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Friday, March 6, 2015 |  Madison, WI: 3.0° F  Fair
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FBI probe should worry Walker
Corruption will be a major issue in the recall campaign

With new arrests every week, the FBI probe of Scott Walker's closest aides and supporters is continually uncovering stories that would be front-page news in any other political era.

How strained are things around the governor's mansion, where Walker's own spokesman, Cullen Werwie, now has immunity in the FBI probe? No wonder the governor says he wants to hurry up the recall election.

So serious are the charges against some of the people closest to Walker, corruption is rapidly becoming a major issue for the coming recall campaign, eclipsing union-busting, budget-cutting, and the fact that, despite massive corporate tax breaks for "job creators," our state continues to hemorrhage jobs.

But stealing money from the widows and orphans of Wisconsin's fallen soldiers? That is truly a new low.

Obviously, Walker's base isn't going to be too psyched about the child-enticement scandal involving longtime Walker aide Tim Russell and partner Brian Pierick - or the fact that they used Walker's name as a handle on Internet porn sites.

But the sociopathic theft of funds intended to help veterans and their families is a much bigger deal, and fits a larger pattern of corruption that could really hurt Walker.

The criminal complaints in the John Doe investigation, otherwise known as "Walkergate," are jaw-dropping.

So far, the secret investigation has not directly implicated Walker. But he has plenty of reason to worry.

The governor's assertion that he himself blew the whistle on the aides who, according to the Milwaukee County district attorney's office, stole funds from a fundraiser for veterans at the Milwaukee County Zoo doesn't match with the timeline outlined by investigators.

In April 2009 the chief investigator of the Milwaukee County district attorney's office interviewed Walker's then chief of staff, Thomas Nardelli. Nardelli acknowledged that he learned in 2008 that the Milwaukee County Zoo had not been paid for hosting the Operation Freedom picnic, and about the $11,000 that was missing.

"On numerous occasions during 2008 and 2009, Mr. Nardelli asked defendant [Kevin] Kavanaugh to provide an accounting," the criminal complaint states. Kavanaugh neither provided an account nor returned the funds. "Mr. Nardelli concluded that defendant Kavanaugh had stolen $11,242.24 of Operation Freedom funds," the criminal complaint states.

Why would Nardelli keep his suspicions to himself?

Twelve months later, long after his own chief of staff suspected Kavanaugh of mishandling funds, Walker reappointed Kavanaugh to the county Veterans Service Commission and named him to a campaign position on the board of Veterans for Walker.

Kavanaugh, according to the criminal complaint, was supposed to deliver checks from the veterans' group Order of the Purple Heart to the widows of deceased service members. Instead, the complaint states, he cashed the checks and spent the money on himself - including one $1,200 check for a dead soldier's wife and two orphaned children, which, according to the complaint, he used to pay for his wedding.

Then Walker put Tim Russell in charge of the zoo fundraiser. Russell promptly transferred $5,000 from the fundraiser into his personal bank account, according to the criminal complaint, and spent the money on a Carnival cruise ship vacation.

He also used some of the funds, investigators charge, to pay for Walker campaign websites.

In fact, the whole zoo fundraiser was essentially a Walker campaign event, according to Milwaukee County Board member John Weishan, a Marine Corps veteran. For years, Weishan and other veterans on the county board were offended by how Walker turned the fundraiser into a political event to promote himself and pushed veterans off the stage.

The investigation has clearly broadened beyond the veterans issue. Andrew P. Jensen, former head of the statewide commercial realtors association, spent a night in Milwaukee County jail for refusing to cooperate when a judge wouldn't give him secret immunity.

You remember the caucus scandal, which ended with numerous indictments and Democratic Senate Majority Leader Chuck Chvala serving nine months behind bars. The current probe could easily top that investigation, which trashed our state's reputation for clean and open government, according to Wisconsin Democracy Campaign's Mike McCabe. McCabe has assisted federal investigators with their research into campaign finance violations by both parties - back in the days of the caucus scandal and again, lately, in the Walker probe.

Ten years ago, during the caucus scandal, McCabe says, "They tried to ride it out, but it stayed in the news...then it really blew up."

The same thing is happening now, he says.

"This could very well turn into something that rivals the magnitude of the caucus scandal," he adds.

McCabe and other good-government types remember fondly the days of Bill Proxmire, who never spent more than $300 on a statewide campaign.

Former U.S. Sen. Russ Feingold was also fond of invoking Proxmire. You have to wonder what he makes of the current state of politics in Wisconsin - and the prospects for running on the restoration of those good old clean-government days.

Ruth Conniff is the political editor of The Progressive.

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