POSTED: 3:44 a.m. HST, Feb 20, 2014
Even as Gov. Scott Walker of Wisconsin looks ahead to 2016 and a possible presidential bid, his political past as Milwaukee County Executive has come back to haunt him.
A release of 27,000 emails and hundreds of court documents on Wednesday portrays Walker, a Republican, as having presided over an office where aides used personal computers and email to conceal that they were mixing government and campaign business. The conduct of campaign work on government time led to the criminal convictions of two aides and several others. Walker, who has for years denied wrongdoing, was never charged.
The messages showed how actively Walker’s campaign coordinated with county workers in 2009 and 2010, when he was running for governor. They shared emails about the proper wording of campaign news releases. They exchanged emails on county time promoting a birthday fundraising event for Walker’s campaign. Some used private email accounts to communicate even, apparently, with Walker, according to an email from the county’s administrative director, who at one point advised a colleague to do the same, adding, “Consider youself (sic) now in the ‘inner circle.’” And plans for a daily conference call, the newly released emails show, was to include members from both his governor’s campaign and his county executive staff.
In one message to campaign staffers and county executive workers, Walker’s then-chief of staff, Thomas Nardelli, wrote that Walker wished to hold the 8 a.m. calls “to review events of the day or of a previous or future day, so we can better coordinate sound, timely responses, so we all know what the others are doing.”
As the messages were made public, national Democratic groups tried to draw comparisons to Gov. Chris Christie of New Jersey, another possible Republican presidential candidate, and the scandal surrounding the George Washington Bridge. Republicans dismissed the matter as largely political gamesmanship, noting that prosecutors had chosen not to charge Walker with any crimes though they long had access to the documents in question.
A spokesman for Walker, who is seeking re-election to a second term as governor this fall, said Wednesday that the governor remained focused on creating jobs and lowering taxes for Wisconsin families, not on the newly public messages from an investigation that was, officials in Wisconsin say, completed last year.
“The recently released communications of a county staffer from several years ago are part of a legal process that was completed early last year,” said Jonathan Wetzel, the spokesman. “Gov. Walker is confident that during that legal process, these communications were thoroughly reviewed by the authorities.”
Since at least 2011, residents of Wisconsin had been aware of the investigation into claims of political work being done on county time in the executive’s office. Aside from convictions against six people, though, much has remained unknown, largely because of the nature of the criminal inquiry, in Wisconsin called a “John Doe investigation,” in which almost no one connected to the cases is legally permitted to speak of it. The newly released emails as well as hundreds of previously sealed court documents were part of a case involving Kelly M. Rindfleisch, who was Walker’s deputy chief of staff in the county executive’s office and who pleaded guilty in 2012 to one count of felony misconduct in public office after being accused of performing political work for a lieutenant governor hopeful on county time. Rindfleisch had sought to keep the documents sealed as she appealed her conviction, but after objections by news organizations, including The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, a judge ruled earlier this month that full disclosure was appropriate now that the investigation had ended.
While the first investigation into the county executive’s office is over, revelations about a second “John Doe investigation,” which is continuing, have emerged in recent months. Little is known about the second investigation except that it appears to look at possible campaign finance violations involving illegal coordination with outside political groups. While the focus of that investigation, now spanning five Wisconsin counties, has not been identified publicly, it is believed to relate to polarizing recall election battles in the state in 2012. Walker and several Republican state senators faced recalls that year.
Among the thousands of emails and documents released in the earlier investigation are indications that some of Walker’s county aides routinely used personal laptop computers, a non-county computer network, and private Yahoo and Google email accounts to conduct campaign-related business while at work. A blurring of campaign and county work pepper the documents.
In 2010, Darlene Wink, an employee responsible for constituent services in the office of the Milwaukee county executive who was later convicted of political solicitation by a public employee, exchanged emails with a local Republican Party official about support for Walker’s bid for governor.
“Do you know what is being done about a release for the endorsement on Friday?” she inquired.
Questions remain over how much Walker knew about activities of his staff. In the email from the county’s administrative director, Cynthia Archer, suggesting that a colleague use a personal email account and join the “inner circle,” she wrote: “I use this private account quite a bit to communicate with SKW and Nardelli,” apparently referring to Walker and Nardelli. But there were also signs among the documents that Walker had called for a stop to some of the activities.
At one point in May of 2010, Wink resigned after allegations that she had posted pro-Walker comments on The Journal Sentinel website while at her county job. Walker sent an email to another aide, writing of Wink: “I talked to her at home last night. 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 workday, et cetera.”
While unrelated to the question of campaigning on county time, some of the emails are embarrassing, presumably never meant for public consumption. In one, Rindfleisch, discussing a news story about issues at a local medical complex and how Walker’s Democratic opponent might use the issue, wrote, “No one cares about crazy people.”
In another, Nardelli alerted Walker to a staffing issue about a newly hired employee who, he said, had not revealed during interviews that she also “models thongs.”
In 2010, Nardelli forwarded what appears to be a long chain email to undisclosed recipients that concluded, “I can handle being a black, disabled, one-armed, drug-addicted, Jewish homosexual on a pacemaker who is HIV-positive, bald, orphaned, unemployed, lives in a slum, and has a Mexican boyfriend, but please, Oh dear God, please don’t tell me I’m a Democrat!”