies. The report found that the use of private road contractors cost the taxpayers of the state almost 14 million dollars more than if this work had been completed by state employees. Last week, Republican Mark Honadel introduced a proposal that would eliminate the cost benefit reports prepared by DOT that compare the cost differences between using private contractors and state employees for DOT projects. This is what happens in the Walker administration: if you don't like the answers reflected on the forms, just eliminate the forms. This proposal shows the continuing unholy alliance between Walker and the private road contractors that has cost the people of Wisconsin both jobs and tax dollars.
To my Republican friends: The situation in which we find ourselves is far beyond the bounds of party politics. Walker and his legislative cronies have utterly dishonored the institutions they represent. They have behaved like a conquering army that is dividing up the spoils of the state, breaking the rules whenever necessary or expedient. We need to get back to a real debate about the future of our state, not one about secret email networks or immoral pacts entered into in the recesses of a law firm. If I were you, I would do everything I could to drive these disgraceful characters from your party. This is not a taunt or an "I told you so." This is a genuine plea. Get rid of these morally bankrupt horsemen of the political apocalypse and find representatives worthy of the party of Lincoln and Eisenhower. By supporting these people, you are losing a part of yourselves that is not easy to reclaim. How do you tell your children that these are the people you want to lead our government? How do you proclaim that you "Stand with Scott Walker," when that statement signifies you are standing among a gang of grotesque felons. Please, put aside your anger at liberals for a moment and recognize that these people are destroying your party for their own gain. Consider the fact that a small number of people are robbing us all of a real political discourse.
I will end with this story. Remember Georgia Thompson? Ms. Thompson was a civil service employee who was responsible for bidding out state travel contracts when Jim Doyle was Governor. Thompson, by all accounts, was not a political person, and did not know Governor Jim Doyle. She was prosecuted in a highly political witch hunt by Republican US Attorney Steven Biskupic for awarding the state travel contract to a firm which contributed to Governor Doyle's campaign. In a case that became the central theme for the Republican gubernatorial campaign against Doyle, Thompson was convicted of corruption and sent to prison. Here's the thing: Thompson awarded the contract to the travel firm because it was the lowest bidder. She was also hired by a Republican governor, and had no ties to the Doyle administration. Furthermore, Biskupic utterly failed to demonstrate that Thompson benefited from her awarding of this contract in any way, either professionally or financially. Finally, Thompson had no knowledge that the travel firm even contributed to Doyle's campaign.
When Thompson's case was brought before the United States Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit, the court was so appalled by the lack of evidence that it ordered her released from prison THAT DAY, before a written decision could even be issued. This is, in the world of appellate courts, absolutely extraordinary. One of the judges of the court told the prosecutor "Your evidence is beyond thin...I'm not sure what your actual theory in this case is."
Gubernatorial candidate Scott Walker had quite a bit to say about the indictment of Thompson as it related to Governor Doyle. In his press release, he stated in part:
"Unfortunately, we have a Governor and administration that condones unethical and illegal behavior. The people of Wisconsin deserve better...Today's indictment provides further confirmation that the Doyle administration is damaged and must be removed from the Capitol."If this was Scott Walker's assessment of a case that was thrown out with disgust by the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals, then he should clearly resign his post. His terms in both the Milwaukee County Executive and Governor's offices have been marked with an overwhelming stench of corruption and lawlessness. However, I have no illusion that Scott Walker possesses the moral fiber or courage to do what is right. Therefore, it is up to the people of the State of Wisconsin to show him the door. It just so happens, if the John Doe investigation continues its current trajectory, that door could ultimately lead to a jail cell.