- Associated Press - Friday, December 8, 2017

MADISON, Wis. (AP) - The deep partisan divide over a secret investigation into Gov. Scott Walker’s recall reignited this week after the release of a Department of Justice investigative report that said those who seized personal emails from scores of Republicans and didn’t keep them secure should be held in contempt.

Angry conservatives fought the Walker probe for years, finally convincing the Wisconsin Supreme Court in 2015 to halt the investigation. Democrats accused the conservative-majority court of taking a partisan stand in the case that turned on whether Walker illegally coordinated with outside groups during the 2012 recall.

Attorney General Brad Schimel’s Justice Department investigation into the leak of 1,300-pages of documents reinforced the GOP belief that the probe was a partisan attack. Liberals said his findings released Wednesday did nothing to change their minds.

Fueled by anger over the investigation, the Republican-controlled Legislature in 2015 disbanded the nonpartisan Government Accountability Board, which helped direct the probe, replacing it with separate partisan commissions to run elections and oversee ethics.

Schimel’s report puts much blame on the board for what it characterized as a partisan attack against Republicans.

“DOJ is deeply concerned by what appears to have been the weaponizing of GAB by partisans in furtherance of political goals,” the report said.

Four of the nine people recommended for contempt proceedings worked for the GAB, including now-retired director Kevin Kennedy. One of them, former agency attorney Shane Falk, was also recommended by Schimel to face a review by the Office of Lawyer Regulation for violating court orders.

Falk told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel he acted appropriately and that Schimel had misrepresented what happened. Other former GAB workers have declined to comment.

In a sign of the polarizing effect of the case, a judge assigned to weigh Schimel’s report, Jefferson County Circuit Judge William Hue, withdrew on Friday. Hue, who had posted comments on the original investigation before the case was assigned to him, told Chief Justice Patience Roggensack he was concerned that his participation would be a distraction.

Director of State Courts Randy Koschnick will name a new judge, state courts spokesman Tom Sheehan said.

Republican Sen. Steve Nass, of Whitewater, on Thursday called for the resignations of the directors and attorneys for the ethics and elections commissions that grew out of the GAB. All four previously worked for the GAB and one of them - Elections Commission attorney Nathan Judnic - was among the nine people Schimel recommended be found in contempt for violating court orders.

“I have absolutely no faith in the ability of these four individuals to serve in an impartial and fair manner,” Nass said.

Wisconsin Elections Commission Chairman Mark Thomsen said he would make a statement on Tuesday after the commission reviews Schimel’s report in closed session.

The Republican targets of the probe have also pointed to Schimel’s report as vindication for their decision to disband the GAB. Leah Vukmir, a Republican state senator now running for U.S. Senate, said news that her personal emails discussing health issues with her daughter were obtained and contained in a folder labeled “Opposition Research” show the investigation was a “witch hunt” and those behind it “belong in prison.”

“This report confirms what Republicans have known to be true for years,” said Republican Assembly Speaker Robin Vos. “The Government Accountability Board staff acted as though they were above the law. We have a mountain of evidence that clearly shows an abuse of power for partisan purposes. Democrats must now accept the fact that Republicans were right.”

Democrats were doing no such thing.

“The Department of Justice investigation looks like more of the same slick political maneuvering designed to shift focus away from Gov. Scott Walker’s egregious wrongdoings,” said Andy Gronik, a Milwaukee businessman running for governor. He has called for reinstating a nonpartisan watchdog agency in the model of the former Government Accountability Board.

Schimel’s report read like a “partisan hit piece,” said Jake Hajdu, campaign manager for state Rep. Dana Wachs, another Democratic candidate for governor. Another Democratic gubernatorial candidate, state Superintendent Tony Evers, called Schimel’s report “political retaliation.”

“It is clear that Schimel thinks it is more important to defend and justify Walker’s behavior than to ensure the law is enforced, which is his actual job,” Evers said. “This report will have a chilling effect on future efforts to investigate illegal behavior by powerful politicians like Scott Walker.”

Walker’s campaign spokesman Brian Reisinger declined comment.

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This story has been corrected to show that the state courts director, not Roggensack, will pick a new judge.

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Follow Scott Bauer on Twitter: https://twitter.com/sbauerAP

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