Gov. Scott Walker’s Milwaukee County executive office was using a secret Internet system as early as the year he took office, according to a former county administrator who said he helped set up the network.
That’s several years earlier than prosecutors disclosed in a complaint against one of Walker’s former aides who was convicted of using a secret system to campaign on the taxpayers’ dime.
In an interview this week, Bob Kiefert said that in 2002, when he was Milwaukee County human resources assistant director, he was called into Walker’s office by then-deputy chief of staff Tim Russell. Kiefert showed Russell how to set up a hard-wired Internet connection using a DSL modem and a telephone line. The network allowed county executive staff to send and receive emails and surf the Web outside the public system set up by the county’s Information Management Services Division in 1998.
“They didn’t trust the IMSD county system to be the pathway or the gateway through which their emails went,” Kiefert said. “They wouldn’t have control of those emails.”
Kiefert, now retired and a Democratic Party activist in Green Bay who runs a website called Green Bay Progressive and signed the petition to recall Walker, first disclosed that he helped set up the system in a blog entry last week after more than 28,000 pages of emails and other documents from the investigation of Walker’s Milwaukee County staff were released.
Walker was not charged with wrongdoing in the secret John Doe investigation, which led to six convictions, including two related to campaigning on taxpayer time.
But he has evaded questions about what he knew about the secret system. Walker and his campaign did not respond to specific questions, but in a statement late Friday, Walker campaign spokesman Jonathan Wetzel said, in reference to Kiefert, “That a recent blog post by a Democrat Party activist, unsubstantiated in any way whatsoever, is being reported as factual is ridiculous.”
Russell is serving a prison sentence for embezzlement from a county veterans’ fund. The lawyer who represented him in the case said he no longer is in contact with him.
Marquette Law School professor and former Supreme Court Justice Janine Geske, who served as interim county executive for three months before Walker took office, said her staff had access to the Internet and email through the county’s network. She said she doesn’t understand why there would have been a need for a separate network.
“It seems obvious to me that when you have communications among staff members that they’re open records,” Geske said. “What’s the point of doing a secondary email except to keep them from being open records?”
Kiefert said he never spoke with Walker directly about the system but said Russell brought him to Walker’s office to be thanked personally for his help. He said Walker, who was on the phone, looked up, smiled and waved. Kiefert said though he explained how to set up the router, he didn’t physically install it himself.
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“There was no talk of how they were going to use it for campaigning or anything like that,” Kiefert said. “Russell made it clear I was doing a favor for Scott Walker.”
Kiefert said the explanation Russell gave for the separate system was concern that county executive emails would be leaked to the public by others who had access to the county system maintained by information management services.
The distrust stemmed from an internal electronic communications system on old Apple computers set up by former county executive David Schultz sometime before 1992, Kiefert said. Schultz’s successor, Thomas Ament, ditched the system after internal communications were leaked to the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.
Kiefert, who Schultz hired in 1989, set up a separate Internet server and web connection in 1996 for the human resources department to receive job applications, he said. It included an early website, www.mcdhr.org, and email system used exclusively by his department. By the time Kiefert retired in 2005, it was being folded into the county’s main network.
Kiefert said the human resources system was not meant to circumvent public scrutiny. Any email or Internet traffic over the system subject to the open records law would have been provided to anyone requesting such information, he said.
It’s unclear what became of the system Kiefert said he showed Russell how to set up in 2002 or whether it was abandoned or became part of the later system discovered by prosecutors more than three years ago.
In a criminal complaint unsealed in 2012, Milwaukee County District Attorney John Chisholm described a “secret email system available to and used by select ‘insider’ staffers for both official and unofficial business.”
It was “never disclosed to county employees outside a closely held group within the Walker administration,” Chisholm wrote.
Investigators found evidence in one of the county executive’s offices that the system involved a 3G broadband Internet connection and wireless router, and an AT&T broadband account paid for by Russell with a service start date of Oct. 16, 2009.
Kiefert said the 3G broadband network described in the complaint is a faster, more modern version of the equipment he helped install in 2002.
Kiefert said investigators never contacted him about what he knew about the earlier version of the system. Chisholm didn’t respond to a request for comment.