Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, a potential 2016 Republican presidential candidate, coordinated fundraising with conservative groups as part of a nationwide "criminal scheme" to violate election laws, prosecutors said in court documents unsealed Thursday.
No charges have been filed against Walker or any member of his staff. The documents were filed in December as part of an ongoing lawsuit by the conservative group Wisconsin Club for Growth, which challenged a secret investigation into campaign fundraising coordination.
The investigation began in 2012 as Walker was facing a recall election, but has been on hold since May when a federal judge ruled it was a breach of the group's free-speech rights and temporarily halted the probe.
State prosecutors said in the December filing that Walker, his former chief of staff Keith Gilkes, top adviser R.J. Johnson and others were discussing illegal fundraising and coordination with a number of national groups and prominent figures, including GOP strategist Karl Rove.
"Two judges have rejected the characterizations disclosed in those documents," Walker's campaign spokeswoman Alleigh Marre said in a statement, referring to previous rulings favorable to the governor and others under investigation.
Marre also said that because Walker is not a party to the federal lawsuit the campaign has no control over any documents that are released.
The court document quotes an email Walker sent to Rove on May 4, 2011, in which he talks about the important role Johnson played in leading the coordination effort.
"Bottom-line: R.J. helps keep in place a team that is wildly successful in Wisconsin," the quoted email from Walker said. "We are running 9 recall elections and it will be like 9 congressional markets in every market in the state (and Twin Cities)."
Johnson, in addition to being Walker's top campaign strategist, also was an adviser for Wisconsin Club for Growth. He did not immediately return a message left on his cellphone.
Prosecutors, including Milwaukee County District Attorney John Chisholm and Schmitz, have appealed to the 7th Circuit Court of Appeals.
Gilkes did not return a message placed on his cellphone. While he eyes a run for president in 2016, Walker is seeking re-election this year against likely Democratic nominee Mary Burke. Both Gilkes and Johnson are working on his re-election campaign.
It's been known for months that the investigation, known as a John Doe, focused on allegations of illegal coordination between Wisconsin Club for Growth, Walker's campaign and other conservative groups during recall elections in 2011 and 2012.
But until Thursday it wasn't clear that prosecutors saw Walker as having such a central role.
"The scope of the criminal scheme under investigation is expansive," Schmitz wrote in the Dec. 9 court filing, objecting to an attempt by Walker's campaign and other conservative groups to quash subpoenas. "It includes criminal violations of multiple elections laws" including filing false campaign finance reports, Schmitz wrote.
Wisconsin Club for Growth attorney Andrew Grossman argued the public has the right to see the documents.
"These documents show how the John Doe prosecutors adopted a blatantly unconstitutional interpretation of Wisconsin law that they used to launch a secret criminal investigation targeting conservatives throughout Wisconsin," Grossman said in an email Thursday. "Sunlight is the best disinfectant, and this is a story that needs to be told to prevent more abuses and to hold the John Doe prosecutors accountable for violating the rights of Wisconsinites."
An attorney for prosecutors, Sam Leib, did not immediately return an email seeking comment.
Prosecutors have defended the investigation as a legitimate probe into whether Wisconsin's campaign finance laws had been violated. They have rejected the argument that they were on a partisan witch hunt.
Walker rose to fame shortly after taking office in 2011, passing a bill that effectively ended collective bargaining for most public workers. The uproar over that law led to Walker's recall election in 2012, which he won, making him the first governor in U.S. history to ever defeat a recall.