MADISON — Nearly eight years after investigators raided their homes and offices and illegally seized their possessions, the victims of Wisconsin’s unconstitutional John Doe investigation are finally being afforded the opportunity to get their property back.
But they have to pay for the privilege.
Brown County Judge Kendall M. Kelly, the last of the many John Doe judges to preside over the secret proceedings, issued an order on Aug. 4 telling the victims of the political probe they can have their stuff back. The order establishes “firm deadlines” for those who had their emails, text messages, and other records seized — unknowingly, in many cases.
“Failure to act will result in the permanent unavailability of the property described in the order, which will be destroyed by the John Doe Judge as directed by the Wisconsin Supreme Court,” the judge’s letter accompanying the order states.
Nearly a decade after one of the darkest chapters in Wisconsin history began, the final disposition of property comes as little consolation and offers no closure, said Eric O’Keefe, one of many Wisconsin conservatives targeted in what is commonly referred to as John Doe II.
“It’s so slow and so inconsiderate,” said O’Keefe, a national conservative activist whose Wisconsin Club for Growth was one of dozens of right-of-center groups hounded and harassed for years by liberal prosecutors and the state Government Accountability Board (GAB). The agency, Wisconsin’s former speech cop, was shut down by the Legislature for its many abuses of power.
O’Keefe also serves as president of the Empower Wisconsin Foundation.
On Oct. 3, 2013, law enforcement officials directed by the John Doe court at the time, conducted coordinated predawn, armed raids on the homes and offices of Wisconsin citizens. They did so under the vague, false and unconstitutional pretext of campaign finance violations. What the orchestrators of this star chamber really were after was then-Republican Gov. Scott Walker and his conservative allies.
The raids were just part of the investigation’s punishing process. Prosecutors, led by Milwaukee County Democrat District Attorney John Chisholm and the GAB agents, had already obtained millions of documents through a spying operation on the left’s political enemies. Meanwhile, the people they were persecuting were dragged through the mud in the Walker-hating state and national press.
Targets and witnesses of the probe were under a gag under. They were compelled to remain silent about the investigation, including the raids and other abusive acts, on penalty of imprisonment and hefty fines. They were forced to spend millions of dollars defending themselves in secret court proceedings.
In July 2015, the Wisconsin Supreme Court found the investigation unconstitutional. More so, the majority opinion declared the investigators had committed a “perfect storm of wrongs” on innocent people over politics. Still, not a single prosecutor, investigator, or government bureaucrat was ever held accountable for their abusive conduct.
The Supreme Court at the time ordered the possessions illegally seized to be returned to their owners. After lengthy appeals and delays, the John Doe court is finally allowing the people who had their lives turned upside down the chance to get their property back — “with all copying costs paid by” the claimants.
Salt in the wounds.
O’Keefe noted some people swept up in the Doe won’t receive the message.
“There are going to be people whose documents are destroyed before they learn that the court has them,” he said.
O’Keefe said he’s not going to request the return of his or the Wisconsin Club for Growth’s documents. He’d like to know what the investigators stole “but not enough for them to dig back through it and make a mess again.” John Doe targets endured multiple incidents of leaked professional and personal information from incompetent courts and vindictive investigators.
“When I sued them they used that as an excuse to take confidential, illegally seized documents and throw them into the public domain,” O’Keefe said. “Part of the prosecutors’ response to my asking for justice was to add insult to injury. That’s how they operate.”
O’Keefe said he will be asking the judge for things not disclosed in the document, particularly how many seizures came out of John Doe II and John Doe I — which targeted Walker when he served as Milwaukee County Executive and was a candidate for governor. Such information would not violate any existing secrecy order, O’Keefe said, and it would let taxpayers know “just how diligently the government worked for so many years on this spying operation to take out a political opponent.”
He said one of the richest ironies of what has been described as “Wisconsin’s shame” is that John Doe prosecutors harassed and intimidated so many conservatives based on an unfounded theory of coordination and campaign finance disclosure.
“These guys talk about disclosure. They spent millions of dollars in taxpayer money and years of effort on a a secret political campaign to destroy our political operation and Scott Walker and others, pretending (it was about) disclosure with this secret investigation while they were gagging us, hiding the tax money,” O’Keefe said.
“Everything here is upside down.”