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John Doe (copy)

Gov. Scott Walker speaks to reporters last year about then newly released emails from a secret John Doe probe into his former aides and associates while he was Milwaukee County executive.

A state Assembly committee voted on party lines Thursday to advance a bill that would alter the scope and implementation of John Doe investigations in Wisconsin. Prosecutors have used John Doe provisions to investigate Gov. Scott Walker's campaign twice.

The bill would limit the scope of crimes that can be investigated in a John Doe probe to the most severe felonies and some violent crimes, meaning campaign finance and ethics violations could no longer be subject to a John Doe.

Rep. Gary Hebl, D-Sun Prairie, argued to the Assembly Judiciary Committee that removing most political crimes from the scope of a John Doe "gives the impression that these are not serious crimes." 

"We're putting politicians above the rest of the citizens of Wisconsin, saying they're not subject to the John Doe law," Hebl said.

Citing the first John Doe investigation into Walker's campaign, Rep. Evan Goyke, D-Milwaukee, said, "Those were valid targets of a John Doe. That prosecutorial tool was used in Milwaukee County to root out corruption in the county executive’s office … and we convicted criminals for it because we had this valuable tool."

Rep. Jim Ott, R-Mequon, countered that political crimes could still be investigated under the bill, just not within the framework of a John Doe probe.

"All this is saying is that this particular type of prosecution cannot be done under the secrecy of a John Doe law," Ott said.

The state's John Doe law dates back to Wisconsin's days as a territory and is unique to the state. It allows a prosecutor, under supervision of a judge, to investigate whether a crime has been committed and, if so, who committed it. The prosecutor can compel people to testify and turn over documents.

John Doe investigations are often conducted in secrecy. Both witnesses and targets are prevented from talking about the investigation with anyone but their attorney.

This bill would limit the secrecy aspect of the law, allowing secrecy orders to be placed only on judges and prosecutors. It would also limit the length of investigations to six months. A probe could be extended for additional six-month periods, with no cap on the number of extensions, provided a majority of 10 judicial administrative district chief judges find good cause.

The legislation cleared a Senate committee earlier this year, which means it can now be taken up by the full Legislature.

The bill's authors — Sen. Tom Tiffany, R-Hazelhurst, and Rep. David Craig, R-Big Bend — say it's designed to provide additional layers of accountability and transparency to a process they say has been abused.

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Supporters of the bill have expressed outrage at the way search warrants were executed in the recent John Doe investigations, arguing that prosecutors had too much power.

"It's beyond irritation, it's outrage," Ott said.

In July, the state Supreme Court ordered an end to the John Doe investigation into coordination between Walker's campaign and conservative groups that supported him during his 2012 recall election. 

The John Doe investigation into suspected illegal coordination between Walker's recall campaign and conservative issue advocacy groups, launched by Milwaukee County District Attorney John Chisholm in 2012, had been put on hold for more than a year.

A prior John Doe investigation, also launched by Chisholm, resulted in convictions for six Walker associates during his time as Milwaukee County executive.

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Jessie Opoien covers state government and politics for the Capital Times. She joined the Cap Times in 2013 and has also covered Madison life, race relations, culture and music. She has also covered education and politics for the Oshkosh Northwestern.