By M.D. Kittle | Wisconsin Reporter
MADISON — Just in time for Halloween, it’s the Phantom of the Courthouse.
The special prosecutor in Democrats’ super-secret political investigation of conservatives arrived at the Dane County Courthouse Tuesday morning — only to disappear without a trace.
Francis Schmitz, a former federal prosecutor and one-time finalist for U.S. attorney in Milwaukee, showed up at the courthouse just after 8 a.m. I spotted him walking up to the triangular-shaped “flatiron” justice center. I asked whether his business there had anything to do with the so-called John Doe probe that is, according to multiple sources, targeting conservative groups.
Schmitz told me he couldn’t talk about the reported John Doe, and asked how I got his contact information.
The answer to that question is Wisconsin Reporter’s secret.
We entered the courthouse security checkpoint at the same time, but I was stopped as I moved through the metal detector.
While a guard asked me to remove my belt amid the squeal of the metal detector’s alarm, Schmitz slipped through security and onto the elevator before I could ask him follow-up questions about the investigation.
And just like that, he was gone.
No one at the courthouse seemed to know anything about Francis Schmitz, why he was there, or just where in the building he was. Dane County District Court Administrator Gail Richardson said she wasn’t aware Schmitz was even in the building.
The bailiff and other court staff advised Wisconsin Reporter to check with the Dane County District Attorney’s office. A receptionist there said she hadn’t heard of Schmitz and didn’t see him enter the office. When Wisconsin Reporter asked to speak with Dane County District Attorney Ismael R. Ozanne, the receptionist said he would be tied up most of the day.
Wisconsin Reporter’s investigative team cooled its heels outside a fourth floor courtroom, where one official said a session involving “outside” legal business was to take place.
No Doe there.
Wisconsin Reporter’s Adam Tobias remained at the courthouse until early afternoon, but the phantom of the courthouse never re-materialized.
I did reach Schmitz via phone around lunchtime.
“Is this the same (M.D.) Kittle who asked me this morning whether I had a comment on the John Doe investigation?” Schmitz asked. I said it was. “What makes you think I am going to say anything different now?”
“I’m a journalist. I’m a constant optimist,” I replied. So, did Schmitz have a comment on the Doe investigation or the reason for his business at the courthouse?
“I have no comment, sir,” Schmitz said.
As revealed by Wisconsin Reporter Monday, the secret investigation launched by the Democrat-led Milwaukee County District Attorney’s office in early 2012 is trained on national conservative organizations, including Americans for Prosperity, Club for Growth and the Republican Governors Association. Multiple sources, who asked to remain anonymous due to their proximity to the probe or the people in it, corroborated that story.
One source with knowledge of the investigation said the groups have received — or have been told they’ll receive — subpoenas issued under the state’s so-called John Doe law.
Though gagged by provisions of subpoenas issued by Milwaukee County Assistant District Attorney Bruce Landgraf and others, multiple sources told Wisconsin Reporter the manifold legal attack on nonprofit political organizations has included after-hours visits to homes and offices; confiscated equipment and files; and demands for phone, email and other records.
“This is a taxpayer-funded, opposition-research campaign,” one source said. “This is not a question of what conservatives did wrong. It’s a question of one party in this state using prosecutorial powers to conduct a one-sided investigation into conservatives.”
The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, which first reported news of the latest John Doe last week, said Schmitz, who spent nearly 30 years as a federal prosecutor, has been appointed a special prosecutor in the probe. The newspaper, quoting unnamed sources, said the investigation into possible campaign violations during the Badger State’s unprecedented recall elections has spread to five Wisconsin counties, including Dane.
Ozanne, Dane County’s district attorney, didn’t return several requests from Wisconsin Reporter seeking comment Tuesday.
One source with information on the probe told Wisconsin Reporter that “investigators are spying on people and using the power of government to collect records.”
The investigation, sources say, recalls this past summer’s revelations that the Internal Revenue Service had targeted conservative nonprofits for special scrutiny.
The current court-administered dragnet overlapped the lengthy John Doe into Gov. Scott Walker’s staff members and associates when Walker was still Milwaukee County executive in 2010.
Sources reportedly told the Journal Sentinel the latest John Doe is following up on a number of leads turned up by an earlier probe, led by Milwaukee County District Attorney John Chisholm, a Democrat, into former aides and associates of Walker when he was Milwaukee County executive.
Many saw John Doe One as a partisan effort to hobble Walker. The Republican governor would go on to lead Act 10, the state law that reformed public employee collective bargaining and sparked a wave of mass union protests in Madison and the recall campaigns.
Six Republicans and three Democrats in the Senate faced recall in 2011, and in June 2012, Lt. Gov. Rebecca Kleefisch and three of four Republicans in Senate recall races survived. Walker won, too, the first governor in U.S. history to beat back a recall attempt.
John Doe One led to the convictions of six people, but ended in March with no charges filed against Walker.
Announcing John Doe One closed, Chisholm said he was satisfied that all charges “supported by proof beyond a reasonable doubt have now been brought and concluded.”
What Chisholm didn’t say was that his office had already been working for a year on what’s come to be called John Doe Two.
Like a grand jury, John Doe investigations give prosecutors subpoena and search powers, as well as the ability to call oath-bound witnesses to testify. And it’s all conducted in secret. The investigation draws its name from the unnamed people involved, and is intended to be an independent, investigative tool to determine whether a crime has been committed – and if so, by whom.
John Does come with strict penalties for those who violate the terms of the secret proceedings.
So it isn’t surprising Schmitz had nothing to say to me about the investigation. On Tuesday, the phantom of the courthouse, the special prosecutor that nobody in Dane County justice seems to know, receded into the secrecy of the John Doe.
Contact M.D. Kittle at email@example.com
Wisconsin Reporter’s Adam Tobias and Ryan Ekvall contributed to the reporting of this story.
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