Just a few days after a triumphal speech at the Reagan library, where Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker laid out his vision of a state without taxes and a privatized school system, Walker's name came up in a different context. In the sentencing hearing of top aide Kelly Rindfleisch.
Rindfleisch had pled guilty to illegally conducting campaign fundraising activities while serving as deputy chief of staff to Walker during the time he was Milwaukee County Executive, but running for governor. Even after she was implicated in the criminal investigation, afterwards Rindfleisch continued to work on Walker's campaign.
In laying out the seriousness of Rindfleisch's crimes, Milwaukee County prosecutors handed over a two foot stack of emails and unveiled a remarkable power point presentation that put Walker in the center of a "campaign committee" where top county staff took a back seat to campaign staff.
Illegal Campaign Work While on the Government Payroll
As part of a wide-ranging "John Doe" criminal investigation into activities at the Milwaukee County Executive's office, Kelly Rindfleisch and another Walker aide were charged with criminal and misdemeanor counts of conducting partisan campaign work while on the public payroll. These charges are no joke in the state of Wisconsin, where in 2005, two Senate Democrats and the Republican Assembly Speaker were sentenced to jail time for similar crimes in an episode dubbed "the Caucus Scandal."
Rindfleisch, who reached a plea deal with prosecutors in exchange for her testimony, was sentenced to six months of jail time and three years of probation yesterday. The judge was not impressed with her apology given that she had a role in the earlier Caucus Scandal and was in a position to know that her activities were not only improper, but illegal. Another Walker aide, Darlene Wink, pled guilty earlier this fall and is awaiting sentencing for similar crimes. Yet another set of Walker aides and associates are implicated in other serious crimes, including embezzlement of funds. Walker's veteran affairs director for Milwaukee County was convicted of embezzling some $51,000 from a veteran's charity. Tim Russell, Walker's former deputy chief of staff and longtime aide, is awaiting trial for bilking the vets too, and he has been implicated as the staffer who set up a secret Wi-Fi system in Walker's office that facilitated the illegal fundraising.
It's getting a bit crowded in the Milwaukee County jail and Russell, the highest ranking Walker aide, has yet to be tried, but one person missing from the perp walk so far has been Walker himself. With his power point presentation, Milwaukee Assistant District Attorney, Bruce Landgraf, introduced a raft of new characters in the drama and put Walker in the center of it all.
Walker "Campaign Group" Coordinated County Work
In laying out Rindfleisch's crimes Landgraf described a core "Campaign Group" that included Walker, his campaign manager Keith Gilkes (later his chief of staff in the governor's office), campaign spokeswoman Jill Bader and campaign adviser R.J. Johnson. It also included several top county aides such as Cindy Archer, whose home was raided by the FBI, spokesperson Fran McLaughlin, deputy chief of staff Tim Russell, and chief of staff Tom Nardelli.
Landgraf's power point suggests that most of the gang met daily by phone and frequently in person. Gilkes and the political staff had the upper hand: "You guys are in the driver's seat," Rindfleisch wrote in an email to Gilkes. Walker campaign staff apparently directed a diversity of county business including messaging, press releases, damage control and more. Most significantly, Landgraf revealed that campaign manager Keith Gilkes instructed county staffers to "make sure there is not a piece of paper anywhere that details any problem at all" with a county parking garage after a slab of cement in the parking garage broke off killing a 15 year old boy. After the incident, the County Executive's office was inundated with open records requests. If Gilkes was ordering staffers to destroy public records, further charges may be forthcoming.
While it is not unusual for a politician's schedulers and communication directors to be in contact during an election cycle so they can coordinate the boss' activities, it is unusual to have this degree of integration between public and political staff with the political staff in the driver's seat. Whether the activities cross the line into illegal behavior is the question that Landgraf left unanswered yesterday.
Is the John Doe Winding Down or Are More Charges Anticipated?
The big question is where do we go from here?
Previously, Landgraf has said that the Rindfleisch case was solely about Kelly Rindfleisch. But for the first time yesterday, Landgraf used the power point to implicate Walker and other top aides who had not been charged. "What jumped off the page," said Rindfleisch's attorney after Landgraf's hour-long presentation, was that his client was the only one of those mentioned who's currently facing jail time.
From the few Walker emails released as part of the investigation, it appears that Walker was aware of the illegal fundraising activity taking place around him in the County Executive's office. In May 2010 when the first story broke related to the illegal campaign work, Walker sent an email to Tim Russell saying "we can't afford another story like this one... that means no more laptops, no more websites, no time away during the work day." Many speculate, that what the prosecution lacks are emails showing Walker or Gilkes directing the illegal campaign activity. Although dozens of computers appear to have been seized in Milwaukee and Madison, neither has been charged with any crimes. This has led many to speculate that records have been destroyed, and indeed it was suggested by the prosecution at one point that Darlene Wink was ready to testify about destruction of records.
Landgraf did not disclose whether Walker or any other members of the Campaign Group remained under investigation or might be charged, but Rindfleisch has agreed to testify at the trial of Tim Russell December 3, the long-time Walker loyalist central to it all. Also Wink has yet to be sentenced.
The prosecution seems involved in an elaborate move to force the little fish to give up the sharks. Only time will tell if they will succeed.