A criminal investigation that ensnared six former aides and associates of Gov. Scott Walker has ended, the Milwaukee County District Attorney's Office announced Friday, lifting a shadow that had hung over the Republican for nearly three years.
The closure of the investigation comes as good news for Walker's political future, observers said Friday. He's expected to seek re-election in 2014 and is mentioned as a potential GOP presidential contender in 2016.
District Attorney John Chisholm said the secret John Doe probe failed to uncover sufficient evidence of additional wrongdoing beyond the six people charged, including three former Milwaukee County employees who worked for Walker when he was Milwaukee County executive.
"After a review of the John Doe evidence, I am satisfied that all charges that are supported by proof beyond a reasonable doubt have now been brought and concluded," Chisholm, a Democrat, said in a statement.
Judge Neal Nettesheim closed the investigation Feb. 21.
The investigation, which uncovered illegal campaign contributions to Walker's campaign, illegal campaign activity by his taxpayer-funded staffers, embezzlement of veterans' funds and other misdeeds, had dogged Walker since even before he was elected governor in November 2010. Walker consistently insisted that he was not a target of the probe, even though his top aides who sat just feet from his desk — including former Milwaukee County deputy chiefs of staff Kelly Rindfleisch and Tim Russell and constituent services director Darlene Wink — all were convicted of wrongdoing.
One political observer said the effects of the scandal likely will diminish as Walker heads into re-election and a possible run for president.
"Opponents will use it to question his judgment, but I think it will fade fairly quickly from the priorities of the public," UW-Madison political science professor Charles Franklin said.
In a statement issued by his campaign, Walker said the investigation began when his office reported the suspected theft of money from Operation Freedom, a veterans' event at the Milwaukee County Zoo from which Russell was convicted of looting more than $20,000 in donations.
"I am glad the process has been completed," Walker said in a statement. "As many may remember, this entire matter began when we asked the district attorney to look into concerns we had with respect to Operation Freedom. We appreciate the effort that was undertaken and to bring appropriate matters to justice."
The governor repeated those comments at the Capitol later Friday.
"The process was pretty clear," Walker said. "We're glad the process is done. We think the process speaks for itself."
At one point in the investigation, Walker was subpoenaed to testify in the case against Rindfleisch, but she struck a deal with prosecutors, keeping Walker off the witness stand. Several top current and former Walker aides had received immunity from criminal prosecution in the probe.
Democrats remained critical.
"Scott Walker beat the rap with a six-figure defense fund and the best criminal defense lawyers money can buy," said Mike Tate, chairman of the Democratic Party of Wisconsin.
He called on Walker to release the emails and other documents uncovered in the probe in the interests of transparency, and "to show everyone what all this hubbub has been about."
Evidence collected in the investigation shows Walker's employees had set up a secret email system; some emails were released as part of Rindfleisch's sentencing.
Franklyn Gimbel, Rindfleisch's attorney, said the investigation likely failed to uncover solid evidence of wrongdoing by Walker.
"Had there been a case (against Walker), I think they would've brought it a long time ago," Gimbel said Friday. "They wouldn't have gone to this elaborate procedure to bring the cases they wound up bringing."
The Assembly's top Democrat, Peter Barca, D-Kenosha, called on Walker to "finally take responsibility for the criminal activity that happened on his watch."
"While the governor was not charged, he must make a statement accepting responsibility for the people he trusted, hired and supervised and apologize to the taxpayers, particularly the veterans, who were cheated," Barca said.
Walker said he felt no need to apologize, and didn't believe documents related to the John Doe investigation needed to be released.
"Now it's time to move forward," Walker said.