Skip to main content
You are the owner of this article.
You have permission to edit this article.
New charges in John Doe investigation allege pattern of illegal fundraising among Walker aides

New charges in John Doe investigation allege pattern of illegal fundraising among Walker aides

  • Updated
  • 0

Charges filed Thursday in the ongoing John Doe investigation into former and current aides of Gov. Scott Walker allege a pattern of illegal fundraising and what appears to be a systemic avoidance of campaign laws by Walker's inner circle.

Milwaukee County District Attorney John Chisholm charged Kelly Rindfleisch, 43, with four felony counts of misconduct in public office and Darlene Wink, 61, with two misdemeanor counts of political solicitation by a public employee. Both worked for Walker during his time as Milwaukee County executive, and both are accused of fundraising activities while at their taxpayer-funded jobs.

Also in the complaints made public Thursday were accusations leveled toward Walker's close associates, including the use of personal laptop computers and an unofficial "secret email system" to solicit money for the campaigns of Walker and Brett Davis, who was running for lieutenant governor. Investigators say they kept the system hidden from all but a close group of Walker's insiders.

But perhaps most notable in the complaints is an email from Walker to a longtime top aide discussing the resignation of Wink, who left her county job after admitting to the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel that she frequently posted political comments online during working hours.

"We cannot afford another story like this one," Walker wrote about the Wink story. "No one can give them any reason to do another story. That means no laptops, no websites, no time away during the work day, etc."

Walker was not available Thursday for interviews to clarify what he meant in the email.

The governor was scheduled to appear at an event in Wausau, but his office canceled the speech about an hour before it was scheduled to take place. A press release cited weather.

Later, Walker campaign spokeswoman Ciara Matthews released a statement saying the county executive's office had a policy against employees using county time and resources for political activities.

"Scott Walker expected everyone to follow the law and made that clear publicly and privately," the statement read.

The new allegations bring the total number of people criminally charged in the John Doe investigation to six. Earlier this month two Walker appointees, Tim Russell and Kevin Kavanaugh, were arrested and charged with embezzling from veterans groups. Russell's partner, Brian Pierick, also was charged with child enticement.

The probe already has netted one conviction. William Gardner, president of Wisconsin & Southern Railroad, was sentenced to two years of probation after acknowledging funneling at least $72,800 in illegal and excessive campaign contributions to Walker and other candidates.

Milwaukee-area real estate broker Andrew P. Jensen, Jr. was taken into custody last month after refusing to cooperate with the John Doe investigation. He has not been charged.

Wink charges

Wink is accused of arranging fundraisers, "robo-calls" and writing campaign-related press releases in 2009 while working under Walker in the Milwaukee County executive's office.

The counts allege that Wink violated state laws prohibiting solicitation of political contributions in public buildings and banning public employees from soliciting or receiving money or services for any political purpose while at work.

The criminal complaint said Wink, Walker's constituent services manager, exchanged numerous campaign-related messages with top Walker campaign staffers, including operations manager Joe Fadness, as well as Reince Preibus, then Republican Party of Wisconsin chairman and now head of the Republican National Committee.

The complaint reveals that Fadness was among those testifying in the John Doe investigation. Other witnesses include Rose Ann Dieck, membership chairwoman for the Milwaukee County Republicans, who has received immunity from prosecution.

Wink's attorney, Peter Wolff, said his client has reached an "anticipated settlement" with prosecutors that would include her pleading guilty and sharing information about future prosecutions and proceedings. For example, she could testify against Russell and Kavanaugh.

"She's clearly adamant that at no time did Scott Walker know that she was doing any of this type of behavior," Wolff said of the accusations against Wink.

Rindfleisch charges

Rindfleisch, who worked as a fundraiser for Walker until just weeks ago, started as a policy adviser for him at the county executive's office in early 2010. She was soon promoted to deputy chief of staff, replacing Russell, who left to become Milwaukee County Housing Services director. At the same time she worked as a fundraiser for Davis, then a GOP state Assemblyman from Oregon running for lieutenant governor.

Davis, according to emails uncovered by investigators, was the favored candidate of those trying to get Walker elected governor. Lieutenant governors run separately in the state's primary system but are paired up with their party's gubernatorial candidate for the general election. Many inside Walker's campaign believed Davis gave Walker the best chance to win the election.

Prosecutors say Rindfleisch spent "significant time" doing political campaign work for Davis while working for the county. The criminal complaint against her investigation uncovered 1,380 fundraising emails sent or received by Rindfleisch during normal work hours. Investigators also uncovered about 300 emails between Rindfleisch and Davis and more than 1,000 between her and members of Walker's campaign staff, including spokeswoman Jill Bader and campaign manager Keith Gilkes.

Rindfleisch told a friend that "half of what I'm doing is policy for the campaign," during an Internet chat, according to the 57-page complaint.

Franklyn Gimbel, Rindfleisch's attorney, said he thought the charges against his client were especially harsh and expects to challenge aspects including search and seizure tactics.

"I think they're harsh considering the way the other public officials with far greater rank were treated," Gimbel said. Rindfleisch's first court date is scheduled for Feb. 22.

This was the second time Rindfleisch has been involved in questionable campaign activities on the taxpayer dime. Rindfleisch worked for state Rep. Scott Gunderson, R-Waterford, from 1995 to 1999. In 2002 she was granted immunity for her testimony in the caucus scandal, which involved widespread illegal campaign activities on state time among legislative staffers. The scandal, uncovered by the State Journal, resulted in criminal charges and fines against five lawmakers and four legislative aides.

Secret system

From the emails and Internet chats collected by investigators, it seems clear that Rindfleisch was aware she was circumventing the law by fundraising with a personal laptop and through a secret system. Several key members of Walker's current administration communicated with her during this time, including his spokesman Cullen Werwie and Department of Administration Secretary Mike Huebsch.

At the time, Werwie worked as Davis' campaign spokesman. Huebsch was a state representative from West Salem who also worked on Davis' campaign.

Investigators said another member of County Executive Walker's inner circle, Russell, was responsible for setting up the secret computer system that was used to conceal the fundraising.

The wireless Internet system was, according to the complaints, "never disclosed to county employees outside a closely held group within the Walker administration."

It was so secret that even the county director of information management services was not aware it existed, meaning that even an open records request would not have uncovered the fundraising efforts.

Be the first to know

* I understand and agree that registration on or use of this site constitutes agreement to its user agreement and privacy policy.

Related to this story

Get up-to-the-minute news sent straight to your device.


News Alerts

Badger Sports

Breaking News