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Wisconsin 'John Doe' Probe: What Did Walker Know? When Did He Know It?

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Just hours after he delivered a State of the State address that he hoped would set the tone for his campaign to avert a recall election threat, Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker was hit with exactly the sort of news that embattled politicians fear most.

Two former aides to Walker -- one of whom was in the employ of his campaign until just days ago -- have been charged with felonies and misdemeanors in the ongoing "John Doe" investigation of wrongdoing by aides, political allies and campaign donors with links to the embattled governor.

These charges follow closely on the filing of felony charges against Tim Russell, a former Walker deputy chief of staff and one of the governor's closest aides over the past decade.

The aides charged Thursday were, according to Milwaukee County District Attorney John Chisholm, engaged in fundraising activities and other political work while working on the staff of Walker when he served as county executive.

Chisholm explains in a fifty-seven-page complaint that Russell and the newly indicted aides established a "secret email system available to and used by select 'insider' staffers for both official and unofficial business." That system was built around a wireless router that was kept in an armoire in the office of Walker's deputy chief of staff -- just a few feet from Walker's office. Its existence was "never disclosed to county employees outside a closely held group within the Walker administration." 

The complaint discuses the exchange of thousands -- yes, thousands -- of e-mails involving fundraising and political activity. Many of these e-mails from the deputy chief of staff who is now charged with four felony counts of misconduct in public office, Kelly Rindfleisch, and top political aides to Walker, including Keith Gilkes, who went on to serve as the governor's chief of staff.

Walker has said that during the campaign he was in constant communication with Gilkes about fundraising and campaign strategy.

And Rindfleisch, it appears, was in constant communication with Gilkes and other campaign aides.

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Despite the fact that it is illegal for county officials to use their offices for campaign work, Rindfleisch revealed in one e-mail that "half" of her taxpayer-funded work was "for the campaign."

Another individual who appears to have been in e-mail contact with  Rindfleisch was Reince Priebus, then the chairman of the Republican Party of Wisconsin, now the chairman of the Republican National Committee.

Additional e-mails went to the campaign of Brett Davis, a Walker ally who was running for lieutenant governor in a 2010 Republican primary. Davis lost that race, but now works in the Walker administration as a top appointee of the governor. The manager of the Davis campaign for lieutenant governor was Cullen Werwie, who exchanged emails with Rindfleisch.

Werwie, who now serves as Governor Walker's spokesman, has been granted immunity in the John Doe investigation.

For Rindfleisch, Walker's former deputy chief of staff, the charges are very serious -- major felonies that carry with them the prospect of multiple years in jail. The 57-page complaint against her, and against a lower level political operative named Darlene Wink, provides a rough outline for what political observers in Wisconsin have begun to refer to as a classic "Pay-to-Play" political operation, where key government aides are involved in both policymaking and campaign fundraising from parties that are interested in those policies.

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The added twist is that rarely, if ever, has an investigation into this sort of activity revealed that discussions about money and policy were mixed on a "secret email system."

The investigation is ongoing. It continues to expand at an exponential rate, touching more and more of Walker's inner circle, including aides in the county executive's office, 2010 campaign aides and donors, and aides in the governor's office and Walker's current campaign. Notably, Rindfleisch, who was paid by Milwaukee County taxpayers during the 2010 Walker campaign, left county employment after Walker's election to help organize the new governor's inauguration. Rindfieisch then went to work as a top fundraising aide with the governor's political operation, Friends of Scott Walker, with which she was employed until January, 2012.

Sources close to the inquiry say that the "John Doe" investigation is still in the early stages of sorting through mountains of information obtained in FBI raids and related investigations of Walker aides and donors. That means that the steady flow of charges and complaints could extend the recall campaign that Walker is all but certain to face, after one million Wisconsinites petitioned for his ouster.

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John Nichols, a pioneering political blogger, has written the Online Beat since 1999. His posts have been circulated internationally, quoted in numerous books and mentioned in debates on the floor of Congress.

Nichols writes about politics (more...)

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He was caught cheating in his campaign for Preside... by Dennis Kaiser on Friday, Jan 27, 2012 at 5:30:06 AM
Great news reporting, John. I had not heard about ... by Howard Schneider on Friday, Jan 27, 2012 at 10:45:34 AM
But only because it didn't provide for tarring and... by Eric Arthur Blair on Friday, Jan 27, 2012 at 5:54:41 PM
The State of Wisconsin is up for sale.  The K... by Dennis Kaiser on Friday, Jan 27, 2012 at 6:48:06 PM