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Schimel stands by Walker probe report, despite criticisms



MADISON, Wis. — Wisconsin Attorney General Brad Schimel on Tuesday stood by his investigation into the leak of documents collected during a probe into Gov. Scott Walker, even as the state Ethics Commission accused the Republican of making “omissions and inaccuracies” and the Elections Commission voted to seek an attorney to examine his findings.

Schimel dismissed the Ethics Commission complaints as “not serious criticisms,” just hours after bipartisan leaders of the panel criticized his findings. Also Tuesday, the Elections Commission sought the appointment of an attorney by Gov. Scott Walker to gather additional information related to the report which, ironically, focuses on the how the now-closed investigation into Walker was conducted.

Walker’s spokesman had no immediate comment on whether the request would be fulfilled.

Schimel last week released the results of a yearlong investigation into how 1,300 pages of secret documents collected during the John Doe probe into Walker was leaked to a newspaper in 2016. Schimel recommended that six former employees of the former Government Accountability Board and three employees of the Milwaukee County district attorney’s office face contempt of court charges for violating court secrecy orders and mishandling evidence collected.

Elections Commission chairman Mark Thomsen, a Democratic attorney, said he saw no allegations in Schimel’s report that came close to warranting contempt charges.

The John Doe investigation into Walker’s 2012 recall campaign was similar to a grand jury in that the proceedings and evidence collected were expected to remain secret.

The Wisconsin Supreme Court in 2015 halted the investigation, determining that coordination between Walker and conservative outside groups during the 2011 and 2012 recall elections was legal. Millions of pages of emails and other documents were seized by investigators from Republican office holders, operatives, staff members, fundraisers and others during the investigation.

Schimel’s investigation looked into how some of those documents were leaked to the Guardian U.S. in September 2016, weeks before the U.S. Supreme Court was set to decide whether to take the case.

The Ethics Commission said in its letter that Schimel failed to acknowledge “major security improvements” put in place after the GAB was dissolved in 2015. The Ethics and Elections commissions replaced the GAB.

Schimel determined that the leak of information came from the GAB, but he couldn’t identify the person who leaked it to the newspaper.

Schimel, backing up his claim that the GAB had been “weaponized” to further partisan political goals, noted that emails seized from Republicans were contained in folders labeled “Opposition Research.” The Ethics Commission told Schimel that while that title is “provocative,” the file was “one of the pieces of illegally seized data rather than a document prepared by a GAB operative.”

Schimel, in his response to the Ethics Commission, said the folders, one of which contained more than 390,000 separate files of mostly personal emails, were created after receipt of the evidence from a search warrant.

“Again, we still have not heard an adequate explanation as to why the former GAB staff created this folder, placed in it emails from Republicans, saved it (despite the fact that it contains no evidence of criminal conduct), and then placed it in the Ethics Commission basement where it sat between at least June 2016 and May 2017,” Schimel wrote.

The Ethics Commission faults Schimel for questioning why Ethics commissioners and staff did not report a crime when the Guardian published the leaked documents. No one at the commission had knowledge of the leaked documents before they were published and therefore could not have identified that a crime occurred, the letter said.

The commission also wrote that Schimel was wrong to claim that Ethics Commission Administrator Brian Bell and attorney David Buerger invoked their Fifth Amendment right to counsel before they were questioned by Justice Department agents earlier this year. It was actually members of the commission, not Bell and Buerger, who requested that counsel be present, it wrote.

Neither is recommended for discipline in Schimel’s report. But Republican state Sen. Steve Nass has called for Bell, Buerger and the leaders of the Elections Commission — administrator Michael Haas and attorney Nate Judnic — to resign in the wake of Schimel’s report.

Nass said he stands by that resignation call, even after reading the Ethics Commission’s letter.

“I just don’t trust the Ethics Commission right now with the scathing report from the attorney general,” Nass said.

The Elections Commission voted Tuesday to support Haas, who in turn said he “absolutely” backs Judnic. Judnic is the only current employee of either the Ethics or Elections commissions that Schimel targeted for disciplinary action.

Schimel on Tuesday said that Ethics Commission Chairman David Halbrooks should recuse himself on this issue because he was granted immunity in the first John Doe probe that focused on aides to Walker when he was Milwaukee County executive. Halbrooks, a Democrat and Milwaukee attorney, said he would not recuse himself.

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