MADISON, Wis. (AP) - Democrats and their allies pushed back Wednesday against a Republican bill that would constrain so-called John Doe investigations, telling a legislative committee that the measure would weaken a key tool for investigating political wrong-doing.
The investigations are similar to grand jury probes, in which information is gathered in secret and information is tightly controlled. Two such investigations have touched Gov. Scott Walker since he took office, including one that resulted in convictions against his former aides.
The legislation would prohibit using John Does to investigate political crimes, such as campaign fundraising violations. Prosecutors could still use the process to investigate serious physical and drug crimes.
The proposal would limit probes’ length to six months, although prosecutors could win extensions if a majority of the state’s 10 chief circuit court judges approve a request, and allow witnesses to speak publicly.
The changes would gut the process, said former Milwaukee County District Attorney E. Michael McCann, a Democrat who led a John Doe investigation that resulted in misconduct charges against then-Senate Majority Leader Chuck Chvala in 2002. Chvala was a Madison Democrat.
“This is a bill to protect legislators,” McCann told the Senate’s judiciary committee. “(The bill) guts the strength of the John Doe.”
Sen. Lena Taylor, a Milwaukee Democrat who sits on the committee, questioned whether six months would be enough time to conduct an investigation. She also said getting a majority of chief judges to grant extensions would be unwieldy.
“I’m challenged by the limitations and whether it will put a limit on our ability to get to the bottom of issues,” Taylor said.
Republicans’ frustrations with the John Doe process have been mounting. Since the governor, a likely 2016 presidential candidate, took office in 2011, Milwaukee County District Attorney John Chisholm has used it to investigate whether Walker’s aides when he was Milwaukee County executive campaigned on government time and whether his 2012 gubernatorial recall campaign illegally coordinated with conservative groups.
The first investigation into campaigning on government time wrapped up in 2013. It netted six convictions, though Walker was never charged. The recall investigation, begun in 2012, is on hold while the Wisconsin Supreme Court mulls legal challenges seeking to stop it. Oral arguments are set for April.
The bill’s authors - Sen. Tom Tiffany, a Hazelhurst Republican, and Rep. David Craig, a Big Bend Republican - told the committee that the legislation would inject accountability and transparency into John Does.
Tiffany said Chisholm has abused the process, saying he’s “obsessed with getting involved in the political process.” He and Craig said the bill also would protect people who find themselves caught up in John Does but can’t afford attorneys.
The recall John Doe has gone on for two-and-a-half years and individuals questioned have been ordered to stay quiet, said Dean Strang, one of the attorneys trying to stop the investigation. Witnesses and defendants should be allowed to speak about the case, in part because secrecy orders magnifies stress, especially for witnesses and defendants who can’t afford attorneys, he said.
He noted the legislation allows prosecutors to use other tactics to investigate political crimes, including grand juries and traditional investigative techniques.
“I don’t know if I’ve ever seen active bad faith (in a John Doe),” Strang said. “But the nature of very broad, powerful tools is they get used (and) they get used whether they should or shouldn’t be.”
The committee, which is controlled by Republicans, was expected to vote on the bill Thursday. Approval would clear the way for a full vote in the Senate.
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