By M.D. Kittle | Wisconsin Watchdog
MADISON, Wis. – The Government Accountability Board staff involved in Wisconsin’s infamous John Doe investigation spent more than 2,500 hours engaged in what the GAB’s top administrator has described as a “parallel” probe, according to documents obtained by Wisconsin Watchdog.
That doesn’t account for the many untold hours GAB staff spent on the investigation before agency director and general counsel Kevin Kennedy admonished the attorneys to begin charting their hours.
More so, the documented time amounts to $107,715.08 spent on the specialized labor between 2013 and 2015, based on the salaries of the six GAB employees and the percentage of their time devoted to the politically charged John Doe. Another $14,879.80 was not documented.
“I think this should give taxpayers and members of the Legislature grave concerns as to how that agency has been run,” said state Rep. Dave Craig, R-Town of Vernon.
Craig spent months trying to get the GAB to fill his public records request. He sought a full accounting of the taxpayer money the agency spent on its involvement in the John Doe, and the communications and calendars of GAB staff related to their work with the prosecutors in the Milwaukee County District Attorney’s office.
After much resistance and foot-dragging, Craig was forced to ask the attorney general’s office to intervene. Kennedy reluctantly released some of the information requested, particularly the financials. He continues to balk on the communications, asserting John Doe secrecy orders prevent him from doing so. This, despite the fact that the Legislature late last year reformed Wisconsin’s old John Doe and removed the gag order on closed investigations.
Craig’s office provided Wisconsin Watchdog with copies of the documents he obtained through the open records request.
“This just shows what a lawless agency this has been, where we have written them multiple times to get information, which they have slow-walked finally to us and required us to get the attorney general involved,” Craig said.
A breakdown of the hours shows six GAB staff members spent more than 2,530.1 hours on work related to the investigation.
The logs don’t include a full accounting of the untold hours spent on the probe before Sept. 25, 2013, when Kennedy informed staff that he wanted to “account for the work salaried staff is putting in on this investigation.”
“This is a big commitment of agency resources and it helps underscore the seriousness we are placing on this matter as well as offset any criticism of the amount spent from our sum sufficient account,” Kennedy wrote.
GAB staff attorney Shane Falk, who in many ways led the GAB’s work on the John Doe, sharply responded to Kennedy’s request.
“What about the months of hours we already have put in?” Falk asked.
Falk, who left the agency in the summer of 2014, spent a total 863.45 hours working on the investigation.
GAB staff attorney Nathan Judnic spent a total of 777.25 hours engaged in John Doe work, between 2013 and 2015. In 2014, more than 25 percent of his $71,000 salary paid for his time spent on the probe. That was the year targets of the illegal probe fought back and took the GAB and their prosecutorial partners in the Milwaukee County District Attorney’s office to court.
In 2013, as the GAB’s contracted special investigator was signing affidavits for the expansive search warrants used to raid the homes of several conservatives, Judnic was devoting nearly 10 percent of his time on the John Doe.
Perhaps the attorney was rewarded for his work on the political probe. His annual salary shot up from $49,027.93 in 2013 to $71,124.02 in 2015, according to state payroll records.
Kennedy logged a total of 365.4 hours on the probe, according to the time logs. A total of 13.6 percent of his $134,000 salary in 2014 involved hours devoted to the secret investigation.
Then there were the tens of thousands of dollars spent on the GAB special investigators employed in the John Doe. The GAB paid nearly $100,000 to a contractor to store the massive amounts of data collected in the illegal probe.
Kennedy warned of the mounting expenses in a May 2014 memo.
“This will be an expensive undertaking. While the board has a sum sufficient to pay for this type of action, outside factors should also be considered, i.e. political pressures, best use of state funds, timing, etc.,” the memo stated.
Still, to this day, Kennedy claims the GAB did not conduct a criminal investigation into 29 conservative groups and the campaign of Gov. Scott Walker.
He insists that the GAB performed a “parallel investigation,” within in its jurisdiction, despite a Feb. 25, 2014, email from Francis Schimitz, the investigation’s special prosecutor, to Kennedy, Falk and other GAB staff members noting the agency’s integral involvement.
“Indeed, the GAB has been actively involved in the John Doe proceedings, long before the Special Prosecutor was appointed in Aug. 2013,” Schmitz wrote.
Kennedy also has claimed the “nonpartisan” GAB did not conduct the investigation in a partisan fashion, an assertion betrayed by emails uncovered in a lawsuit against the accountability board.
The unsealed documents contain several partisan tweets sent by Judnic in February 2011, during the battle over Walker’s public employee collective bargaining reform bill known as Act 10.
“Stand in solidarity. Kill the bill. Support public employees and their right to bargain. Rally @ Capitol @ noon Tues. and Wed,” he wrote in one tweet.
“Time for some good old-fashioned rallying. Tuesday and Wednesday @ the Capitol. Stand up for Wisconsin public employees against Guv. Walker,” stated another message.
Previously released emails detailed Falk’s partisan perspective.
In one email, dated June 26, 2014, Falk turned up the heat on his colleague, blasting Schmitz for telling his attorney, Randall Crocker, to issue a statement saying Walker was not a target of the campaign finance coordination probe.
“You just lied to the press,” Falk scolded Schmitz in the email, obtained by Wisconsin Watchdog. “See attached ‘target’ sheets from our search warrant and subpoena meeting. I see ‘SW’ right up near the top on page 1. Is there someone else that has those initials? Page 3 even has all the stuff we wanted from SW.’
The GAB’s legal counsel seemed more interested in protecting Mary Burke, Walker’s Democrat challenger in last year’s gubernatorial election.
“If you didn’t want this to have an effect on the election, better check Burke’s new ad. Now you will be calling her a liar,” Falk wrote. “This is a no win. I encourage you to roll with it, or tone down the press release a bit more to focus on how many times you said ‘alleged’ or say that people are drawing conclusions that have not yet been proven in a court of law or something.”
Following reports of the GAB’s conduct in the John Doe probe and other performance issues, the Republican-led Legislature last year passed a bill dismantling the agency. On July 1, the accountability board will be replaced by two separate elections and ethics commissions.
Craig said the latest information from the records request should embolden the Legislature to “finally get to the bottom of this and get all of the information out there.”
“This just demonstrates that the GAB is willing to prolong and delay the disclosure of information that the taxpayer and the Legislature are entitled to,” the lawmaker said.
He again called on the Legislature to set up a bicameral committee, with subpoena power, to investigate the GAB’s conduct in the John Doe investigation.
“This is a very serious problem where, from all appearances, there was a witch hunt based on people’s lawful use of the First Amendment,” Craig said. “We can’t have government doing that in Wisconsin. No taxpayer, no liberty-loving citizen of Wisconsin should ever stand for that from their government. And the Legislature is duty bound to make sure this never happens again.”