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Lawmakers call for review of GAB’s secret John Doe activities, funds

By   /   May 8, 2014  /   No Comments

Part 56 of 100 in the series Wisconsin's Secret War

By M.D. Kittle | Wisconsin Reporter

MADISON, Wis. – In the wake of growing concerns about the legality of a secret John Doe probe into conservatives, two Republican lawmakers say it’s time to “turn over some rocks and do a thorough review” of the state Government Accountability Board – particularly examining the agency’s role in the politically charged investigation.

“I would say as a legislator there are a lot of questions out there,” state Sen. Tom Tiffany, R-Hazelhurst, told Wisconsin Reporter Thursday.

“After seeing these activities in conjunction with the John Doe, I think this government needs to review GAB, get some answers, and consider reforms, if necessary, in the next legislative session,” he said.

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A CLOSER LOOK: Two Republican lawmakers say they want a review of the Government Accountability Board, the state’s campaign and elections watchdog, in light of growing concerns over the agency’s involvement in a politically charged John Doe probe into conservatives. PHOTO: AP

The accountability board, which oversees Wisconsin campaign and election laws, has been tight-lipped about its involvement in the five-county investigation into dozens of conservative organizations. But court documents in recent months have shed more light on the GAB’s role, beginning with its shadowy contracted investigator, Dean Nickel

GAB’s role efforts first came to light in November, when the Wall Street Journal reported on court records it had obtained that showed Nickel, former head of the state Department of Justice’s Public Integrity Unit, signed off on the affidavits asserting probable cause for search warrants. In the early morning hours of Oct. 3, 2013, law enforcement officials pounded on doors of the homes of multiple conservatives around the state, in what sources have described to Wisconsin Reporter as “paramilitary-style raids.”

Investigators seized business papers, computer equipment, phones and other devices. During these very bright, very noisy raids, these conservatives, targeted in a secret John Doe probe launched by a Democrat district attorney, were “restrained under police supervision and denied the ability to contact their attorneys,” according to a federal judge’s order this week.

Nickel, along with Milwaukee County District Attorney John Chisholm, two of his assistant DAs, and John Doe Special Prosecutor Francis Schmitz, are defendants in a civil rights lawsuit brought by conservative activist Eric O’Keefe and the Wisconsin Club for Growth, both targets of the nearly three-year probe.

U.S. District Court Judge Rudolph Randa this week – on two separate occasions – issued a preliminary injunction shutting down the John Doe. Randa’s ruling raises serious questions about the prosecutors’ probe, their potential abuse of power, and their understanding of campaign finance law.

Last month, Nickel filed documents in the U.S. District Court Eastern District of Wisconsin in Milwaukee claiming that the GAB authorized the John Doe probe.

Nickel said the accountability board approved the five-county probe on a 5-to-nothing vote. He said such approval, plus substantial evidence gathered refutes the “witch-hunt theory” by the Wisconsin Club for Growth.

Prosecutors have pursued a theory that the conservative organizations illegally coordinated with Gov. Scott Walker’s campaign during Wisconsin’s partisan recall campaigns. Randa said their interpretation is “simply wrong.”

State Rep. Dave Craig, R-Town of Vernon, who along with Tiffany is proposing a thorough review of the GAB, told Wisconsin Reporter that too much disturbing information about the John Doe probe and the accountability board’s role in it has surfaced in recent months.

“When you’re reading of people having their homes basically ransacked, of investigators scaring these people’s children, that’s something we should be concerned about,” he said. “My concern is, has the law been complied with?”

Beyond the civil liberties’ concerns, Craig and Tiffany say, are the fiscal questions that GAB has not answered. How much is all this costing Wisconsin taxpayers?

Craig said that question was driven home  in a Wisconsin Reporter investigative report on  Nickel, noting the state is paying the contracted sleuth’s legal bills, but the public has no idea just what Nickel has done.

A state contract obtained by Wisconsin Reporter shows Madison lawyer Patrick J. Fiedler was appointed Nickel’s attorney. Fiedler is to be paid $175 per hour, at a blended attorney rate, which is hourly fee generally based on the average rate of two or more lawyers working on a case. The attorney’s bill cannot exceed $25,000, according to the contract, effective Feb. 7.

Asked whether his client possessed an investigator license or law enforcement certification, Fiedler told Wisconsin Reporter, “I don’t know the answer to that question one way or the other.”

A review of state records could find no proof that Nickel has an inspector’s license or certification to work as a law enforcement officer in the state.

“My biggest concern is, are they (the GAB) spending taxpayers’ dollars wisely?” Tiffany said. “What I understand, basically, is they have an open checkbook.  “As fiscal hawk I don’t think any agency should have open checkbook. We need answers into the activities of Dean Nickel and how money is being spent by the GAB.”

The agency’s biennial budget for 2013-2015 is around $14 million.

As of Thursday, the agency has spent $2,038,041.21, the vast majority of that, $1,550,073.04, on Professional and Contractual Services, according to OpenBook Wisconsin, the state expenditure tracking website.

Between Aug. 16, 2013 and March, GAB made 25 separate payments, totaling $55,584.20,from its general funds– each transaction listed to “name withdrawn.”

The website explains why some Employee names are not listed for some transactions.

“The names of some state employees have been redacted to protect their safety and welfare. For example, there are undercover officers in the Division of Criminal Investigation, and including their name would blow the agents’ cover. These transactions have a vendor of ‘Name withdrawn’ listed instead.”

As conservative news organization Media Trackers reported earlier this year, for fiscal year 2013, the OpenBook database lists 15 transactions by the GAB to a “name withdrawn” in the contracted legal services category. The payments totaled $42,034.45.

GAB spokesman Reid Magney told Wisconsin Reporter that GAB would not comment on the lawmakers’ call for a review of the agency.

Magney on many occasions has said that state law prohibits the accountability board from talking about its investigative activities.

In April, he pointed to the state statute, which prohibits GAB from disclosing any information related to investigations. “Were I to respond, I could be charged with a felony and face nine months in jail, a $10,000 fine or both,” Magney said.

Tiffany asserts GAB’s investigations wouldn’t be impeded by the taxpayers’ right to know how the agency spends all of its money.

“It really appears that there’s something to hide,” he said. “We as a legislature must do something.”

Milwaukee County prosecutors, too, have refused to release the costs of their John Doe investigations into conservatives over the past four years. They have told Wisconsin Reporter those costs would be impossible to track.

Craig said taxpayer money spent must be reportable to the elected representatives of the people, particularly money used in secret investigations.

“For that to be thrown up as an obstacle, I say that part of the law does need to be changed,” Craig said. He said he wants to know whether there is a limitation on the amount of money that the GAB can spend, or if the agency has a blank check. Craig expects that answer by Friday.

But the representative insists he isn’t in a rush to change Wisconsin’s unique John Doe law, which features an investigative procedure that is much like a grand jury process, without the benefit of a jury of peers. One judge invested with extraordinary power to compel witness to testify presides over the probes, which often are conducted through strict secrecy orders.

State Sen. Glenn Grothman, R-West Bend, last month told Wisconsin Reporter that he will work to change the law next legislative session, if he’s still in a position to do so.

“If I’m still in Madison and I am (still) chairman of the Judiciary Committee, I will look at the John Doe law,” he said, adding that he doesn’t support gutting the law, but amending it.

“I think there is a purpose for the John Doe, but I think it’s gone way over the top.”

Grothman is running for the 6th District Congressional seat being vacated by long-time U.S. Rep. Tom Petri, R-Fond du Lac.

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

Part of 100 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

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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.