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Talk is cheap in the John Doe probe of Walker's recall election

A lot of folks -- perhaps too many -- are spouting off about the John Doe probe launched by the Milwaukee County District Attorney's office into the campaign of Republican Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker and more than two dozen conservative groups, among others.

Milwaukee County Sheriff David Clarke Jr. called it a witch hunt by a DA's office that is "becoming weaponized for political purposes," according to Wisconsin Reporter.

The conservative news outlet has published more than a dozen articles on the probe, many quoting anonymous sources making similar charges. One article even suggested the DA's office chose Francis Schmitz to serve as special prosecutor to provide cover for a Democrat-led scheme to "take down" Walker. Schmitz, a respected former federal prosecutor, made President George W. Bush's short list for a U.S. attorney post.

But wait: Why is tapping someone with Republican ties and a stellar reputation -- the same article quoted a named source calling Schmitz ethically "beyond reproach" -- proof of devious partisan intent?

"It lacks internal logic," reflects Madison attorney Hal Harlowe, formerly district attorney of Dane County. "I don't see how you can criticize the Milwaukee DA for picking someone who's beyond reproach."

The spin is coming from all quarters.

"You can assume they're finding serious acts of wrongdoing," state Democratic Party Chairman Mike Tate told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. But there's no reason to believe Tate knows more about this secret probe's findings than those who are branding it a partisan witch hunt.

Even Walker has publicly linked the probe to the emergence of his Democratic challenger for re-election next year, overlooking that it was reportedly launched in February 2012.

Mike McCabe, executive director of the Wisconsin Democracy Campaign, a nonpartisan watchdog, notes that almost no probe details are public, aside from what one of its subjects leaked to The Wall Street Journal.

"I think there has been a very coordinated effort to undermine the investigation and smear the investigators," McCabe says. Based on his own involvement with past John Does, he doubts this one was launched, as alleged, as a fishing expedition. "I think it's most likely that they had some evidence of wrongdoing."

The probe is said to be an offshoot of a prior John Doe that that led to six criminal convictions, including three former Walker aides. Its presumed focus is possible illegal coordination between candidates and outside groups that engage in election-related activities. The named targets, McCabe's group reports, accounted for more than half of all campaign spending in the 2011 and 2012 recall elections.

Legal challenges seeking to halt the probe could eventually come before the Wisconsin Supreme Court. All four members of the court's conservative majority have had major help getting elected from two known targets, Wisconsin Club for Growth and Wisconsin Manufacturers & Commerce.

The probe's critics note that Milwaukee County DA's office is headed by a Democrat, John Chisholm. The lead assistant DA, Bruce Landgraf, has drawn harsh attacks. Wisconsin Reporter says it's heard from "multiple sources" -- none named -- who say Landgraf "has shown himself ready to bully and even flout the law in pursuit of political targets."

Attorney Paul Bucher, who has known Landgraf for many years, has this to say: "I don't know what his politics are, but he has strong integrity. He's not a political hack. I know DAs who are. I'm not going to name names but that's not the Bruce Landgraf I know."

Bucher, past president of the Wisconsin District Attorneys Association, served as the Republican district attorney of Waukesha County for nearly two decades and ran as a Republican for state attorney general.

Maybe the probe will result in charges for alleged wrongdoing, maybe it won't. And maybe, just maybe, the prosecutors, judges and other officials involved in it are entitled to a little respect.

Bill Lueders ( is the Money and Politics Project director at the Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism. The project, a partnership of the Center and MapLight, is supported by The Joyce Foundation.

The nonprofit and nonpartisan Center collaborates with Wisconsin Public Radio, Wisconsin Public Television, other news media and the UW-Madison School of Journalism and Mass Communication. All works created, published, posted or disseminated by the Center do not necessarily reflect the views or opinions of UW-Madison or any of its affiliates.

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