County prosecutors and state investigators violated the constitutional rights of conservatives with an investigation that involved armed raids on private homes, a federal judge in Wisconsin has ruled.
“The plaintiffs have been shut out of the political process merely by association with conservative politicians,” US District Judge Rudolph Randa wrote. “This cannot square with the First Amendment and what it was meant to protect.”
Randa made that determination when he issued an injunction designed to halt a “John Doe Investigation” into the Wisconsin Club for Growth (WCFG). The secret inquiry targeted supporters of Republican Governor Scott Walker who faced a recall effort organized by Democrats and union groups in 2012.
Investigation Targeted Conservatives
The injunction stops Milwaukee County District Attorney John Chisolm, Special Prosecutor Francis Schmitz, and prosecutors from four other counties from continuing an investigation into the Club for Growth and other conservative groups. The prosecutors alleged that Eric O’Keefe, a political operative associated with the club, violated state campaign finance laws.
“It comes to the Court with more than the usual urgency presented by First Amendment cases because the defendants seek to criminalize the plaintiffs’ speech under Wisconsin’s campaign finance laws,” Randa wrote of the prosecutors. “Defendants instigated a secret John Doe investigation replete with armed raids on homes to collect evidence that would support their criminal prosecution.”
Investigated for Supporting the Free Market?
O’Keefe was apparently targeted because he was an outspoken supporter of a state law called the 2011 Wisconsin Act 10 (also known as the Budget Repair Bill) which was designed to limit the collective bargaining powers of government employees unions, Randa noted in his opinion. The Club for Growth was targeted for the same reason.
“Its purpose is to advance free-market beliefs in Wisconsin,” Randa wrote of the bill. “O’Keefe, the Club, and its supporters immediately recognized the importance of the Bill to the Club‘s mission of promoting principles of economic freedom and limited government. The Club viewed the Bill as a model that, if successful, might be replicated across the country.”
The investigation began as a probe into alleged embezzlement involving Walker’s aides when he was executive of Milwaukee County before he ran for governor. The investigation later morphed into an all-out witch hunt that targeted many of Walker’s political allies. The investigation was expanded to include district attorneys from four other counties: Dodge, Iowa, Columbia and Dane in an attempt to make it look less politically motivated.
Conservatives’ Homes Were Raided
One of the first acts of the investigation was to order armed sheriffs’ deputies to raid homes across Wisconsin early on the morning of Oct. 3, 2013. Those targeted included R.J. Johnson and Deborah Jordahl, two political consultants to the Club for Growth.
“Sheriff deputy vehicles used bright floodlights to illuminate the targets’ homes,” Randa wrote of the raids. “Deputies executed the search warrants, seizing business papers, computer equipment, phones and other devices, while their targets were restrained under police supervision and denied the ability to contact their attorneys. Among the materials seized were many of the Club’s records that were in the possession of Ms. Jordahl and Mr. Johnson.”
The raids were conducted at the instigation of Dean Nickel, an investigator for a Wisconsin state agency called the Government Accountability Board, Randa charged. He also alleged that the real purpose of the investigation and the raids was to stifle the Club’s political activities.
“Ultimately, and perhaps most importantly, the timing of the investigation has frustrated the ability of WCFG and other right-leaning organizations to participate in the 2014 legislative session and election cycle,” Randa alleged.
In addition to the raids, investigators used subpoenas to threaten supporters of the Club and its activities, Randa charged.
He ordered the investigation stopped and all the materials seized to be immediately returned to the plaintiffs. The prosecutors were also ordered to destroy all copies of the records they had seized.
The investigation is far from over, though, as the prosecutors have appealed Randa’s ruling to the US Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals in Chicago, The Wisconsin State Journal reported. Randa is also threatening to hold the prosecutors in contempt because they have refused to comply with his injunction.
Randa made the ruling in a case called Eric O’Keefe and Wisconsin Club For Growth Inc., vs. Francis Schmitz, John Chisolm, Bruce Landgraf, David Robles, Dean Nickel and Gregory Peterson. He was nominated by President George H.W. Bush.
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