Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker is surrounded by scandal and controversy as the date to begin a drive to remove him from office is just one month away.
The governor's personal approval ratings collapsed months ago, after he launched attacks on the state's civil service system and its collective bargaining laws. Walker's attempt to replace the state's good-government tradition with a pay-to-play politics that rewards cronies and campaign contributors drew hundreds of thousands of Wisconsinites into the streets and led to the eventual removal of two of his closest legislative allies in summer recall elections.
Walker could not be recalled until one year after his Jan. 3, 2011, inauguration as the state's governor. Under Wisconsin law, that means that Wisconsinites seeking to remove Walker can begin gathering recall petitions in the first week of November.
The timing could not be worse for the governor, who now seems to be resigned to facing a fight to retain his position.
In recent weeks, Walker's aides have emerged as key targets of a John Doe inquiry into political corruption that even media outlets that have supported the governor now acknowledge "threatens to become a big problem for Walker."
1. On Sept. 14, the Madison home of Walker's point person in the attack on labor rights, Cynthia Archer, was raided by agents of the Federal Bureau of Investigation. Archer, a top political appointee at the state Department of Administration, had been hastily moved to another political appointment weeks earlier — a $100,000-a-year state post that she has yet to show up for, as she continues a paid "medical" leave.
2. FBI agents have swept across the state, interviewing not just Walker aides and political allies but experts on campaign finance laws and pay-to-play politics in an inquiry that University of Wisconsin political science professor Charles Franklin says has gotten "awfully close to the executive office."
3. We recently learned exactly how close. The judge overseeing the John Doe inquiry confirmed that the governor's press secretary, Cullen Werwie, requested and received immunity from prosecution as part of an agreement to provide testimony relating to the inquiry. A key fundraiser for the governor, Rose Ann Dieck, also accepted immunity, as did a number of donors to Walker.
4. After the revelations regarding Werwie and Dieck, Walker acknowledged that his longtime campaign treasurer, John Hiller, was no longer associated with the campaign or the governor's office. Hiller, who worked with Walker for 18 years, had served as director of the transition team that set up Walker's administration. The news has focused new scrutiny on the question of why the governor placed a veteran campaign fundraiser, with close ties to his political donors, in charge of coordinating the hiring of state aides and the organization of state agencies that make and implement policies related to those donors.
5. On Friday, the governor's chief of staff, Kevin Gilkes, abruptly resigned his position. Gilkes said he was going to work on setting up Walker's campaign to counter the anticipated recall drive. But the announcement came just three days after it was revealed that Gilkes had played a central role in arranging for FBI-raid target Cynthia Archer's transfer from the Department of Administration to the Department of Children and Families at a point when rumors about the John Doe inquiry were beginning to spread. Just before Gilkes stepped down, it was revealed that Department of Children and Families Secretary Eloise Anderson had never interviewed Archer, and that it was Gilkes who offered her the job.
Walker continues to claim he knows nothing beyond what he reads in the papers about the John Doe inquiry — which has already seen one of his top donors convicted of felony campaign finance and money laundering violations. But his campaign has retained former U.S. Attorney Steven Biskupic, an expert with regard to federal investigations and white-collar crime, who now works as a criminal defense lawyer. Media reports suggest Biskupic has been paid more than $60,000 for work related to the inquiry.
Walker has been reduced to claiming that his status as an Eagle Scout should calm concerns about the scandal. "I continue to have that kind of integrity," he said last week.
But 200,000 Wisconsinites have now pledged to work on the campaign to recall Walker. And it is increasingly clear that the recall drive will focus not only on concerns about the governor's controversial policies and the fact that unemployment in the state is rising at a dramatically faster rate than nationally or in neighboring states.
Playing out against a backdrop of FBI raids, grants of immunity to top aides, resignations of key staffers and a burgeoning John Doe investigation, the recall campaign's primary focus is likely to be on questions of pay-to-play politics, cronyism and corruption. For Scott Walker, that's the worst of all political prospects.
John Nichols is associate editor of The Capital Times. firstname.lastname@example.org