By M.D. Kittle | Wisconsin Reporter
MADISON — The secret John Doe investigation into former staff members of Gov. Scott Walker turned public Thursday, when the Milwaukee County District Attorney’s Office announced felony charges against three men.
Even though the suspects have ties to the governor, Walker has not been implicated in the year-and-a-half-old probe.
Walker, who served as Milwaukee County Executive before he was elected governor in 2010, said his office tipped off the DA about missing money in funds devoted to assisting veterans and their families, particularly the survivors of service members killed in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
“I appreciate that the DA in the Milwaukee County District Attorney’s Office took those concerns seriously,” the governor said.
Charges: Stealing from vets
Milwaukee County District Attorney John Chisholm on Thursday announced a litany of charges, including embezzlement from a veterans appreciation fund to child enticement.
Tim Russell, 48, who served as Walker’s deputy chief of staff when Walker was Milwaukee County executive, was charged with two felony counts and a separate misdemeanor count of embezzlement, according to the criminal complaint.
In 2009, Walker transferred control of Operation Freedom, the County Executive Office-sponsored event to honor veterans, to Russell’s corporation, Heritage Guard Preservation Society Inc., or HGPS.
Operation Freedom, held annually around the Fourth of July at the Milwaukee County Zoo, was funded through Milwaukee County employees and private individuals.
Russell, according to the complaint, transferred $20,000 from the HGPS-administered veterans fund into his personal account. He used the money, in part, to fund vacations to Hawaii and the Caribbean, and a political trip to Atlanta, reportedly to meet with former GOP presidential candidate Herman Cain, former CEO of Godfather’s Pizza.
Russell also is accused of stealing more than $3,000 from the campaign of Chris Kujawa, who unsuccessfully ran in a special election for a Milwaukee County board seat. Russell served on Kujawa’s campaign, with full control of the campaign funding account.
Kujawa, who had loaned his campaign $3,000, in late 2007 asked Russell to repay the loan with remaining campaign cash.
“For two years, Russell ignored Mr. Kujawa’s request for repayment of his loan,” the complaint states. “After Mr. Kujawa threatened to call then county executive, Scott Walker, Mr. Kujawa was repaid.”
Prosecutors, however, allege Russell tapped into the veterans fund to reimburse Kujawa.
Russell’s longtime domestic partner, Brian Piereck, 48, was charged with one count of child endangerment and another count of exposing his genitals for an alleged online sexual relationship he had with a 17-year-old male.
The juvenile testified that Piereck, who up until Thursday, according to reports, was employed as a staff member at the state Department of Public Instruction, contacted him through an ad on the website Craig’s List.
Investigators, while searching the computer and electronic devices at the Sun Prairie home Russell shares with Piereck, found sexually explicit texts, chats and photographs, the complaint states.
Purple Heart charges
Kevin Kavanaugh, 61, of Cudahy, is charged with embezzling more than $42,000 in donations from the Military Order of the Purple Heart, or MOPH, an organization that provides support to families of service members killed or wounded in Iraq.
Kavanaugh, whom Walker appointed to the Milwaukee County Veteran Service Commission, served as finance officer for MOPH between 2006 and 2009.
Milwaukee County in August 2006 transferred Operation Freedom Funds to MOPH. Later that year, MOPH received a Thomas J. Rolfs Family Foundation donation of $20,000, earmarked for the children of Wisconsin military service members killed in Operation Iraqi Freedom and Operation Enduring Freedom.
In June 2007, the Military Order of the Purple Heart Service Foundation Inc. cut a $7,000 check to MOPH to fund the National Veterans Wheelchair Games. And from February 2008 to November 2008, former state Sen. Mark Gundrum donated his legislative salary of $28,181.38 to MOPH for wounded military veterans.
Kavanaugh “skimmed cash (from the funds) when he deposited checks into the MOPH General Account,” the complaint states, and he would split deposit checks, depositing a portion of the check proceeds and taking the remainder as cash in hand.
“Second, defendant Kavanaugh wrote numerous checks to cash and pocketed the proceeds,” notes the complaint, adding that Kavanaugh falsified records to hide the theft.
At a news conference Thursday afternoon, Walker said he was disappointed with the actions of Kavanaugh and Russell, if the allegations are true.
He distanced himself from both suspects, saying he was not “extremely familiar” with Kavanaugh, that he knew him through the veterans programs in the past.
He noted Russell had worked in Milwaukee County for many years, but Walker did not mention Russell’s involvement in his past campaigns.
Asked what effect the latest charges in the lengthy investigation would mean to the recall campaign against him, the governor said anyone can try to “twist things.”
“But I think most people will realize it was my office (while Milwaukee County executive) that brought these questions to the District Attorney’s Office,” he said.
The probe, launched in May 2010, has trained on former Walker staffers, but the so-called “smoking gun” has yet to be found that would implicate the governor in any wrongdoing.
The investigation started not long after Darlene Wink quit her county job on Walker’s staff. She admitted to posting comments online in Journal Sentinel news stories and blogs praising Walker and criticizing his political opponents — on the county clock.
Authorities seized the computers of Russell and Wink, who worked with Russell on the Operation Freedom project, as well as material from the Madison home of Cindy Archer, a former top aide for Walker.
William Gardner, president and CEO of Wisconsin & Southern Railroad Co., to date is the only person convicted in the John Doe probe. He pleaded guilty in July on two felony counts of exceeding campaign contributions to Walker’s campaign for governor and campaign money laundering.
Walker’s opponents and pundits have said the investigation appears to be closing in on the governor.
Nothing in the latest charges or the previous allegations links Walker to any impropriety.
Bruce Landgraf, Milwaukee County assistant district attorney, said the office stands on the allegations in the complaints, and individuals may draw their own conclusions from the legal documents.
The John Doe investigation continues.
“It is not completed and is still subject to the secrecy order,” Landgraf said. “To comment beyond that would be inappropriate.”