Ethics Commission faults AG Brad Schimel for ‘omissions’ in John Doe leak report

MADISON — The Wisconsin Ethics Commission on Tuesday faulted Attorney General Brad Schimel for "omissions and inaccuracies" in his investigation of leaked documents collected during a now-closed probe into Gov. Scott Walker.

The commission, in a letter from its chairman David Halbrooks and vice-chair Katie McCallum, called on the Republican Schimel to issue a statement acknowledging that the commission and its staff fully cooperated with his investigation into the leak. Halbrooks, who is a Democrat, and McCallum, a Republican, also refuted assertions in Schimel's report that security is lax at the commission.

But Schimel, in his response letter, said they were "not serious concerns."

Gov. Scott Walker

Schimel last week released the results of a year-long investigation into how 1,300 pages of secret documents collected during the John Doe probe into Walker was leaked to a newspaper in 2016. Schimel recommended that six former employees of the former Government Accountability Board and three employees of the Milwaukee County district attorney's office face contempt of court charges for violating court secrecy orders and mishandling evidence collected.

The John Doe investigation into Walker's 2012 recall campaign was similar to a grand jury in that the proceedings and evidence collected were expected to remain secret.

The Wisconsin Supreme Court in 2015 halted the investigation, determining that coordination between Walker and conservative outside groups during the 2011 and 2012 recall elections was legal. Millions of pages of emails and other documents were seized by investigators from Republican office holders, operatives, staff members, fundraisers and others during the investigation.

CLICK HERE to read the Ethics Commission's letter

CLICK HERE to read Schimel's response

CLICK HERE to read the Supreme Court of Wisconsin's opinion in this case

CLICK HERE for further coverage of the two "John Doe" investigations involving Governor Scott Walker

CLICK HERE to read more documents related to the case

Schimel's investigation looked into how some of those documents were leaked to the Guardian U.S. in September 2016, weeks before the U.S. Supreme Court was set to decide whether to take the case.

The Ethics Commission said in its letter that Schimel failed to acknowledge "major security improvements" put in place after the GAB was dissolved in 2015. The Ethics and Elections commissions replaced the GAB.

One new security protocol allows for the identification of any Ethics Commission staff member who accesses data, the commission wrote.

Schimel determined that the leak of information came from the GAB, but he couldn't identify the person who leaked it to the newspaper.

The attorney general found emails that he said GAB staff had put into a file on its servers labeled "Opposition Research," confirming to some Republicans that the John Doe investigation was politically motivated.

The Ethics Commission said the "Opposition Research" file came from illegally seized data and was not the work of GAB staffers. But Schimel said that "cannot possibly be true" and argued that the file was only renamed after the documents came into the GAB's possession.

The Ethics Commission also faults Schimel for questioning why Ethics commissioners and staff did not report a crime when the Guardian published the leaked documents. No one at the commission had knowledge of the leaked documents before they were published and therefore could not have identified that a crime occurred, the letter said.

Brad Schimel

The commission also wrote that Schimel was wrong to claim that Ethics Commission Administrator Brian Bell and attorney David Buerger invoked their Fifth Amendment right to counsel before they were questioned by Justice Department agents earlier this year. It was actually members of the commission, not Bell and Buerger, who requested that counsel be present, it wrote.

Neither is recommended for discipline in Schimel's report. But Republican state Sen. Steve Nass has called for Bell, Buerger and the leaders of the Elections Commission to resign in the wake of Schimel's report.

Finally, the commission faulted Schimel for implying that the commission and its staff didn't comply with Justice Department records requests. The commission said it promptly complied.

Brian Fraley, a Republican strategist whose emails were seized in the investigation, said he did not believe the Ethics Commission's explanation and called on several current and former state employees named in the report to testify before the Legislature about what they know.

"The members of the GAB were engaging in what -- in their wildest fantasies -- they accused conservatives of: using state authority, using state resources, to conduct a massive political operation against people they disagree with," Fraley said in an interview in his Brookfield office after the Ethics Commission released its letter.

Fraley said he still did not know what emails the John Doe investigators took or what happened to them. He said other Wisconsin Republicans were in the same position.

"Right now, there are thousands of people across Wisconsin saying, who’s watching the watchdogs? That is a question that the Ethics and Elections commissions have to address," he said.