By Adam Tobias | Wisconsin Reporter
MADISON, Wis. — Wisconsin Democrats leading a secret investigation into conservative groups have brought in a heavy hitter — a former federal prosecutor who specialized in tracking terrorists.
Francis D. Schmitz, now in private practice in Waukesha, once served in the U.S. Department of Justice’s counterterrorism operations and helped apprehend a large group of foreigners carrying illegal visas, some of whom officials believed had ties with Sept. 11 hijackers.
Because of the secrecy surrounding the state’s so-called John Doe investigations, no one can say exactly how Schmitz, who rose to the rank of colonel in the U.S. Army, became the top prosecutor in the Democrats’ probe, which reportedly has spread to five counties.
“No prosecutor, whether or not they are involved in a John Doe, is going to make a comment on a secret John Doe proceeding,” Milwaukee County Assistant D.A. Bruce Landgraf said. “I mean, that is just not going to happen.”
Multiple sources told Wisconsin Reporter it’s easier to speculate about why Democrats chose Schmitz, one of George W. Bush’s three finalists for the position of U.S. attorney for the Milwaukee-based Eastern District of Wisconsin.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Joseph Wall, who worked for years alongside Schmitz, said he wasn’t surprised to learn his former colleague has been assigned to the John Doe probe.
“His ethics are beyond reproach,” Wall said. “He brings no bias to an investigation, other than to just basically find the truth.”
Others are more skeptical.
“It’s pretty clear what they’re up to here,” said a source, who requested anonymity because of his proximity to the investigation.
The Democrats hired Schmitz, the source said, because they think “his anti-terror experience will intimidate. I don’t think it’s too much to say it is designed to terrify some people.”
However, another source noted that whatever Schmitz’s skills are in spycraft, he has no First Amendment experience and no election-law background.
A source speculates that Schmitz, because of his “nominal ties to Republicans, gives a hyper-partisan investigation the public appearance of fairness.”
Though gagged by provisions of subpoenas issued by Milwaukee County’s Landgraf and others, multiple sources have told Wisconsin Reporter the Democrats’ manifold legal attack on nonprofit conservative organizations has included after-hours visits to homes and offices; confiscated equipment and files; and demands for phone, email and other records.
Those sources told Wisconsin Reporter the Democrats’ ultimate goal is to take down Republican Gov. Scott Walker — or to seriously hobble him during his 2014 re-election campaign. They note that news of the investigation broke about the time Democrat Mary Burke announced she would run against Walker.
When contacted by Wisconsin Reporter, Schmitz repeatedly declined to discuss the secret case, or even to acknowledge its existence.
By law, he can’t comment. Like the scores of individuals who have reportedly been subpoenaed or questioned in the investigation, Schmitz is bound to secrecy by Wisconsin’s long-standing John Doe law. Breaking that silence could land a violator behind bars.
Schmitz won’t even say much about himself. Asked Wednesday for details of his background, the prosecutor hesitated.
“Let me think about whether it’s even proper for me to acknowledge that,” Schmitz said, seconds before ending the short phone conversation.
Fortunately, there’s his LinkedIn profile, which reveals that Schmitz has spent most of his career working for an agency known for keeping secrets, serving in various positions at the Department of Justice from May 1983 to March 2013. He spent most of that time as an assistant U.S. attorney in the eastern district in Milwaukee.
During those three decades with the DOJ, Schmitz specialized in criminal and civil litigation, crisis response planning, international anti-terrorism training, management evaluations and policy development.
Schmitz, who also was a member of the DOJ’s National Security Division in Washington, D.C., for five years, was one of three finalists in 2002 for the U.S. attorney position at the eastern district of Milwaukee.
The job eventually went to Steven Biskupic, who worked alongside Schmitz in Milwaukee for several years.
Schmitz, a 1982 graduate of Marquette University Law School, also was the DOJ’s national crisis management coordinator and a member of its counterterrorism section.
Tracy M. Johnson, executive assistant U.S. attorney, confirmed that Schmitz had been employed at the Milwaukee office as an assistant U.S. attorney and retired earlier this year.
Because Schmitz is no longer with the U.S. attorney’s office, the DOJ cannot comment on his employment history, according to Dean Puschnig, law enforcement community coordinator for the state’s eastern district.
“It’s the policy of the Department of Justice not to provide any information on retired employees,” Puschnig said.
Biskupic also declined to talk about Schmitz because of potential conflicts with one of Biskupic’s clients.
“Obviously, I worked with Fran a long time and I have a lot of respect for him, and I’m going to leave it at that because … I’m also the lawyer for Friends of Scott Walker,” said Biskupic, who now runs his own practice.
Messages left with some of Schmitz’s former colleagues who still are employed at the U.S. attorney’s office in Milwaukee were not returned.
Wall, the only one to respond, worked with Schmitz on a late-1990s case that led to the conviction of the owners of an aluminum smelting firm who used their company as a springboard for a variety of fraudulent schemes. The trial lasted five weeks, and the pair worked close to 20-hour days in that span, Wall said.
“The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel at that time called it the most complicated fraud scheme ever indicted in Wisconsin,” he said.
Schmitz also had been involved in a high-profile investigation in the early 2000s that resulted in the apprehension of 70 people accused of bribing U.S. embassy officials to get illegal visas, including seven who ended up in Wisconsin.
The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel on July 12, 2002, reported that the seven were part of a larger group of foreigners from Jordan, Pakistan, Syria and Bangladesh who allegedly paid at least $10,000 each to an employee at the U.S. Embassy in Qatar between April 2000 and July 2001.
As part of the conspiracy, they received authentic six-month visas without security screenings or government authorization. Three were reported to have lived with Sept. 11 terrorists.
Shortly before he stepped down as assistant U.S. attorney earlier this year, Schmitz was also highly critical of an undercover sting in Milwaukee by the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives.
A Journal Sentinel investigation brought to light several mistakes in the investigation, including guns stolen from agents, sensitive documents lost, charges brought against innocent people and a burglary of the sting storefront.
Schmitz told a judge he didn’t think the operation was the best use of law enforcement resources. He also didn’t believe the sting went far enough in going after violent offenders.
Perhaps it shouldn’t come as a surprise the Milwaukee County District Attorney’s office has brought in a big gun to serve as special prosecutor in the latest John Doe probe.
The counterterrorism expert would seem to fit the John Doe operating manual for the Democratic prosecutor’s office. A previous John Doe probe launched by Milwaukee County D.A. John Chisholm in 2010 employed Milwaukee County Assistant D.A. David Robles, who has spearheaded the office’s anti-gang investigations.
In John Doe One, Milwaukee commercial real estate broker Andrew P. Jensen Jr. was arrested without being charged for failing to cooperate with the ongoing investigation. Sources told the Journal Sentinel that Robles personally arrested Jensen for refusing to cooperate, arguably an indication of the aggressive nature of the investigations that sources say have terrorized conservatives in an assault on basic constitutional rights.
Jensen was later quietly exonerated.
Contact Adam Tobias at [email protected] or follow him on Twitter at @Scoop_Tobias
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