MILWAUKEE -- Two people, including a former close aide to Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker when he served as Milwaukee County executive, were arrested on felony theft charges Thursday as part of an ongoing criminal investigation that centers on people who served in the county during Walker's tenure.
A third person, who worked six months for the state Department of Public Instruction until being fired Thursday, was charged with two counts of felony child enticement in a case the county prosecutor said was discovered while investigating the others.
Former county housing director Tim Russell, 48, was charged with two felony and one misdemeanor embezzlement charges, according to the criminal complaint from the Milwaukee County district attorney's office.
Kevin Kavanaugh, Walker's appointee to the Milwaukee County Veteran Service Commission, was charged with one felony embezzlement charge of taking more than $10,000 from a business and four felony counts of fraudulent writings by a corporate officer.
Russell and Kavanaugh each face up to 10 years in prison if convicted of the most serious felony embezzlement charge.
The arrests come more than a year and a half after a secret investigation into people who worked in the county when Walker served as executive began in May 2010. The arrest of a close Walker aide raises more questions about the extent of the investigation and its direction as Walker faces a possible recall election motivated by anger over his proposal effectively ending collective bargaining rights for public workers.
Russell, who previously ran former Gov. Tommy Thompson's Milwaukee office, had worked for Walker's county executive office from 2002 until Walker was elected governor in 2010. Russell also worked on Walker's gubernatorial campaign but did not follow Walker to Madison.
The complaint against Russell said he stole more than $10,000 from a private entity he controlled that was supposed to benefit military veterans. The complaint said he instead used the money in part to pay for Caribbean and Hawaiian vacations.
Russell also is charged with taking $3,000 from the campaign fund of Milwaukee County Board candidate Chris Kujawa in 2007 and stealing $550 from the campaign fund of county board candidate Larry Spicer in 2010.
Russell's attorney, Mike Maistelman, said his client is innocent and looks forward to his day in court.
The criminal complaint against Kavanaugh said he embezzled at least $42,232 from the Military Order of the Purple Heart between 2006 and 2009.
The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reported in June 2010 that the district attorney was investigating the finances of Operation Freedom, an annual military appreciation event. Kavanaugh worked as treasurer at the Purple Heart chapter when it served as fiscal agent for the event in 2007.
The investigation into Operation Freedom came at the request of Walker's office, which alleged an $11,000 shortfall in a dispute with Kavanaugh's Purple Heart chapter.
A message seeking comment was left at a home listing for Kavanaugh in Cudahy. Court documents did not list an attorney.
The third person arrested Thursday was Brian Pierick, 48, who is Russell's partner. Pierick was charged with felony child enticement and exposing his genitals. He had worked as an office operations assistant at the Department of Public Instruction dealing with education for homeless children and youth since October, but was fired Thursday. Court documents did not list an attorney for Pierick.
Department spokesman Patrick Gasper would not say why Pierick was fired, but said it could be done without cause because it was within his six-month probationary period. Gasper said he worked as a secretary and had no contact with children.
A message seeking comment was left at listing for a Brian Pierick in Sun Prairie. Court documents also did not list and attorney for him.
Milwaukee County District Attorney John Chisholm said they discovered the Pierick case while investigating others.
"We go where the evidence leads us and partisan politics plays no role in any decisions made by this office," Chisholm said.
He declined to take questions at a news conference where the charges against all three men Thursday were announced.
The news of the first arrest broke as Walker was giving a speech at a Washington-based conservative think tank, and his spokesman in the governor's office said a statement would be coming from his campaign office later Thursday. Walker's campaign attorney, former U.S. attorney Steve Biskupic, did not immediately return a message.
In August 2010, Russell's work computer was seized as part of the secret probe, known as a John Doe investigation, into the county during Walker's time as executive. Investigators also searched the home of Darlene Wink, who worked as Milwaukee County constituent services coordinator under Walker and quit around the time the probe began.
Wink later admitted to posting anonymous political comments on websites and blogs while at work.
Last September, law enforcement officers raided the Madison home of Cindy Archer, who had worked for Walker at the county and followed him to Madison, where she was one of his top aides at the Department of Administration. Archer maintains she's innocent and continues to work for the Walker administration, but in a lower profile job at the Department of Children and Family Services.
Milwaukee commercial real estate broker Andrew Jensen was arrested last month in relation to the investigation, but released without any charges being filed.
In John Doe investigations, witnesses can be compelled to testify under oath about potential criminal matters. Those involved in such secret proceedings are prohibited by state law from talking publicly about them.
Walker has spoken about the probe, saying he never was contacted by prosecutors. He's also defended his integrity, saying he lives by the standards he got from his mother and father, a Baptist minister.
Two prominent Republicans, Walker's spokesman Cullen Werwie and Milwaukee County Republican Party official Roseann Dieck, have been granted immunity in the investigation.
The investigation already has resulted in one conviction.
William Gardner, president and chief executive officer of Wisconsin & Southern Railroad Co., was sentenced to two years' probation in July after being found guilty of two felonies related to exceeding state campaign donation limits and laundering campaign donations to Walker and other Wisconsin politicians.
Walker's campaign returned the $43,800 in donations Gardner had given him.