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Groups decry Gov. Scott Walker's rollback of watchdog laws

Once considered a top presidential contender, Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker is now wreaking havoc on his home state.
Republican presidential candidate Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker fields questions at The Family Leadership Summit at Stephens Auditorium on July 18, 2015 in Ames, Iowa. (Photo by Scott Olson/Getty)
Republican presidential candidate Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker fields questions at The Family Leadership Summit at Stephens Auditorium on July 18, 2015 in Ames, Iowa.

Democratic lawmakers and groups advocating for government transparency are sounding alarm bells following Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker’s decision to greenlight legislation to ax secret investigations into political corruption – similar to probes that have continuously dogged the Republican in recent years. 

The move comes shortly after Walker – once considered a top presidential contender – surprisingly pulled the plug on his campaign in September after failing to amass both support and cash. With his 2016 dreams dashed, some critics are going as far to suggest Walker is on a political payback mission against critics in his home state. The New York Times editorial board on Tuesday described his latest actions as “The Revenge of Scott Walker.”

The bill Walker signed on Friday blocks prosecutors from using the state’s so-called “John Doe” law to investigate political misconduct, including campaign finance violations and bribes. John Does operate like a grand jury proceeding, where witnesses may be subpoenaed and a judge instead of jurors decides if there is enough evidence to merit an indictment. Proponents say it will now be harder to investigate politicians for political abuses. Walker has argued the move was done to protect free speech. 

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Walker himself has been part of two John Doe investigations, although he was never charged. One which began in 2010 resulted in six of his aides being convicted and another, which started in 2012, looked into coordination between conservative political organizations and Walker during his recall election. 

Jay Heck, executive director of Common Cause Wisconsin, a non-partisan group that advocates for clean and accountable government, took issue with the notion that Walker was trying to exact some type of revenge in the aftermath of his failed presidential campaign, as such legislation was already underway. But he said either way latest development is bad news for democracy. 

“Wisconsin which used to be considered a model for the nation in terms of good clean government and transparency,” said Heck. “All the unique features that used to make Wisconsin a model --  Republicans have stripped that away.” 

It’s not just the John Doe laws that are causing major concerns. While the governor has been away on the campaign trail, the Republican-led legislature has pushed bills to chip away at independent oversight of elections and campaign finance laws.

One bill up in the state Senate would dismantle Wisconsin’s Government Accountability Board, a nonpartisan agency tasked with elections and government ethics oversight. It would be replaced with a distinctly partisan model, allowing an equal number of Republican and Democratic appointees to  enforce the state’s campaign finance, lobbying and ethics laws. Another bill would effectively re-write campaign finance laws, doubling the amount that donors could contribute to candidates' campaigns and open the floodgates to the amount of cash given to political parties and campaign committees. 

Martha Laning, chair of the Democratic Party of Wisconsin, said the legislative measures were "shameful" and had many Wisconsinites shaking their heads in disbelief. 

“Gov. Walker was so embarrassed by his dismal performance in the presidential campaign that he is coming back to Wisconsin to push his damaging legislation again,” Laning said. “Having him back in the state has been shocking. Literally -- Democrats are in shock. Can this get any worse?”

Heck predicted that while there there are a few moderate GOPers in the Senate who have concerns about the two bills, they would “ultimately pass because of “tremendous arm twisting on behalf of the Republican leadership.” The Senate has 19 Republicans and 14 Democrats. And if the two bills do become law, “Wisconsin will be looked as kind of another corruption, backwater state where partisan politics run the show.”

Rep. Peter Barca, a Democrat and Assembly minority leader, said there is a silver lining to the bills being pushed through the legislature in that there are signs Walker’s popularity, and the Wisconsin Republican Party more generally, is starting to slip.

“They’re drunk with power and they are strictly trying to have huge power grabs to protect themselves because they know that this election is not looking good for them,” Barca said of the legislative rollback to corruption and campaign finance oversight. “They view this as an incumbent protection program.”