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More Special Treatment for Wisconsin Politicians?

Clean-government advocates are protesting a bill circulating at the state Capitol. Credit: Anita Burgemeister, Wikimedia Commons
Clean-government advocates are protesting a bill circulating at the state Capitol. Credit: Anita Burgemeister, Wikimedia Commons
August 26, 2015

MADISON, Wis. - Late last week, a state Assembly committee advanced a bill that would prevent prosecutors from investigating politicians using a John Doe probe. The legislation could be taken up by the full Legislature this fall.

Opponents of the bill, including Jay Heck, executive director of Common Cause in Wisconsin, say this is a particularly bad piece of legislation.

"Pretty shocking that politicians in Madison are trying to carve our something that will benefit them but no one else," Heck said. "If you're engaged in political shenanigans, the John Doe tool will not be available to prosecutors."

Twice, Gov. Scott Walker has been the subject of a John Doe probe, which prompts some to say the bill is political payback. The Republican authors of the bill say it will lead to greater accountability in government.

"How that makes politicians more accountable is just laughable," Heck said. "If anything, this will make them able to get away with stuff that they've not been able to get away with in the past."

Republicans say political crimes still could be investigated, but not within the framework of a John Doe probe.

Heck and other clean-government advocates point out that the state's John Doe law dates back to the days when Wisconsin was a territory. The law led to uncovering one of the biggest political scandals in state history, the so-called "caucus scandal" of 2001, which resulted in criminal charges against a number of high-profile Wisconsin politicians in both parties.

"There shouldn't be special treatment for people who are engaged in politics and are breaking the law, as opposed to people who are not engaged in politics and might be breaking the law," Heck said. "We should all be treated the same."

According to Republican supporters, the John Doe process has been abused. Heck said this bill is political payback, pointing out that the first John Doe probe involving Walker resulted in convictions of six of his associates when he was Milwaukee County executive.

"It's a little bit like saying, 'If you leave me alone, trust me, nothing bad will happen,' " Heck said, "and of course we know in politics that when people aren't being watched and there isn't transparency, that's when bad things do happen."

Details of the bill, 2015 AB 68, are online at docs.legis.wisconsin.gov.

Tim Morrissey, Public News Service - WI