Politics
6:05 am
Thu February 20, 2014

Ex-Aide's Emails May Taint Wisconsin Governor's Political Ambitions

Originally published on Thu March 20, 2014 12:42 pm

A Wisconsin court has released an enormous number of emails — 27,000 pages — from a former aide to Gov. Scott Walker.

Kelly Rindfleisch was convicted last year of using her government job to do illegal campaign work. At the time, Walker was the Milwaukee County executive.

The emails paint a picture of constant coordination between Walker's county office and his 2010 gubernatorial campaign. They were made public in the middle of Walker's gubernatorial re-election campaign, and at a time when the governor is considered a presidential hopeful for 2016.

Rindfleisch was deputy chief of staff in Milwaukee County and sat at a desk down the hall from Walker. In email after email from 2010, Rindfleisch was raising money for the Walker campaign's favored lieutenant governor candidate, Brett Davis. In between, she'd do background research for Walker's campaign, taking direction from his campaign manager.

Rindfleisch is appealing her conviction. She was sentenced to six months in prison and three years' probation.

Walker was not charged with any wrongdoing. The investigation closed last year, and in the end, six of his former aides and associates were convicted.

For a couple of years now, Wisconsin Democrats have hammered Walker because of Rindfleisch. With Walker's star rising in the Republican Party, Democratic National Committee Chairwoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz jumped into the fray Wednesday.

"As scandals continue to unfold in front of him, they beg more questions than I'm sure the governor would like to answer," Wasserman Schultz says.

In one of the emails, another top Walker aide welcomes Rindfleisch to the "inner circle," telling Rindfleisch she often uses her own personal email account to contact Walker.

After another county worker in Walker's office was found to be using her government job to post on political websites, Walker himself expressed concern, emailing that "we cannot afford another story like this one," telling top county aides "that means no laptops, no websites, no time away during the work day, etc."

In a conference call with reporters, Wisconsin Democratic Party Chairman Mike Tate said the emails put Walker in the company of another GOP governor who is getting lots of attention lately.

"Much like Chris Christie, Scott Walker likes to stand in the middle of people committing criminal activity all around him and saying 'I had no idea what was going on. All these people were breaking the law, but I was unaware of it, I wasn't directing it.' It's sort of like see no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil. It's just a little hard to believe that Scott Walker was totally unaware that his senior staff was breaking the law on a regular basis," Tate says.

Larry Sabato with the University of Virginia's Center for Politics says that as Walker emerges as a possible establishment Republican candidate for president, these emails will undoubtedly lead to more scrutiny.

"If you're asking me, 'Will there be a lot more coverage of this?' the answer is absolutely yes, particularly if Walker does run for president," he says.

But Sabato doesn't buy the Christie-Walker connection.

"This is no Bridgegate. It's not even vaguely equivalent," he says.

Marquette University Pollster Charles Franklin says people already knew about the Reindfleisch investigation during Walker's recall election. He says prosecutors knew about these emails, too.

"The issue raised a lot of questions but ultimately was resolved with staff members, not including charges against the governor," Franklin says.

That's not to say this is a settled issue. Prosecutors in five Wisconsin counties have launched a second John Doe investigation involving work done by several conservative groups during the recall campaign. Whether this involves Walker personally is not known, though his campaign continues to spend money on lawyers and he won't discuss the probe.

"As I've said before, we're not getting into details about this process until it's completed," Walker told the media.

Meanwhile, Walker's backers kicked his 2014 campaign into high gear ahead of the release of the emails. The Republican Governors Association this week began running a TV ad attacking his Democratic opponent Mary Burke, who so far has kept silent on the emails — letting other Democrats take the first swings.

The governor also kept a low-key public schedule Wednesday. The man who likes to brand himself as a forward-looking politician is incessantly being asked about his past.

Copyright 2014 Wisconsin Public Radio. To see more, visit http://wpr.org/.

Transcript

RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

You're listening to MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

And I'm Steve Inskeep.

A state court in Wisconsin has released an enormous number of emails, 27,000 pages. These are e-mails to and from a former aide to Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker. She was convicted of using her government job to do illegal campaign work. Now, realistically politicians may think about reelection every day, all the time, and may think about the political effect of everything they do.

But government employees, strictly speaking, are not supposed to work on campaigns on government time. And these emails offer evidence of constant coordination between Walker's 2010 campaign for governor and the office he was running at that time, as Milwaukee County executive. Now the emails have surfaced in the mists of Walker's campaign for reelection.

Wisconsin Public Radio's Sean Johnson reports.

SHAWN JOHNSON, BYLINE: The e-mails came from the account of Kelly Rindfleisch who, as deputy chief of staff in Milwaukee County, sat at a desk just down the hallway from Walker. In e-mail after e-mail from 2010, Rindfleisch was raising money for the Walker campaign's favored lieutenant governor candidate. In between, she'd do background research for Walker's campaign, taking direction from his campaign manager. She pleaded guilty to a felony and faces six months in prison.

Wisconsin Democrats have hammered Walker because of Rindfleisch for a couple of years now. With his star rising in the Republican Party, Democratic National Committeewoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz jumped into the fray yesterday.

REPRESENTATIVE DEBBIE WASSERMAN SCHULTZ: As scandals continue to unfold in front of him, they beg more questions than I'm sure the governor would like to answer.

JOHNSON: The e-mails occasionally veer into cloak and dagger stuff. Another top Walker aide welcomes Rindfleisch to the inner circle, saying she often uses her own personal email account to contact Walker. After another county worker in Walker's office is found to be using her government job to post on political websites, Walker himself expresses concern, emailing that we cannot afford another story like this one, telling top county aides that means no laptops, no websites, no time away during the work day, et cetera.

In a conference call with reporters, Wisconsin Democratic Party Chair Mike Tate says the emails put Walker in the company of another GOP governor getting lots of attention.

MIKE TATE: Much like Chris Christie, Scott Walker likes to stand in the middle of people committing criminal activity all around him and saying: I had no idea what was going on. All these people were breaking the law, but I was unaware of it, I wasn't directing it. It's sort of like see no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil. It's just a little hard to believe that Scott Walker was totally unaware that his senior staff was breaking the law on a regular basis.

JOHNSON: Whether the Christie comparison sticks remains to be seen. Larry Sabato, with the University of Virginia's Center for Politics, says that as Scott Walker emerges as a possible establishment Republican candidate for president, these emails will undoubtedly lead to more scrutiny.

LARRY SABATO: If you're asking me, will there be a lot more coverage of this? The answer is absolutely yes, particularly if Walker does run for president.

JOHNSON: But Sabato doesn't buy the Chris Christie-Scott Walker connection.

SABATO: This is no Bridgegate. It's not even vaguely equivalent.

JOHNSON: In Wisconsin, Marquette University pollster Charles Franklin says people already knew about the Rindfleisch investigation during Walker's recall election. Franklin says prosecutors knew about these emails, too.

CHARLES FRANKLIN: And so, the issue raised a lot of questions but ultimately was resolved with staff members, not including charges against the governor.

JOHNSON: That's not to say this is a settled issue. Prosecutors in five Wisconsin counties have launched a second John Doe investigation, involving work done by several conservative groups during the recall campaign. Whether this involves Walker, personally, is not known, though his campaign continues to spend money on lawyers and he won't discuss the probe.

GOVERNOR SCOTT WALKER REPUBLICAN, WISCONSIN: As I've said before, we're not getting into details about this process until it's completed.

JOHNSON: Meanwhile, Scott Walker's backers kicked his 2014 campaign into high gear ahead of the release of the emails. The Republican Governors Association, this week, began running a TV ad attacking his Democratic opponent, Mary Burke.

(SOUNDBITE OF A POLITICAL AD)

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Waste, mismanagement, fewer jobs, Mary Burke would take Wisconsin backwards.

JOHNSON: Mary Burke was silent on these emails yesterday, letting other Democrats take the first swings. The governor also kept a low-key public schedule yesterday. The man who likes to brand himself as a forward-looking politician is incessantly being asked about his past.

For NPR News, I'm Shawn Johnson in Madison. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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