Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker defended himself Friday against recently unsealed allegations that he led what prosecutors called a “criminal scheme” to coordinate fundraising and campaign spending with independent conservatives groups during state recall elections 2011 and 2012.
Walker, a Republican, pointed to the decisions of two judges who have ruled on a lawsuit asking for the secret “John Doe” investigation to be dismissed as proof that he has done nothing wrong. “The Facts of the case are pretty clear,” Walker said on "Fox & Friends." “Both of them have looked at this information and have said you don’t have a case here.”
Walker, who is facing a tough re-election challenge from Democrat Mary Burke, said the revelations in the documents are “not new news,” and that the two judges who ruled to halt the secret investigation have “resolved” the case. The investigation has been stopped by a federal judge, and an appeal of the most recent decision to halt it is being considered by the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals. The Wisconsin Club for Growth filed a lawsuit in February arguing that the investigation violated the group's First Amendment rights by discouraging protected speech.
No charges have been filed in this John Doe investigation. A prior John Doe investigation into Walker’s 2010 gubernatorial run resulted in six criminal convictions.
"The documents were opened, but no charges, case over," Walker said.
Prosecutors in the investigation, which began in 2012, allege that Walker and two top aides coordinated with conservative interest groups to raise and spend money in support of Republicans running in the nine 2011 recall elections for the State Senate and in Walker’s 2012 recall campaign. Outside groups spent some $75 million in those races.
The documents, which were unsealed Thursday, include a 2011 email from Walker to Republican strategist Karl Rove. In it, Walker tells Rove of one of the governor's aide's importance to coordinating “a team that is wildly successful in Wisconsin. We are running 9 recall elections and it will be like running 9 Congressional markets in every market in the state (and Twin Cities).”
Walker also suggested Friday that the investigation is getting attention because he is being targeted for his work curbing union rights in the state of Wisconsin. His 2011 proposal to sharply cut public sector union rights inspired massive protests and led to the recall elections. “They’re looking for ways to come at us,” Walker said. “They’ll continue to do it. They did it two years ago in the recall election. They’re going to do it again now.”
Conservatives and Walker supporters have seized on that talking point as a cornerstone of the defense against the allegations.
Opinion on the first John Doe investigation was highly partisan when a Marqette University poll asked voters in 2012 what they thought. Three-quarters of Republicans thought the investigation was political, while 73% of Democrats called it serious, and Independents split 48-44.
Charles Franklin, who runs the Marquette poll, told the Wisconsin State Journal he plans to ask about the second John Doe investigation in July. He also said he expects the results to be similarly divided.
But if the Seventh Circuit overrules the ruling that stopped the latest investigation, the political wrangling will continue, leaving Walker vulnerable as he positions himself for a potential presidential race.
"This is yet another indication that he and his team are just not ready for prime time," Howard Schweber, a professor of political science at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, told msnbc. "Even if what they did is ultimately found to be legal, the e-mails were amateurish and the level of brazenness in the whole scheme leaves powerful ammunition for attacks on Walker as a tool of the political establishment and moneyed interests, as well as ethically challenged."
In May, Walker's campaign deflected questions about whether they were in settlement talks with prosecutors in the investigation. While a settlement would finally put the investigation to bed, the groups suing to stop it have their sights set on a bigger target than the state capitol, according to Schweber.
"Wisconsin Club for Growth does not want to be cleared of state law charges, they want to see the state law overturned," he said. A lawyer for the Club for Growth said Thursday that the documents prove prosecutors used a "blatantly unconstitutional interpretation of Wisconsin law" to target conservative groups. If a challenge makes it to the Supreme Court, they could alter campaign finance law. If doing that means hurting Walker's political fortunes, it's likely a worthy sacrifice for conservatives.
"They are quite willing to sacrifice Scott Walker's political popularity for their larger cause. A victory at the Supreme Court, in turn, would mean the effective end to any limitations on coordination," Schweber said.
In an appearance on Milwaukee-area radio host Charlie Sykes' show Friday, Walker said that voters will move past this as they have with before. "The challenge is how long that will take. It could be a week or two, or longer," Walker said. "I mean this is just a fundamental misunderstanding. There's not a clear case to be made here."
Walker bought $250,000 of television air time on Thursday and plans to run political ads over 12 days, according to Politico.