Published January 26, 2012
MILWAUKEE – Two women who were on Republican Gov. Scott Walker's staff when he was the Milwaukee County executive were charged Thursday with engaging in political fundraising while at work, becoming the fourth and fifth people with ties to Walker charged as part of a corruption investigation.
Kelly Rindfleisch, Walker's deputy chief of staff before he became governor in 2011, is charged with four felony counts of misconduct in office. Darlene Wink, who was Walker's county constituent services coordinator, faces two misdemeanor counts of political solicitation by a public employee.
The charges stem from a Milwaukee County District Attorney's office investigation that has led to charges against three men with Walker ties. The governor denies wrongdoing and says he hasn't been contacted by prosecutors, but it comes at a politically sensitive time for him, as he is trying to stave off an effort to recall him.
Walker's campaign spokeswoman, Ciara Matthews, issued a statement Thursday saying Walker expected everyone who worked for him to follow the law, "and made that clear publicly and privately."
Wink, 61, was due to make an initial court appearance later Thursday, and Rindfleisch's first court date was set for Feb. 22.
It is illegal for public workers, while engaged in their official duties, to raise funds or otherwise work on political campaigns or use their public workspaces to do so.
But according to prosecutors, Rindfleisch, 43, spent a significant amount of time at work raising funds for Brett Davis, a Republican lieutenant governor candidate in 2010 who prosecutors say was favored by Walker's campaign committee over the eventual winner, Republican Rebecca Kleefisch.
During work hours, Rindfleisch exchanged more than 1,000 emails with Walker campaign officials from early February through early July 2010, averaging more than 10 per day, prosecutors contend. They say Walker's former deputy chief of staff, Tim Russell, set up a private online network run from the county executive's office that was used to discuss campaign and government work.
In one instant message to a friend over that network, Rindfleisch wrote, "half of what I am doing is policy for the campaign," the criminal complaint states. Russell, one of the three others charged in the investigation, is accused of embezzlement.
Rindfleisch's attorney, Franklyn Gimbel, said she plans to plead not guilty. He said he and Rindfleisch have been in contact with the district attorney's office for several months.
"My client is obviously very disappointed that she has been charged so harshly in this matter," he said.
Wink, who in addition to working for Walker was a first vice chairwoman of the Republican Party of Milwaukee County, is accused of using her county computer on work time to help plan a Nov. 6, 2009, gubernatorial fundraiser and a birthday party for Walker.
Prosecutors say she quit her job in May 2010 after it was revealed she had been posting political comments on a newspaper website under an assumed name. They say she also used her personal computer to connect to the private network Russell set up.
Wink's attorney, Peter Wolff, said he and Wink have been discussing a possible plea deal with the district attorney's office that would involve her testifying against Russell and another defendant, Kevin Kavanaugh, who is accused of theft. But he said he couldn't discuss the matter in further detail.
"She was extremely disappointed once that information came out," he said. "Those were people she considered friends and she placed trust in as well. She's fully willing to cooperate with that investigation because of her belief — if it's proven — that what they did was extremely inappropriate."
Kavanaugh, Russell and Russell's longtime domestic partner, Brian Pierick, were charged Jan. 5.
Russell is accused of stealing more than $21,000 from a nonprofit organization that Walker asked him to head. He is scheduled to be arraigned later this month on two felony embezzlement counts, and he already pleaded not guilty to a misdemeanor count.
Kavanaugh, who Walker appointed to the Milwaukee County Veteran Service Commission, is accused of stealing more than $40,000 from 2006 through 2009 from the Military Order of the Purple Heart, where he was the chapter's treasurer. He has pleaded not guilty to one felony count of theft and four felony counts of producing fraudulent writings.
Pierick, who has volunteered previously for Walker's campaign, was charged because prosecutors say an examination of phones and computers seized from his partner, Russell, showed Pierick had attempted to solicit minors for sex. Pierick faces child enticement charges, which he asked a judge on Thursday to dismiss. The judge is expected to rule on the matter Feb. 24.
Prosecutors say Rindfleisch should have known that her conduct was illegal based on her previous involvement with the 2002 investigation into similar activity involving state lawmakers and their staff members known as the "caucus scandal."
Rindfleisch received immunity in that investigation. She worked as a staff member for state Rep. Scott Gunderson in the 1990s and for the Senate Republican Caucus where she worked on planning fundraisers for the GOP, the complaint said.
The complaint also shows an email Walker sent in May 2010 in reaction to the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reporting that Wink was apparently doing partisan political work while working for the county.
"We cannot afford another story like this one," Walker said in the email he sent Russell. "No one can give them any reason to do another story. That means no laptops, no websites, no time away during the work day, etc."
Walker had scheduled an appearance in Wausau Thursday, the day after he delivered his State of the State speech, but canceled it an hour after the indictments were released. His office said it was canceled due to bad weather.
Associated Press writer Scott Bauer in Madison contributed to this report.