Changes in Wisconsin’s John Doe law protect corrupt politicians

Changes to Wisconsin’s John Doe law actually eliminate its value. While its GOP backers claim that all they did was preserve John Doe for what they call really big cases, not “lesser crimes” like public corruption, a Republican district attorney told me flatly, “There will never be another John Doe in this state.”

Angry Democratic legislators in Madison named it “The Corrupt Politicians Protection Act” even before Gov. Scott Walker, breathing a sigh of relief, signed it into law Oct. 23. That certainly nails the self-serving opportunism of the fearful right-wing but it doesn’t address how the real victim is the average citizen who just lost that special protection of name and reputation if they were innocent witnesses or had other information on a crime.

John Doe is the name given to an investigative process existing since territorial times in Wisconsin that insists a judge allow and oversee every step and gives the judge authority if desired to issue gag orders to prevent participants from revealing information. That is to make sure witnesses and targets are not exposed to publicity before charges are issued, though the witnesses on their own can reveal they were called – and targets, too, if they guess who they are. Of course, why would they?

Since most such investigations go after violent crimes, the DA added, “The public is really the one being robbed.”

“I guess one way to reduce crime in Wisconsin,” said another DA, “is to put out of reach activity that used to be a crime.”

Most law officers also take ferocious issue with right-wing claims they are extending free speech protections “while it actually takes them away,” said another prosecutor from GOP dominated Waukesha County.

Doesn’t it at least protect people from the dawn knock at the door to inspect their computers or other horror stories dragged out to change the law? “No,” he laughed, “it just mainly makes it harder to catch criminals moving money under the table or protect innocent parties during the hunt.”

The process is more protective to parties involved and their seized documents than the normal grand jury process, where prosecutors impanel ordinary citizens and, with looser admonishments of secrecy, let them hear the evidence and issue a bill of charges. Nationally the grand jury procedure leaks like a sieve because citizens and prosecutors in abundance have access to the information, prosecutors are not reined in by judges, reporters and lawyers are skilled at eliciting information – and punishments are minimal while in John Does they are severe.

The changes now prevent John Doe from being used in cases of political corruption or bribery of public officials. But saying it will still be allowed in larger crimes “is a farce,” the Waukesha prosecutor told me. “Look at what else they blocked.” He cited mortgage fraud, dealing small amounts of heroin or cocaine, identity theft or stealing only a few million.

 “All those are gateways,” he and other prosecutors say, for drug gangs, murder rings or large scale consumer fraud. Prosecutors may start there and, like peeling layers of onions, uncover other schemes, such as public corruption. But if you are unsure where the investigation will end, and if a probe could cross into investigations barred from John Doe procedures, no prosecutor would ever start with a John Doe.

Moreover and most unfairly, the new law allows witnesses and targets of past John Does to publicly concoct their own details of what happened while still barring prosecutors and judges from speaking. The law came about from a John Doe that was circling on illegal coordination between third party money and Walker’s recall campaign, a case thrown out by a right-wing state high court beholden to money from the investigated parties. That’s one of the self-protecting perversions that has “lit the interest” of federal courts and the U.S. Department of Justice, several legal insiders tell me, since it suggests collusion among legislators, financiers, executive branch and courts.

Wisconsin prosecutors now say they will have to revive the grand jury process to fight not only public corruption but also the full range of crimes – something more cumbersome and time consuming if you care about the quality of citizens impaneled and preventing leaks. Even so, many lawyers anticipate, innocent people who may have valuable information will know how easily they can be exposed to suspicion or ridicule and be more reluctant to participate.

This law is a fait accompli – but moving quickly through the GOP dominated state legislature are bills that would split and weaken the Government Accountability Board (supervising campaign ethics and elections) and violently rewrite the state’s campaign finance law to allow nearly unlimited giving. Again, this might bring unwarranted attention from federal courts where the size of money involved and the nature of coordination are still live issues.

That was just one October week after multiple attacks on many of the advances that had brought Wisconsin national regard as a pioneer – the civil service system, rules for public and private workers, unemployment compensation, collective bargaining, labor peace.

With both chambers controlled by Republicans eager to either protect a right wing governor or even drive him further to his right, Democrats are feeling impotent. To slow the campaign finance rewrite that directly affects every candidate for public office, they staged a mass recusal in the Assembly. This was not like refusing to vote on the state budget or “fiscal stuff like that,” noted Milwaukee Rep. Evan Goyke, “but a personal conflict of interest for a politician to rewrite the rules to favor themselves.”

But in fighting against the ugliness of these bills (many started in the bowels of ALEC and other heavily funded right-wing financial centers that provide more staff and resources than the Democrats can command), the Democrats are aware of emphasizing their own weakness. “We can come off as the ineffective gadflies delaying the inevitable,” one told me. “They’ll brand us the sort of progressive extremists that the GOP loves to poke fun at in their blogs and sneering comments. “

But though they know all this, “we will continue to fight,” noted Goyke. “We have to hope the voters will join the resistance,” said Rep. David Bowen.

Only intensity and patience bring light at the end of a long tunnel – legislative changes in 2016 can render Walker impotent and in three years with total change in state government restore Wisconsin to social sanity.

Photo: Wisconsin Republican Gov. Scott Walker. (AP Photo/Morry Gash)


Dominique Paul Noth
Dominique Paul Noth

Dominique Paul Noth for the past decade was editor of the Milwaukee Labor Press and website, He now writes as an independent journalist on culture and politics.