At a secret hearing the day before the 2010 fall election, an investigator for the Milwaukee County district attorney testified that he had uncovered email evidence that Scott Walker, then-county executive, was likely aware of campaigning by his staff on county time using personal laptops and a secret wireless Internet router.
That same afternoon, Nov. 1, 2010, officers seized computer hard drives and other equipment from the suite of offices occupied by Walker and his staff. The next day, Walker was elected governor.
The 127-page transcript of the John Doe hearing was part of more than 28,000 pages of documents released by the Wisconsin Court of Appeals on Wednesday related to the now-closed secret investigation.
The documents show how Walker, his taxpayer-paid county staff and his campaign aides were in frequent communication on policy and political matters, and tie Walker to the use of a secret email system set up in his county office.
In one message, Walker aide Cindy Archer wrote to deputy chief of staff Kelly Rindfleisch that she used a private email account to communicate with Walker and his chief of staff, Tom Nardelli.
“Consider yourself now in the ‘inner circle’ :) I use this private account quite a bit to communicate with SKW and Nardelli,” Archer wrote, referring to Walker’s initials. “You should be sure you check it throughout the day.”
In a May 13, 2010, email on which Walker was copied, campaign adviser R.J. Johnson gave the final OK to two county staff members — Rindfleisch and Nardelli — along with campaign officials on what to say about another Walker employee, Darlene Wink, who had been caught posting political comments online about Walker during work time.
The approved statement: “No one in our office had any knowledge that Darlene was posting any comments during work hours. The county executive and chief of staff expressly forbid staff participation in any campaign-related activity while on county time.”
Other emails show Walker making his county staff available to conduct research for the campaign.
Walker has said that throughout his time as Milwaukee County executive, he had a clear policy that county employees were prohibited from using county resources or county time to be involved in political activities. But the emails show that he routinely traded campaign-related messages with his county staff during regular work hours.
On Tuesday, Walker predicted his political opponents would spin the records to their advantage but said they contained no surprises.
“These people are naysayers who want things bad to happen in Wisconsin, so they are going to be circling again today,” Walker said. “It’s exactly what’s wrong with the political process that they’re hoping for something bad to happen in Wisconsin. It’s not. They’re going to do what they’ve done in the past which is overhype things. And politically they’re going to be disappointed.”
In a statement, Walker’s campaign spokesman noted the legal investigation ended early last year and that the governor “is confident that during that legal process, these communications were thoroughly reviewed by the authorities.”
But Mike Tate, executive director of the Democratic Party of Wisconsin, told reporters Wednesday, “It’s just a little hard to believe that Scott Walker did not know his senior staff was committing crimes on a regular basis without his knowledge.”
Wednesday’s release of correspondence and court documents took on national implications as Walker is increasingly named as a possible Republican presidential candidate in 2016. He faces re-election in November.
The release of the documents comes amid a second John Doe investigation spawned by the original inquiry. The ongoing investigation, according to the Wall Street Journal, is targeting Walker’s recall campaign and alleged illegal coordination with more than two dozen Republican and conservative political groups in 2011 and 2012.
Rindfleisch, 45, of Columbus, pleaded guilty in October 2012 to doing illegal campaign work on behalf of Walker’s favored lieutenant governor candidate, Rep. Brett Davis, leading up to the 2010 election.
She has been sentenced to six months in jail, a term the judge suspended while she appeals her conviction.
Although Rindfleisch sat just 25 feet from Walker’s office, was one of his top staffers and was illegally raising funds for Davis while on county time, the governor himself was not charged and the investigation was closed in early 2013. It resulted in the convictions of five former aides and associates and one contributor to Walker’s gubernatorial campaign.
According to prosecutors, there were at least 3,486 emails between Rindfleisch and members of Walker’s 2010 gubernatorial campaign. Most were sent and received during normal business hours while Rindfleisch was at her $59,560-a-year county job.
John Doe hearing
According to the transcript of the secret hearing, Milwaukee County Assistant District Attorney Bruce Landgraf sought on Nov. 1, 2010, to enlarge the investigation.
The probe had begun looking at illegal campaign contributions to Friends of Scott Walker by then-railroad owner William Gardner, campaign-related web postings by then-Walker aide Darlene Wink and thefts from a veterans’ fund run by former Walker deputy chief of staff Tim Russell.
Landgraf was asking Judge Neal Nettesheim to widen the probe to include possible illegal campaign-related work by four of Walker’s top staffers: Nardelli, Rindfleisch, communications director Fran McLaughlin and scheduler Dorothy Moore. Rindfleisch was the only one charged.
Most of the hearing involved sworn testimony from David Budde, chief investigator with the district attorney’s office. Repeatedly, Budde said it was routine for members of Walker’s staff to use private email accounts and personal laptop computers to communicate about campaign-related business during work hours.
Asked Landgraf: “Is it at all uncommon to see County Executive employees like Mr. Nardelli communicating using private e-mail addresses with members of the Scott Walker campaign?”
Answered Budde: “It’s very common.”
Later on, Landgraf asked, “Based upon your search of the Rindfleisch e-mails is there any reason to believe that there may have been general use of laptops in the County Executive’s Office?”
Budde: “Yes there is.”
Landgraf: “Did you find any e-mails written by the County Executive himself suggesting that there may have been use of County laptops in the — personal laptops in the County Executive’s Office?”
It’s unclear whether investigators ever considered charging Walker. A message with the Milwaukee County district attorney’s office was not returned Wednesday.
Secret email system
Budde also read from a campaign email sent by Walker to other staff members after Wink, his constituent services manager, resigned after being caught posting pro-Walker comments on various websites during work time.
On May 14, 2010, Russell, who moved to the county’s housing department, forwarded an email to Walker at his campaign email address containing a Milwaukee Journal Sentinel article about Wink’s resignation.
Budde read to the judge Walker’s email: “I talked to her at home last night. Feel bad. She feels worse. We cannot afford another story like this one. No one can give them any reason to do another story. That means no laptops, no web sites, no time away during the workday, et cetera.”
That email then was forwarded by Walker campaign confidant Jim Villa to Rindfleisch. The body of the message is “CONFIDENTIAL.”
“Rindfleisch replies within four minutes to Villa …. ‘Already broken down and put away. Laptop is packed. I already saw this e-mail,’ ” Budde testified.
“The significance of this e-mail,” he added, “is that it shows that the county executive would appear to be aware that laptops were used in the County Executive’s Office for accessing things on non-County networks.
“And it also is very significant because it shows that the various members of the County Executive staff worked in concert to conceal laptops and/or networks — wireless networks that were in existence in that office suite, and these items were not present when we did our search warrant later in the day on May 14, 2010.”
In another email, Rindfleisch told Russell, “I took down the wireless, it’s in my bag for now.”
Four days later, Archer, head of the Milwaukee County Department of Administrative Services, wrote to Walker and members of his county executive and campaign staff via private email: “In light of recent events I will no longer be checking this e-mail account during the workday. We discussed this among CEX (county executive) staff this morning and we are unable to find alternatives.”
Budde told Judge Nettesheim that “the significance of this e-mail is that it shows that the people addressed on this e-mail are acting in concert with the County Executive staff to find alternative ways to communicate using private e-mail during the workday.”
The secret wireless system, tucked into an armoire of the county executive’s suite of offices, first surfaced in 2012 when Rindfleisch was charged with illegally campaigning for Davis.
McLaughlin received immunity from prosecution in the probe. Nardelli cooperated in the investigation. Russell was convicted of stealing more than $27,000 and sentenced to two years in prison.
The emails illustrate how closely Walker’s campaign and county staff worked together leading up to the 2010 election, including the establishment of daily conference calls at Walker’s direction.
Walker sent and received numerous emails on his campaign account during that time, often involving campaign and county staff:
• When McLaughlin had a question about providing information to a reporter about bond ratings, for example, she emailed Walker and copied Nardelli and Rindfleisch as well as Walker campaign operatives Keith Gilkes, Jill Bader and R.J. Johnson.
“Sure. I think it makes sense,” Walker replied to the group from his BlackBerry, the documents show. “Anyone else care to comment?”
Gilkes promptly wrote back to the group, “Please just have someone read through it to ensure we know about and have answers to any points raised in them that may put your administration in a negative light before you hand it over to him.”
• Bader wrote to Nardelli — copying Walker, Gilkes and McLaughlin — about Milwaukee County’s troubled mental health complex, saying Walker had mentioned that he said a reporter was “poking his nose around again.”
“I think it would be extremely helpful to know what the standard protocol is across the state/country at other Mental Health facilities,” she wrote. “We need to find some good back up to give him on this stuff to shut him down.”
• The night that a concrete slab at a Milwaukee County parking structure collapsed, killing a 15-year-old boy, Nardelli emailed Walker and copied Gilkes, Rindfleisch and Archer about a reporter asking about an audit showing deferred maintenance on the structure.
Gilkes responded: “We need to have that pinpointed in the audit. … This is what the press will focus on exclusively tomorrow — we will need to fully refute it with all documentation possible on it.”
Walker responded: “Yes.”
— State Journal reporters Mary Spicuzza, Matthew DeFour and Steven Verburg and The Associated Press contributed to this report.