MILWAUKEE – One of Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker's potential recall opponents called Wednesday for Walker to clarify why he has set up a legal defense fund to pay expenses related to an ongoing investigation that's led to criminal charges against five former close aides and associates.
Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett sought to highlight the investigation, which centers on people who served during Walker's time leading Milwaukee County before he was elected governor in 2010, as a potential recall campaign issue. Allegations ranging from campaigning on county time to embezzling money from a veterans program have ensnared people close to Walker, but the governor himself has not been charged with any wrongdoing and he says he's cooperating with the investigation.
Under state law, officeholders may only set up a legal defense fund in one of two cases: if they've been charged with, or are under investigation for, violations connected to campaign finance laws; or with violations connected to election laws.
Barrett, one of four Democrats hoping to unseat Walker in a recall election next month, said Walker owes it to voters to make clear which situation applies to him. The mayor honed in on revelations this week that Walker's campaign has transferred $60,000 to the legal fund to pay for attorneys.
"I think it's only fair to ask him why he set that up," Barrett said.
Walker's campaign responded with a statement reiterating that Walker has been told he's not a target of the investigation.
"We have stated time and time again, this fund has been set up under the guidance of the GAB (Government Accountability Board)," spokeswoman Ciara Matthews said, referring to the state elections board.
Walker earlier told reporters after an unrelated news conference that he's simply relying on his defense team to deal with administrative issues he doesn't have time to handle.
"I don't think the voters of Wisconsin want me to spend hours and hours and hours looking through tens of thousands of emails and documents. I think they want me to be the governor," he said.
Messages left for Walker's attorneys, Mike Steinle and John Gallo, were not immediately returned.
A message also was left for Milwaukee County District Attorney John Chisholm, who has repeatedly declined to comment about the probe he is conducting as a so-called John Doe investigation. That means witnesses can be compelled to testify under oath about potential criminal matters but state law prohibits anyone involved in such secret proceedings from talking publicly about them.
The Government Accountability Board also has declined to comment on what it may have advised Walker to do beyond pointing to the relevant state statutes on legal defense funds. Aside from outlining the circumstances under which such a fund can be set up, the law says donors' contributions can only be transferred into one with their explicit permission.
Barrett said Walker needs to disclose who his donors are and prove they have consented.
"The state deserves to know who's paying his bills," the mayor said.
The ongoing investigation already has led to charges against five people who worked for or were associated with Walker's county executive office in Milwaukee before he was elected governor in 2010.
One former aide pleaded guilty to working on Walker's gubernatorial campaign on county time, and his former deputy chief of staff is charged with felony misconduct in office. Two other former Walker associates were charged with embezzling more than $60,000 from veterans and their families, and a fifth is charged with child enticement, evidence of which allegedly was discovered while investigating one of the others.
Dinesh Ramde can be reached at dramde(at)ap.org.