Wisconsin Republican Gov. Scott Walker on Tuesday, Feb. 25, 2014, in Fitchburg, Wis.
Scott Bauer/AP Photo

Court clears way for investigation into Wisconsin’s Walker

Updated
If Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker’s (R) economic record doesn’t undermine his political future, his scandals might.
 
To briefly recap his most notable controversy, Wisconsin election laws prohibit officials from coordinating campaign activities with outside political groups. There is, however, reason to believe Walker and his team were directly involved in overseeing how outside groups – including some allegedly non-partisan non-profits – spent their campaign resources during the governor’s recall campaign.
 
For his part, the governor has dismissed the controversy, repeatedly pointing to a court ruling that “didn’t buy into the argument that has been presented” by prosecutors. Yesterday, a federal appeals court overruled that lower court.
A federal appeals court on Wednesday removed an injunction halting an investigation into whether the campaign of Gov. Scott Walker illegally coordinated with conservative groups on fund-raising and spending as he sought to overcome a recall effort two years ago.
 
The decision by a panel of the United States Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit raised the prospect that prosecutors could eventually resume the investigation even as Mr. Walker, who has been mentioned as a possible Republican presidential candidate in 2016, is engaged in a tight battle for re-election.
Note, this does not necessarily mean that the investigation will be renewed, only that it can continue. A district court put a halt to the entire inquiry, effectively closing the door on the probe. Now, that door is open again, though what happens next remains to be seen.
 
What strikes me as especially important about this, though, is the degree to which it represents a rebuke to a bizarre legal theory about campaign-finance laws.
 
Revisiting our coverage from June, Alec MacGillis did a great job explaining the alarming legal rationale for quashing the investigation in the first place.
In ordering a halt to the investigation in May, U.S. District Court Judge Rudolph Randa, a Republican appointee who has been active in conservative judicial-activist circles, argued that there was no problem with coordination between Walker and outside groups because it wasn’t as if the groups were trying to bring Walker over to their side by funding his anti-recall campaign: “[Wisconsin Club for Growth] obviously agree[s] with Governor Walker’s policies, but coordinated ads in favor of those policies carry no risk of corruption because the Club’s interests are already aligned with Walker and other conservative politicians,” Randa wrote in his ruling. “Such ads are meant to educate the electorate, not curry favor with corruptible candidates.”
 
This is a striking claim, reminiscent of the Supreme Court’s recent rulings against limits on campaign contributions– that limits can only be justified as bars against explicit attempts to bribe politicians to change their stances on issues. But that’s not what at issue in the John Doe II investigation – the question is whether the outside groups exerted undue influence over the outcome of the recall by skirting the state’s rules on coordination. It is whether the state’s electoral system was corrupted, not whether Walker was.
The whole rationale was based on the notion that pretty much anything goes when it comes to campaign-finance limits. Team Walker thought that sounded great; a unanimous 7th Circuit panel did not.
 
As for the allegations themselves, it’s worth appreciating just how sloppy Walker was in this mess. Election laws prohibiting coordination are practically ubiquitous, but in general, few ever face charges of breaking these laws. After all, coordination is hard to prove. Everyone suspects it happens all the time, but unless there’s an actual paper trail in which elected officials send an email talking about coordination, proving it is often impossible.
 
Which is why it seems remarkable that in Wisconsin, Scott Walker did exactly that. As Jon Chait explained:
Violating the spirit of campaign finance laws is really easy, as long as you take a few basic precautions such as not sending an email describing your control of expenditures that are supposed to be outside your control….. The most benign possibility is that Walker is quickly cleared, but the facts of the case would still raise serious questions about his intelligence. Sending an email explaining your plan to coordinate what’s supposed to be independent spending to the guy whose job it is to avoid campaign coordination is like if Walter White decided to cook meth in his high school chemistry classroom during school.
Time will tell whether voters care about the governor’s troubles in this area, but polls show Walker in an extremely tight race against Democrat Mary Burke. At a minimum, scandals like these don’t help.

Scandals, Scott Walker and Wisconsin

Court clears way for investigation into Wisconsin's Walker

Updated