In The News
John Doe rips open Walker’s ugly patterns
By Dominique Paul Noth
Editor, Labor Press
Posted January 7, 2012
The ongoing John Doe probe into Scott Walker’s cozy hires is steadily unraveling his carefully crafted self-image. Right now it focuses on his past behavior as Milwaukee county executive but the unfolding investigation threatens to peek into his Wisconsin climb to governorship.
The details so far demonstrate that Walker dodged best practices in the simple responsibility of supervising donated money – taking shortcuts just to further his own flag-waving image as a friend of soldiers even if it exposed to fraud thousands of dollars intended for veterans and their children.
Simple control guidelines urged on Walker throughout that time by many experienced county hands were rebuffed. Government money, certainly at the county, is carefully scrutinized and audited, so the tip-off for many is how often Walker seeks out contributions from private companies, community organizations and charities. Ostensibly that reflects a philosophy about private giving but it also opens the door to far less scrutiny and more opportunity for corruption, particularly by a major government official the conservative community regards as a mini-deity.
The fraud according to the indictments was carried out by close aides, appointee Kevin Kavanaugh and longtime crony Tim Russell who also dipped into campaign funds of those running for county office and financed exotic vacations with the thefts. Also charged – with child enticement as well as campaign dipping --- was Russell’s domestic partner, Brian Pierick, a charge uncovered while investigating other matters. Kavanaugh, who allegedly stole the most money from a fund intended for children, was appointed by Walker later in 2010 to the county veteran board.
Ideology seems to allow Walker rather cunningly to buffer himself – or so supporters can say. Walker can again claim, as he often does, that it was out-of-control assistants -- one a close friend for a decade whose scheme he even co-signed –- who were the alleged villains, ducking the question of who hired them in the first place and why he kept elevating them against advice.
More than a century after Tammany Hall, politicians still know the game. Just blame those flawed associates. They can be thrown to the wolves should any effort be made to link Walker to emerging fraud and loose fingers.
The John Doe probe reveals how carelessness stalks Walker’s decisions. Media still tries to portray him as a “gifted but flawed leader” but they misread basic character weaknesses. He constantly tries to fill his campaign coffers alongside his conservative reputation, with disastrous results. This combination leads him again and again to horribly bad judgment about advisers and aides, who he then keeps trying to elevate to more important and damaging positions.
Investigators were not looking at politics but at crimes against the public. They keep unintentionally exposing an ideological charade.
When Supervisor John Weishan, a Marine, complained several years ago that Walker was engaged in self-aggrandizement, shutting out the America Legion and the County Board and insisting on creating his own charity effort along with Russell for veterans, Weishan was hooted down as just another liberal politician opposed to Walker’s right-wing vision. So busy were the attackers that they failed to notice what the DA seized on, that Walker created a 501 ( c ) for veterans out of his own elected office, a big warning signal of what could happen to funds from the well-meaning public.
Today, Weishan looks pretty prescient . . . while Walker? It’s as if the preacher’s son was grabbing a nap in the back pew when morality and ethics came up in the pulpit.
It becomes harder to dismiss it all as ideology. He may constantly oppose the concept of government regulations and oversight but it so often protects him (including the federal privacy rules that keep his Marquette University dropout transcripts from press scrutiny). He doesn’t hesitate to use the government regulatory blanket when threatened with exposure -- blaming federal rules for tying his hands, of course, but then darn grateful that such oversight kept him from a bigger mistake. (Read up on Medicaid, Family Care and his attempts to get the rules waived.) Trust that he will cuddle under that regulatory blanket when law enforcement starts circling in.
Walker’s dedication to self-interest even undoes his occasional forays into economic issues. His laws keep trying to reward companies that rewarded him in campaign cash, only to find their true colors are to grab the tax breaks and still shed jobs. What a blow to his theory of trickle down! The public now sees that millions given to corporations came directly out of the $1.6 billion taken from public schools funding, raising a basic values test that he flunks. Similarly, he keeps electing people to state watchdog boards that have their own fingers in the cookie jar.
When Walker thought he was talking to David Koch, the public heard something akin to preening and greedy rapaciousness. But conservatives have always tended to dismiss his errors as those of green enthusiasm by a true believer. In their minds the recall fever is fueled by outside unions (Walker’s constant harping) and maybe by his sometimes overbroad pursuit of “worthy causes.” (In their view, it sometimes seems, it’s fine to severely hurt people already born if you are a champion of the unborn.)
Perhaps, these conservatives occasionally agree if pressed, he did take way too much money from public education and too many dollars out of the pockets of the middle class, but hey, they add, those were only union workers, and we all know how rich they really are, right? Perhaps it was opposition to federal funded programs that led to such extreme cuts in elderly health care or his attacks on the successful conduit of Planned Parenthood for essential female care and cancer screening.
Perhaps where there once was little voter suppression in the state, he created genuine suppression in his effort to crush a demon of his own right-wing imagination (when I heard a Republican concede that in conversation last week, I almost fell on the floor). But really, the believers in his once youthful idealism keep arguing, isn’t that just excessive zeal in the pursuit of conservative goals?
This is why the John Doe probe is important. The left insists there is a hole in his head, but now the right is seeing the big hole in his behavior, the emperor shriveling. John Doe is ripping off invisible garments without partisanship (imagine what talk radio would be saying if the exposed fumbler was a Democrat!).
It’s hard for anyone to join conservative talking heads in saying stealing $60,000 from the children of Iraq and Afghanistan veterans is just petty cash.
And it’s impossible to blame the prosecutor for being a Democrat. What is rapidly becoming clear is that Milwaukee County DA John Chisholm is a stubborn straight-shooter when it comes to the law. He doesn’t wink to the left or blink at the anger on the right. He would and has done the same to public officials of any party.
And he has just started, with federal investigators helping after GOP attorney general J.B. Van Hollen declined to assist.
The DA’s measured approach allows Walker to claim – without Chisholm correcting the record – that it was Walker and his administration that blew the whistle on his own hires. This is such a feeble perversion of the events it’s amazing that anyone in the media would buy it. Until you recall the corrupt veterans appreciation Operation Freedom at the Milwaukee Zoo had its own tireless media champion and emcee, one Charlie Sykes.
It was a Walker chief of staff (he’s had some curious ones over the years) who approached the DA with suspicion of theft. That was Tom Nardelli, a former military colonel, a fellow much scoffed at as a triple public pension dipper with his strong military pension, his city pension as retired alderman, his county pension under Walker and almost a sizeable state pension until he mysteriously and quickly stepped out from under Walker earlier this year. But Nardelli clearly had too much financial self-interest and veterans affairs history invested to not speak up about suspected slow thievery – and he also may have been motivated by getting away from Walker’s tactics and personnel penchants.
So it was quite a stretch for Walker to pretend otherwise in a press conference. All that did was bring back memories to many at the county.
How indicted Tim Russell was fired for incompetence by the County Board and stubbornly rehired by Walker for other positions. How this was the same time frame of suspicious insider visits with Walker around county real estate, which may be why next up for the John Doe court is real estate figure Andrew P. Jensen, Jr. How there are still mysteries surrounding Madison shenanigans, computer files and another former Walker county chief of staff Jim Villa, also associated with real estate and campaign fund-raising trips out of state.
None of these stories may show up over the course of this John Doe investigation, but the possibilities sure must make Walker nervous. Students of such prosecutorial investigation know how often the agents start off looking in one direction only to uncover another – and how very often the studied careful legal protections created by a public official wind up exposing another way in for dogged investigators, knowing they are likely to land the smaller fish and lesser charges before triggering larger inquiries and connections.
Walker’s tenure as county executive is full of carefully constructed walls that to the casual observer might protect him, but to the investigator could expose patterns, chinks in judgment that reveal what was actually going on. Similar double-dealing haunts his policies as governor – bad character judgment, thoughtless overreach, reliance on outside counsel, venal rewarding of wealthy allies. So no matter how many high-priced lawyers are prepared to do combat on his side, his own tendencies have laid down a suspicious grid that is likely to send off sparks under intelligent scrutiny.