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Vendetta justice? Criticism growing about John Doe prosecutor Bruce Landgraf

By   /   November 15, 2013  /   No Comments

Part 9 of 137 in the series Wisconsin's Secret War

By M.D. Kittle | Wisconsin Reporter

MADISON, Wis.  — Milwaukee County Assistant District Attorney Bruce Landgraf was so obsessed with going after the target of a secret John Doe investigation that he was willing to jail an innocent man.

AP file photo

POLITICAL PROSECUTOR?: Critics accuse Milwaukee County Assistant District Attorney Bruce Landgraf of bringing politics into secret John Doe probes targeting conservatives.

That’s what the attorney for a Rice Lake Harley-Davidson dealer contends three years after Christopher Brekken spent the better part of a day in jail for failing to comply with the investigation’s court-ordered subpoena — a subpoena that would have forced Brekken to violate state law.

“I’ve been practicing law for 34 years this week, and this is just as egregious an abuse of prosecutorial power as I’ve ever seen,” said Michael Schwartz, Brekken’s Minnesota-based attorney.

Brekken’s experience with Landgraf illustrates what critics have said about Landgraf’s role in the newest Democrat-led investigation of Wisconsin conservatives: Driven by arrogance and a driving belief that the end justifies the means, he’s willing to flout the law he is sworn to defend.

The Wisconsin judge who earlier this year ruled on Brekken’s lawsuit against Landgraf harshly criticized the prosecutor, asserting Landgraf was “behaving badly, probably for political reasons.”

Despite that, the judge dismissed the case on technical grounds, so Brekken is appealing. He’s seeking unspecified damages for false imprisonment and abuse of process.

Landgraf, who helped run at least two politically driven John Doe cases during the past three and a half years, says Brekken got what was coming to him, that his day in jail was the price he paid for thumbing his nose at a lawful subpoena.

And besides, the prosecutor said, investigators ultimately got their man – not Brekken, but Kevin Kavanaugh, a one-time customer at Brekken’s motorcycle dealership.

Kavanaugh, a former appointee of Gov. Scott Walker, when Walker was Milwaukee County executive, was eventually convicted and sentenced to two years in prison for pilfering more than $51,000 from a county program designed to help veterans and their families.

Landgraf is unapologetic about jailing Brekken.

“What difference does it make?” Landgraf shrugged. “We ultimately got the information and the details we needed.”

To catch a thief

Ironically, it was Walker’s office that first brought concerns about bookkeeping practices at the veterans program to the district attorney’s attention.

Critics say Landgraf and his boss, Democrat District Attorney John Chisholm, seized on Walker’s concerns as an opportunity to attack Walker and fellow conservatives.

And, the critics say, Landgraf and Chisholm ended up producing collateral damage among innocent people — people like Christopher Brekken.

In the course of their probe, investigators learned that Kavanaugh had used a credit card on July 24, 2010, to make purchases totaling $107.26 from Brekken’s Harley-Davidson shop.

Nettesheim

Nettesheim

According to Schwartz and court records, retired Appeals Court Judge Neal Nettesheim, who presided over the John Doe probe, issued a Sept. 22, 2010, subpoena seeking copies of records “detailing the full credit card number” Kavanaugh used for the retail purchase. Satisfying that request would violate state privacy laws, as well as credit card association regulations.

Landgraf says Brekken didn’t bother to respond, that he “thumbed his nose” at the subpoena.

Schwartz said the prosecutor contacted Brekken via phone, and the businessman said he had no intention of giving out a customer’s credit card number, that he didn’t care who Landgraf was. Then he hung up on the prosecutor.  That “ticked off” Landgraf, Schwartz said.

Landgraf disputes that. He told Wisconsin Reporter he had no contact with Brekken before the day of the arrest.

At 7 a.m. on Oct. 19, 2010, the Barron County sheriff showed up at the Rice Lake dealership and arrested Brekken on a bench warrant.

Schwartz said his client sat in jail long after he had faxed investigators basic and allowable information about the credit card. Landgraf apparently wasn’t satisfied. He wanted the credit card number.

“He said, ‘You get us this credit card information and we’ll get your client out of jail,’” Schwartz said.

Here’s the problem: Retailers, by law, cannot retain their customers’ full credit card information.

“(Landgraf’s) response was that my client should put pressure on his bank or his credit card company and get it for me. Our response was that, by law, we can’t have it. Landgraf’s response was, ‘Figure out a way to get it,’” Schwartz said.

The assistant district attorney disputes the account, but the subpoena and the warrant clearly state the prosecutor’s demand for the credit card information.

A state law in effect months before Brekken received the subpoena bars retailers from maintaining credit card numbers — a law designed to limit access to, and fraudulent use of, the account information. The credit card industry has had safeguard practices in place for several years. Those Payment Card Industry Data Security Standards include fines of up to $100,000 per month to retailers who don’t comply, and offenders can be held financially responsible for fraud.

Schwartz said Landgraf, as an assistant DA, should have been familiar with the law.

Landgraf said the law had only been on the books for a short time, but he stopped short of saying that he did not know the law, and said he could not speak to what the other prosecutors in the probe knew.

He brushed off questions about whether prosecutors and the judge ignored the state’s credit card law.

“The point is Mr. Brekken was in possession of valuable information to the investigation, he was issued a subpoena seeking that information … and he thumbed his nose at the John Doe judge,” Landgraf said.

Brekken was released from jail after he agreed to testify in a secret proceeding in Milwaukee County court — five hours away. In the end, Schwartz said, Brekken provided only the information he had already offered Landgraf.

No matter, said Landgraf. His investigators ultimately followed Schwartz’s advice, tracking the credit card information through Kavanaugh’s credit card issuer.

Kavanaugh was one of six people convicted in what some now call John Doe One, the Democrat-led Milwaukee County DA’s wide-ranging investigation into Walker’s former aides and associates during his days as Milwaukee County executive.

Brekken ultimately sued Landgraf. Barron County Judge Timothy Doyle in March ruled on the jurisdiction of the case. He called the “underlying circumstances” of Brekken’s lawsuit “unfortunate.”

“Obviously, a lot of what happened here was politically motivated and not — the conduct described is nothing that we as Wisconsinites should be proud of, bottom line,” the judge said in a court filing. “Mr. Landgraf was behaving badly, probably for political reasons.”

Doyle did, however, throw out the litigation, ruling that because assistant district attorneys are state employees, Brekken’s notice of claim should have been filed with the state, not in Milwaukee County. Brekken has appealed.

And while he softened his stance by the conclusion of the hearing, the judge said, “Given the timing and given the underlying investigation that Mr. Landgraf was working on, I guess I felt comfortable observing that there was politics in play here, and I don’t take that back.”

Doyle, appointed to the court by former Democratic Gov. Jim Doyle, retired this past summer and moved out of state.

He could not be reached for comment.

‘Unfortunate’

Brekken’s lawsuit and its charges of prosecutorial abuse come as conservatives raise questions about the latest politically charged John Doe investigation pushed by Landgraf and Chisholm.

In the most recent case, Chisholm and Landgraf have targeted state conservatives and even such national groups as Americans for Prosperity, Club for Growth and the Republican Governors Association, multiple sources have told Wisconsin Reporter. The latest Doe, sources say, began in early 2012, even as Landgraf and crew were working on John Doe One, and two and a half years after Landgraf had jailed Brekken on the way to seeking Kavanaugh’s arrest.

Though gagged by provisions of subpoenas sought by Landgraf and others, several sources have 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. The sources have asked to remain anonymous due to their proximity to the investigation or to people connected to it.

Late last month, Wisconsin Reporter learned that subpoenas issued in the probe required responses “in person or in writing” from “about 100 people” by Oct. 29. A court hearing was postponed after the presiding judge in the case recused herself.

Milwaukee County Sheriff David A. Clarke has blasted the secret investigations as politically motivated, “unbridled,” “dangerous,” and “tainted.”

Landgraf told the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel in September that Doyle had not been properly informed. If he had been, Doyle would not have “made the comments that he made about my character,” the prosecutor said.

Landgraf asked Nettesheim, the judge in John Doe One, to open the previously sealed subpoenas, showing the focus was on Kavanaugh, not on Walker.

Chisholm, according to the Journal-Sentinel, apparently called the retired judge at his home in New Mexico to complain.

But insisting that politics didn’t touch the investigation is naïve or disingenuous, critics insist. The secret probe certainly didn’t happen in a vacuum. There were countless leaks. Those leaks led to wild speculation, including rumors that Walker was a target of the investigation. And all of that information, much of it untrue, was pumped out as an angry Democratic Party of Wisconsin campaigned to throw the governor and several Republican senators out of office in the state’s spate of recall elections.

While Schwartz has said he believes political motives played a part, he said Landgraf’s conduct raises serious questions about basic government overreach.

“This,” he said, “is a classic example of prosecutorial abuse.”

Contact M.D. Kittle at mkittle@watchdog.org

Part of 137 in the series Wisconsin's Secret War
  1. Sources: Secret probe targeting conservatives is abuse of prosecutorial powers
  2. Scary! Phantom prosecutor in Dems’ war on conservatives disappears inside courthouse
  3. EXCLUSIVE: Judge in Democrat-led John Doe probe recuses herself
  4. Democrats’ ‘intelligence-gathering’ spreads in Wisconsin
  5. Democrats tap anti-terror expert to head secret probe of Wisconsin conservatives
  6. Sheriff Clarke: John Doe case shows Milwaukee DA is ‘weaponized for political purposes’
  7. Clarke: John Doe into conservatives ‘unbridled,’ ‘dangerous’ and ‘tainted’
  8. Sources: New judge named in Democrat-led secret probe
  9. Vendetta justice? Criticism growing about John Doe prosecutor Bruce Landgraf
  10. Will Wisconsin’s own ‘Miserable’ inspector jail conservative activist for speaking out about Dem probe?
  11. Conservative targets bring in big guns to Democrat-led John Doe fight
  12. ‘Dangerous’ game: Former FEC official blasts Democrats’ secret investigation of conservative groups
  13. Center for Media and Democracy: Liberals are morally superior
  14. Wisconsin Dems suddenly support political investigations
  15. WI Republican attorney general to represent judges in Democrat-led John Doe probe
  16. Republicans speak out about silent John Doe targeting conservatives
  17. Biggest secret in John Doe may be just how judges and special prosecutors are selected
  18. WSJ: John Doe judge deals body blow to secret probe targeting conservatives
  19. Vos: Wait until John Doe in ‘rearview mirror’ before revisiting law
  20. Lawsuits looming in Wisconsin’s crumbling John Doe probe?
  21. Conservative to Democrat prosecutors: Shut down secret political probe or face civil rights lawsuit
  22. John Doe target O’Keefe taking on IRS, too
  23. Lawmaker: Wisconsin’s John Doe like Christie’s ‘Bridgegate’
  24. Target files civil rights lawsuit against Wisconsin’s John Doe prosecutors
  25. Disparate treatment: Civil rights lawsuit claims conservative speech trampled
  26. Liberal group looking to take Wisconsin’s John Doe national
  27. John Doe judge: ‘Results of the John Doe speak for themselves’
  28. John Doe special prosecutor appeals judge’s ruling quashing subpoenas
  29. John Doe prosecutor pushed for brain-damaged man’s conviction in ATF debacle
  30. Conservatives counterpunch John Doe prosecutors’ move to stall injunction
  31. Shadowy John Doe investigator invokes federalism in civil rights lawsuit
  32. John Doe prosecutors wanted higher-priced lawyers, source says
  33. Secret agent Dean Nickel’s defense: ‘Dean Nickel is not responsible’
  34. D’oh! John Doe prosecutors claim secrecy protection – after filing secret documents
  35. Recusal in John Doe case raises questions of fairness, purpose
  36. Absolute immunity makes it tough to prosecute the prosecutors of John Doe
  37. Poll suggests Dems’ big ‘secret’ weapon against Walker is backfiring
  38. ‘Easy target': Kelly Rindfleisch breaks silence about John Doe probe
  39. SCOTUS ruling on campaign finance shows abuse of John Doe, targets say
  40. Nobody will say what John Doe’s shadow man did, but taxpayers are paying his legal bill
  41. Judge denies John Doe prosecutors’ move to dismiss civil rights suit
  42. Civil rights expert: John Doe law is ‘un-American,’ like something from ‘Nazi Germany’
  43. Target: John Doe prosecutors making up campaign law as they go along
  44. John Doe, as it is being used, must go, WI senator says
  45. John Doe target says prosecutors latest move another delay tactic
  46. John Doe prosecutors sound defensive in latest court filings
  47. Federal judge denies John Doe prosecutors’ motion to stall civil rights case
  48. Media coalition asks judge to open sealed John Doe documents
  49. Are John Doe prosecutors sweating out federal judge’s decision?
  50. John Doe is dead: Judge stops WI prosecutors’ probe into conservatives
  51. This is what the Fourth Amendment looks like?
  52. What’s next for now-defunct John Doe probe?
  53. Appeals court stalls judge’s order halting John Doe probe
  54. Federal judge’s ruling could open up sealed John Doe records
  55. Federal judge orders John Doe probe shut down again
  56. Lawmakers call for review of GAB’s secret John Doe activities, funds
  57. Lawyers, lawyers everywhere and other dispatches from John Doe Land
  58. Secret’s out: The world is beginning to learn more about WI’s John Doe
  59. Still their little secret? Questions remain on John Doe gag order
  60. Appeals Court declares portions of Wisconsin campaign finance law unconstitutional
  61. John Doe prosecutors suddenly support opening sealed court records
  62. Expert: It’s as if GAB decided ‘Citizens United didn’t exist’
  63. John Doe prosecutors voice phony outrage, legal source says
  64. GAB still reviewing court ruling declaring WI campaign finance law unconstitutional
  65. State Farm still doesn’t want to cover John Doe prosecutor’s legal bills
  66. For the Walker-hating left, John Doe is ‘Mission Accomplished’
  67. Sources: No urgency in WI Supreme Court on John Doe
  68. Would Walker settlement with John Doe prosecutors be a deal with the devil?
  69. Contempt questions surround reported John Doe deal talks
  70. Walker’s John Doe response raises more questions than answers
  71. Sources: Attorney General passes on defending GAB in John Doe cases
  72. Attorney to judge: Don’t let John Doe prosecutor ‘moot’ injunction
  73. John Doe targets sue Wisconsin’s Government Accountability Board
  74. Federal judge says his order halting John Doe probe should be clear to prosecutor
  75. John Doe special prosecutor’s bill still shrouded in secrecy
  76. ‘Are these kind of armed pre-dawn raids standard operating procedure?’
  77. John Doe special prosecutor obeys judge’s order
  78. ‘Never-ending’ John Doe never ended, WSJ reports
  79. Appeals court upholds judge’s order shutting down John Doe probe
  80. O’Keefe keeps collecting big wins in John Doe lawsuit
  81. John Doe I judge says he’s not responsible for John Doe II
  82. Will taxpayers have to pay for frivolity of John Doe prosecutors?
  83. John Doe prosecutors jump back into the dark?
  84. What about those prosecutors? Questions surround other John Doe DAs
  85. Humiliated in court, WI Dems take their anti-conservative John Doe probe to the media
  86. Federal judge blasts John Doe prosecutors – again – as he denies records release
  87. Right on cue: Document dump fuels anti-Walker donation drive
  88. Wall Street Journal points out ‘disgrace’ of mainstream John Doe reporting
  89. Expert: John Doe raids raise ‘troubling’ Fourth Amendment questions
  90. Kelly Rindfleisch tells conservatives, ‘Don’t back down’
  91. Mainstream media forced to walk back Walker ‘criminal scheme’ narrative
  92. John Doe prosecutors engaged in premature justification, conservatives say
  93. Is John Doe probe a case of a mini NSA in Wisconsin?
  94. AG opinion means accountability board’s John Doe secrets are safe — for now
  95. Senator asks attorney general to compel GAB to open up its books
  96. GAB now playing secrets in state John Doe lawsuit
  97. Will John Doe prosecutors launch lengthy probe against Trek Bicycle?
  98. John Doe prosecutors engaged in war of words — lots and lots of words
  99. Judge denies conservatives’ request to add GAB to civil rights lawsuit
  100. Oral arguments set in John Doe prosecutors’ appeal
  101. In John Doe Land, the left doesn’t illegally coordinate
  102. John Doe document blitz must have broken mainstream media’s heart
  103. Senator: Looks like accountability board is hiding something
  104. Kelly Rindfleisch appeal to test validity of John Doe digital searches
  105. Conservatives in John Doe battle know disclosure comes with a heavy price
  106. Appeals court orders release of some John Doe documents
  107. Taxpayers on the hook up to $25,000 for GAB’s legal maneuvers
  108. Overheated media erroneously bring back Walker ‘criminal scheme’ theme
  109. ‘Retaliation': Docs show state prosecutors launched mini-NSA probe of WI conservatives
  110. John Doe prosecutors take desperate, unethical slap
  111. Walker ‘smoking gun’ story has tiny glaring flaw
  112. Wisconsin prosecutors aim to shut down conservatives
  113. Conservatives appeal to common sense in John Doe appeals case
  114. Conservatives say ‘incorrect disclosure’ of John Doe docs no ‘tiny error’
  115. First Amendment big guns back targets of John Doe probe
  116. Was John Doe judge a rubber stamp?
  117. $25,000 and counting: WI taxpayers’ bill so far to defend GAB and its ‘monster’
  118. Another blow for Wisconsin’s restrictive campaign finance law
  119. Wisconsin prosecutors appeal for protection from blowback in partisan probe
  120. Is John Doe story colored with a bit of ‘Macbeth?’
  121. GAB director says agency just following the law in John Doe probe
  122. Kelly Rindfleisch: Where are the tears for the kids the Milwaukee school system failed?
  123. Rindfleisch attorney: Appeals court can protect the Fourth Amendment in Digital Age
  124. Source: Wisconsin Supreme Court doesn’t want political heat of John Doe case
  125. Appeals court reverses John Doe injunction, but Wisconsin’s secret war far from over
  126. A whistleblower’s story: Taking on a ‘hyper-partisan’ district attorney
  127. Conservative O’Keefe seeks investigation into John Chisholm and his John Doe
  128. Who’s paying the bill? Report casts questions on GAB and John Doe payments
  129. Target of secret John Doe probe is fighting back and speaking out
  130. The day John Doe rushed through the door
  131. Rindfleisch: ‘Rape’ not too strong a word for how violated John Doe targets feel
  132. Conservative group asks court to stop John Doe ‘constitutional injury’
  133. Conservatives to appeals court: ‘You don’t know Doe’
  134. Armed and growing: Milwaukee County DA beefs up his ‘police force’
  135. Federal judge stops John Doe prosecutors from bothering conservative group
  136. Wisconsin Supreme Court takes another pass on John Doe case
  137. No surprise: Bice buries the lead, Walker follows the law

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Kittle is a 25-year veteran of radio, newspaper and online journalism. In July 2011, Kittle joined Watchdog.org as bureau chief for Wisconsin Reporter. He has spent much of the past three years covering the seismic political changes taking place in the Badger State. Last year, Kittle joined Watchdog’s national reporting team, covering everything from energy policy to governmental assaults on civil rights. Beyond being published in Wisconsin’s daily newspapers and in multimedia news outlets, Kittle’s work has appeared on Fox News, and in Human Events, Reason Magazine, Newsmax and Town Hall. His special investigation into a politically charged John Doe probe, “Wisconsin’s Secret War,” was the basis of a 2014 documentary on Glenn Beck’s TheBlaze. Kittle has made several appearances on Fox News, including “On the Record with Greta Van Susteren. He serves as weekly politics commentator for Lake 96.1 FM in Lake Geneva, and WRJN-AM 1400 in Racine. His resume includes multiple awards for journalism excellence from The Associated Press, Inland Press, Wisconsin Broadcast Association and other journalism associations. Contact Kittle at mkittle@watchdog.org.

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