Brad Schimel files a brief in a John Doe-related lawsuit

Attorney General Brad Schimel filed a brief Friday urging a federal judge not to overrule a state Supreme Court decision in the John Doe investigation.

M.P. KING -- State Journal

Wisconsin Attorney General Brad Schimel on Friday asked a federal judge to stay out of a matter related to the halted John Doe investigation into Gov. Scott Walker’s recall campaign, marking the first time his office has taken sides in court in the politically fraught legal battle.

Lawyers representing the John Doe investigators issued a statement Friday afternoon calling Schimel’s comments on the matter “false” and “defamatory.”

Schimel filed a friend-of-the-court brief in a lawsuit that could affect a Wisconsin Supreme Court decision requiring investigators to turn over evidence they collected during the so-called John Doe I and II investigations into Walker’s Milwaukee County office and his 2012 recall campaign.

Schimel, a Republican elected in 2014, asked the court to deny the investigators’ motion to block the state Supreme Court’s decision out of respect for the separation of state and federal court authority. He noted the court determined investigators “obtained numerous documents as part of an unlawful state-law investigation, meaning that they have no right to possess such documents.”

“The defendants in this case are requesting that the federal court directly contradict the Wisconsin Supreme Court’s order requiring that the evidence unlawfully seized by the John Doe investigators be kept under seal,” Schimel said in a statement. “The defendants’ request ignores well-settled law which provides that federal courts may not interfere with state court decisions.”

Douglas Knott, a lawyer representing Milwaukee County investigators David Budde, Robert Stelter and Aaron Weiss, issued a statement saying Schimel misrepresented their position. They are asking for the John Doe records to be available to the investigators as they defend themselves against lawsuits, but not that they be unsealed for the public.

“We are surprised that the Attorney General’s office, after declining to participate previously due to conflicts of interest, would involve itself now in such a partisan and ill-informed manner,” Knott said. “We question whose interest is being served by Mr. Schimel’s sudden appearance in favor of (plaintiff Cindy) Archer’s position and his accompanying media statements.”

Scot Ross, executive director of liberal advocacy group One Wisconsin Now, chastised Schimel’s move, noting the political arm of the state chamber of commerce, Wisconsin Manufacturers and Commerce, spent $1.5 million to help get Schimel elected. The John Doe probe was investigating coordination between Walker’s recall campaign and so-called issue advocacy groups such as WMC and Wisconsin Club for Growth.

“Brad Schimel is turning DOJ into a legal defense fund for his campaign backers,” Ross said.

Asked for a response, Schimel said in an email “the brief is self-explanatory.”

“As Attorney General, I represent the state and have an obligation to protect the sovereignty of our state and the validity of the decision of our state Supreme Court,” he said.

Schimel’s predecessor, J.B. Van Hollen, also a Republican, declined to lead the John Doe II investigation after a more than five-month review of a request by Milwaukee County District Attorney John Chisholm. But instead of shutting it down, he cited “the perception that my office can not act impartially” and referred the matter to the nonpartisan Government Accountability Board.

Chisholm, the GAB and Republican and Democratic district attorneys in four other counties consolidated the case in 2013 under special prosecutor Francis Schmitz, a self-described Republican. After Schmitz served dozens of subpoenas in fall 2013, the subjects of the investigation fought back in court and Judge Gregory Petersen, who was overseeing the case, quashed the subpoenas in January 2014.

Schimel represented Petersen in the case before the Wisconsin Supreme Court. However, Schimel maintained neutrality on the core legal issues and primarily defended the appointment of the judges who oversaw the case.

The Wisconsin Supreme Court ruled in July the investigation had no basis in law and denied a reconsideration motion in December. Chisholm and the two Democratic district attorneys involved in the case are trying to appeal that decision to the U.S. Supreme Court.

In December, Schimel declined to intervene on behalf of those being investigated, but discouraged Schmitz from appealing to the U.S. Supreme Court, calling the case “a long, unfortunate chapter in Wisconsin’s history.”

The federal lawsuit filed by former Walker aide Cindy Archer alleges Milwaukee County investigators violated her civil rights when they served search warrants at her Madison home in September 2011 as part of the first John Doe investigation, which yielded six convictions of former Walker aides and associates.

The lawsuit is being heard by U.S. District Judge Lynn Adelman, a former Democratic state senator appointed to the court by President Bill Clinton.

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Matthew DeFour covers state government and politics for the Wisconsin State Journal.