Gov. Scott Walker said Tuesday that there are “straightforward” reasons he won’t answer specific questions about the thousands of emails and other documents released last week after a secret John Doe investigation into his Milwaukee County executive office.
“The reason we’re not going to go through 27,000 emails is because we’ve had authorities, proper authorities, do that,” Walker said. “I think anybody who looks at it objectively says a Democrat-led office went through this ... for many, many years, and ultimately last March decided to close their investigation without any further action.”
Walker discussed the issue publicly in Wisconsin for the first time Tuesday. In Washington, D.C., recently the governor, widely considered a 2016 GOP presidential hopeful, repeatedly deflected specific questions about the emails and the investigation.
The documents show that Walker, his taxpayer-paid county staff and his campaign aides were in frequent communication on policy and political matters, and link Walker to the use of a secret email system in his county office. The emails also show that lines were frequently blurred between campaign and county business, and they include some racist and derogatory comments.
“We’d have to go back in some cases multiple years looking at multiple documents,” Walker told reporters in explaining why he won’t answer questions raised by the documents. “I think that takes the eye off the focus of what I was elected to do, which was to help the people of the state create more jobs, continue to grow the economy. ... I’m really focused on that.”
He accused Democrats of highlighting the emails to distract from his administration’s successes. And he touted his ethics policy that bars workers in the governor’s office from campaigning during regular work hours except in “urgent” circumstances.
The John Doe investigation led by Milwaukee County District Attorney John Chisholm, a Democrat, resulted in six convictions of former Walker aides and associates, including two for doing campaign work on taxpayer time. One of those convictions is under appeal. Walker was not accused of wrongdoing.
The district attorney’s office has not responded to repeated requests for comment about charging decisions. Several of Walker’s current and former aides whose emails were released last week also have not returned messages seeking comment.
A second John Doe investigation focused on campaign spending during the 2012 recall arose out of the first one. That probe is ongoing.
Simply being cautious?
Joe Heim, UW-La Crosse political science professor, said he thinks Walker is avoiding answering questions about whether he knew about the private email system to be cautious.
“In my opinion, he’s very careful about deflecting the question because he doesn’t want to say he didn’t know about it, then be caught in a lie,” Heim said. “You can argue that given his hands-on approach he might have known about it, but I didn’t see a smoking gun that he knew.”
Melissa Baldauff, spokeswoman for the Democratic Party of Wisconsin, said, “It’s been seven days since the John Doe emails were released and so far we’ve heard zero real answers from Scott Walker about what he knew about the secret email network and when he knew it.”
She called it a “flimsy excuse” that Walker won’t answer questions because he doesn’t have time to read through all the messages.
“Pleading ignorance might make for better headlines than pleading the Fifth, but it’s time for Scott Walker to stop dodging accountability and answer the questions the public has,” Baldauff said.
The governor said the results of the John Doe investigation speak for themselves.
“Don’t look at anything I say, look at what a district attorney’s office did — not one that was of my own party, but one that’s led by a Democrat,” Walker said. “Again, don’t take my word for it. Look at the process.”
Mary Burke, the Democratic former Commerce secretary and Trek Bicycle executive who is challenging Walker in the governor’s race, on Monday said Walker had set a low bar for campaign ethics. Walker declined to respond to her comments, but officials with the Republican Governors Association pointed out Tuesday that one of her top campaign aides was convicted in 2005 for campaigning on state time.
Ethics policy in place
On Tuesday, Walker focused many of his comments on the current ethics policies in his governor’s office.
“We’ve had a policy in place since I became governor,” Walker told reporters after attending the opening of the Hy-Vee grocery store in Fitchburg. “We have a very elaborate ethics and code of conduct policy.”
Walker’s office also has cited the ethics policy in response to a list of detailed questions, including whether workers in the governor’s office are allowed to conduct research for his campaigns or use personal laptops or email accounts.
The ethics policy and professional code of conduct agreement, which Walker requires his cabinet secretaries and employees to sign, prohibits them from performing campaign activities between the hours of 8 a.m. and 5 p.m. except in certain circumstances.
“If an urgent issue comes up that you cannot address during off-hours, you must obtain pre-approval before engaging in that activity,” it reads. “If that activity does not occur during your lunch break, you will be asked to take vacation time for that activity.”
The State Journal has filed an open records request for such pre-approvals from the governor’s office.
The governor’s office ethics policy also says, “You should never use state resources to do campaign work, including a work BlackBerry, work computer, work phone, or work e-mail. You are also not permitted to campaign in state buildings. This means that any campaign work should be done away from the Capitol or state office building with your own phone, computer, and personal email.”
It lists more than a dozen specific campaign activities that are not permitted, including arranging or assisting in fundraising and campaign events, soliciting campaign contributions, preparing campaign advertising, working with campaign volunteers, and working with a list or database of campaign contributors or supporters.
Failure to adhere to the terms can result in the employee being fired, the policy says.
Walker said Tuesday “an advantage” of being in the governor’s office is having a legal staff that can also do ethics training for staff and cabinet members.
Walker added that he now carries two separate phones, an official BlackBerry for state business and a personal iPhone.
— State Journal reporters Dee J. Hall and Matthew DeFour and the Associated Press contributed to this report.