How Wisconsin Prosecutors Used State Power to Silence Patriots

Published August 5, 2016

In its continuing series of free Wednesday night events, The Heartland Institute on July 27 served as host to Eric O’Keefe on his topic, “The Use of State Power to Silence Patriots.” [Watch the presentation at the top of the sidebar at right.]

For much of the past 35 years O’Keefe, a Libertarian, has encouraged the establishment of independent political organizations to hold politicians accountable. One such organization was the Wisconsin Club for Growth, which played a large role in supporting Gov. Scott Walker’s reform of union regulations in 2011 and 2012. That support led to O’Keefe becoming a target of Milwaukee County prosecutor John Chisholm’s so-called “John Doe” investigations of conservative groups and individuals in the Badger State.

In turn, O’Keefe made himself the lead plaintiff in federal and state lawsuits to halt the sweeping government abuses which were part of the John Doe investigations – which were conducted in secret and without the targets being able to solicit help from family, friends, and even lawyers.

O’Keefe likewise serves as a member of the Board of Directors of Citizens for Self-Governance, a national organization supporting a Convention of States to invoke Article V to amend the U.S. Constitution (ConCon). There is, however, an organized push-back against the movement and what it hopes to achieve. [Full disclosure: I had this article published at Illinois Review on why ConCon is a bad idea.] 

What Is a ‘John Doe’ Investigation?

See this link for background information regarding the so-called John Doe investigations in Wisconsin. From that link:

  • In Wisconsin, a John Doe investigation is the equivalent of a grand jury probe, only without jurors.
  • The first John Doe probe in 2011 looked at whether Gov. Walker’s staff, while he was a Milwaukee County executive, did campaign work during their county work shifts. 
  • A second John Doe probe was launched by prosecutors in August 2012 to look into potential unlawful Walker campaign activity. The investigation, now stalled by legal wrangling, is trying to determine whether his 2012 recall campaign illegally collaborated with independent groups. So far no charges have been filed against Walker.

George Will Called John Doe the Nastiest Political Tactic of 2014

The media went all out in covering the John Doe investigations in Wisconsin that violated the civil liberties of conservatives. Conservatives who were engaged in Wisconsin political debates were subject to pre-dawn home raids, dozens of subpoenas, and a smear campaign. All were conducted by Chisholm and his political allies. As noted above and explained in his talk at Heartland, O’Keefe led the effort to terminate the assault by defying a secrecy order and taking the story to the Wall Street Journal. He then organized several lawsuits against the prosecution team to put an end to the egregious, unconstitutional investigations.

The following is what George Will called the nastiest political tactic this year, in an Oct. 24, 2014 Washington Post column:     

“The early-morning paramilitary-style raids on citizens’ homes were conducted by law enforcement officers, sometimes wearing bulletproof vests and lugging battering rams, pounding on doors and issuing threats. Spouses were separated as the police seized computers, including those of children still in pajamas. Clothes drawers, including the children’s, were ransacked, cellphones were confiscated and the citizens were told that it would be a crime to tell anyone of the raids.”

George Will – who felt the need to leave the Republican Party when Trump became the GOP’s presidential nominee – described how Chisholm targeted dozens of conservative activists in his John Doe investigations, which began when Walker defeated a national union effort to oust him. The probe had to do with whether there was illegal coordination between the governor and the conservatives targeted in the raid over supposed violations of campaign finance law.

The Probes Themselves Were Corrupt

In his Heartland talk, O’Keefe explained how Chisholm abused Wisconsin’s John Doe investigation process to launch utterly corrupt, sweeping, and virtually unsupervised investigations of conservatives. Gag orders were imposed and subpoenas issued to prevent Chisholm’s targets from defending themselves or rebutting politically motivated leaks. Chisholm’s aim was achieved: It had a chilling effect on conservative speech. But O’Keefe did noted that it wasn’t just the force of law (the gag order) that kept the targets silent. They had to also think about their families and their jobs. Just the intimidation – and public humiliation of the raids – could destroy their lives. Nevertheless, it was shocking to hear that such tactics were happening here in America. Other states have similar John Doe investigatory powers, but they have not been abused at the scale seen in Wisconsin.

In September 2014, O’Keefe asked for a special prosecutor to look into Chisholm’s secret probe of alleged campaign finance allegations during the 2011 and 2012 recall campaigns. In the complaint, and a separate civil litigation, O’Keefe alleged Chisholm, a Democrat, had committed misconduct in office by conducting a political vendetta against conservatives. O’Keefe told the Heartland audience what he really thinks was behind the John Doe investigations: Chisholm’s wife is a teacher and union member, and the district attorney was angry about Walker’s repeal of most collective bargaining for public employees. 

Chisholm: Too Powerful to be Investigated?

O’Keefe said he didn’t expect Chisholm to accept an outside investigation into his conduct and conflict of interest, and he found nearly 50 elected district attorneys from around Wisconsin also declined a request to investigate him. The United States Supreme Court wouldn’t intervene, either, ruling in May 2015 that it is up to the Wisconsin Supreme Court, which put the investigations on temporary hold, if they should be struck down altogether.

What are the broader implications? The goal has always been about damaging Walker and removing him from office. And worse still, it’s part of a broader national campaign to silence conservative speech.

Controversy in the Heartland Q&A Session 

It was during the Q&A session when O’Keefe’s answer to a question from an audience member created a stir among some in the room, including me. O’Keefe’s admitted that he had put together “Delegates Unbound” at the Republican National Convention in Cleveland – a failed attempt to have all bound delegates vote their conscience (presumably against Donald Trump) on the first ballot. O’Keefe said if his effort succeeded, Sen. Ted Cruz would have been nominated over Trump. O’Keefe didn’t mince words in railing against the Republican Party and Reince Priebus for preventing the Delegates Unbound vote, thereby “ignoring the will of the people.” 

View the YouTube video of the live-stream of the event here, and visitHeartland’s events page for future free talks.

Coming Events at The Heartland Institute

Jim Lakely, Communication Director at The Heartland Institute, introduced Eric O’Keefe and later fielded questions directed to O’Keefe by those watching the live-stream. Prior to introducing O’Keefe, Lakely had four “housecleaning” items to celebrate and share:

1.  The Heartland Institute has a redesigned website. Please check it out!

2.  The Michael Parry Mazur Memorial Library was touted as the newest addition to The Heartland Institute. It has the best collection of books on free markets, economics, and liberty anywhere in the Midwest. 

3.   If you are a young conservative or libertarian considering a career in the free-market movement, spend 10 weeks working side-by-side with others who share your interests in Heartland’s internship program

4.  Heartland’s 32nd Anniversary Benefit Dinner featuring P.J. O’Rourke will be held on Thursday, September 15, 2016, at The Cotillion, Palatine, Illinois.

[Originally published at Illinois Review]