Targets of an investigation into alleged election law violations by Gov. Scott Walker’s supporters emerged from anonymity Thursday to renew sharp criticism of John Doe prosecutors, whose probe was blocked last week by the Wisconsin Supreme Court.
Prominent Republican political strategist R.J. Johnson told a Wall Street Journal editorial writer he was in an airplane when word reached him that his 16-year-old son had awakened in their home to find six law enforcement officers executing a search warrant.
“He was told he couldn’t move, that he couldn’t call a lawyer, that he couldn’t call his parents,” Johnson told the newspaper. “He was a minor and he was isolated by law enforcement.”
Targets of the searches have complained previously that night-time raids of their homes were unnecessary and too forceful, but most of the sources were quoted anonymously.
On the newspaper’s opinion page Thursday, Johnson and his business partner Deborah Jordahl both raised as an issue the presence of children when their homes were searched. Both also said officers refused to allow phone calls to lawyers.
Jordahl said John Doe special prosecutor Francis Schmitz “lied when he said we were not told we could not call a lawyer.”
Experts in law enforcement have said it is difficult to judge the accuracy of published statements about the raids because the prosecutors and police are under a John Doe secrecy order and barred from telling their side of the story. And the John Doe targets haven’t challenged the legality of the raids in court, so prosecutors haven’t had a formal opportunity to respond.
But there are indications that the raids may not have been conducted differently from searches seeking evidence against lower profile individuals.
A command officer for the Dane County Sheriff’s Office said it isn’t uncommon for police to tell residents they can’t immediately make phone calls during a raid.
If a series of searches is taking place, suspects could use the phone to warn others to flee or destroy evidence, said Capt. Jeff Teuscher. In any event, officers might want to make sure they had secured the premises before allowing individuals to move freely or make phone calls, Teuscher said. In contrast, the questioning of a suspect in custody ends as soon as a call to an attorney is requested, Teuscher said.
Jeff Nichols, a Madison attorney who handles criminal defense cases, said that once a court has issued a search warrant and a raid has commenced, it is highly unlikely that a call to a lawyer could make a difference. Any challenge would be made later and the remedy might be that evidence couldn’t be used in court, Nichols said.
Donald Downs, a UW-Madison professor emeritus in political science and constitutional law said no-knock raids are generally justified when a less forceful entry would legitimately pose a danger that evidence would be destroyed, suspects would flee, officer safety would be compromised or the investigation undermined.
The John Doe investigation was requested by Democratic and Republican prosecutors, and the special prosecutor, Schmitz, has said he was a Republican who voted for Walker. But the governor, now in the midst of a campaign for the Republican nomination for president, has maintained the investigation into funding of his 2012 recall election victory was political.
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“It was really about trying to intimidate people connected to organizations that have been supportive, not just of me, but of Senate Republicans that faced recalls,” Walker said during a radio interview in April after an article in the conservative National Review reported accounts of the searches.
In records released by an appeals court in 2014, prosecutors said Johnson acted as a Walker campaign adviser while also working for the conservative Wisconsin Club for Growth.
They said he coordinated the outside group’s activities with Walker’s campaign. Court records show Walker himself contacted donors and urged them to donate money to Club for Growth, which then doled out millions of dollars to conservative groups supporting Walker and other Republicans.
In its 4-2 ruling ending the John Doe II investigation, the state Supreme Court said Wisconsin law on campaign finance infringed on free speech rights, and that campaigns could legally coordinate with outside groups that collect anonymous donations and run “issue advocacy” advertisements.
The outside groups may remain free of state disclosure regulations while they support a candidate as long as they don’t explicitly urge a vote for or against a candidate, the court majority ruled.
In Thursday’s column, Johnson said he was questioned in 2011 by John Doe investigators who at the time were looking into corruption in Walker’s Milwaukee County executive’s office before he was elected governor in 2010.
That probe netted six convictions and unearthed information that led to the so-called John Doe II probe into recall elections involving Walker and Senate Republicans.
At the end of the session, Johnson said, Milwaukee Assistant District Attorney Bruce Landgraf asked him: “‘Is there any reason at the end of the campaign you deleted all of your emails?’ So I knew then I had been tracked all the way through, that they had been reading my emails.” But Johnson said he was surprised when he learned his house was searched as part of the second investigation.
The leader of the state’s business lobby said in the article that prosecutors obtained its records with a subpoena, not a search warrant. Wisconsin Manufacturers and Commerce hired consultants to copy large quantities of digital information for prosecutors, president and CEO Kurt Bauer said.
“I think part of the goal was to chill our fundraising and keep us off the airwaves,” Bauer said. “So the money and time we had to spend defending ourselves was money and time that we couldn’t spend toward issue advocacy.”
Bauer’s office said Thursday he wouldn’t discuss how much the group spent on its defense. WMC spent an estimated $4 million defending Walker in the 2012 recall, according to data compiled by the Wisconsin Democracy Campaign.
Schmitz, the special prosecutor, declined to respond to the statements. He said in an email Thursday that he is continuing to weigh whether to ask the U.S. Supreme Court to overturn the state court ruling, and the state court’s order for the return of property seized in the investigation.
Johnson and Jordahl didn’t return phone calls seeking comment.