What Did Walker Know?
Two ex-Walker aides charged with illegal campaigning
Two staffers who worked directly for Gov. Scott Walker while he was county executive were charged Thursday with illegally doing extensive political work while being paid by taxpayers to do county jobs.
One of the two, Darlene Wink, cut a deal with prosecutors under which she agreed to provide information in a related investigation about the destruction of digital evidence and to aid in further prosecutions. This is the first indication that the multifaceted John Doe investigation may be pursuing charges of evidence tampering.
Milwaukee County prosecutors also made the surprising disclosure that top Walker aides set up a private Internet network to allow them to communicate with one another by email about campaign as well as county government work without the public or co-workers’ knowledge.
The emails Walker officials traded via the shadow network could provide investigators with a trove of information as they pursue other angles in the case. Earlier this week, the Journal Sentinel reported that the probe was focusing on possible bid-rigging and other misconduct in the competition to house the county Department on Aging in private office space.
In a statement, Walker’s campaign said he had a policy against county employees using government resources to do campaign work.
“Scott Walker expected everyone to follow the law and made that clear publicly and privately,” the statement said.
Walker faces a potential recall election later this year.
On Thursday, prosecutors charged Kelly Rindfleisch, deputy chief of staff to Walker in 2010, with four felony counts of misconduct in office for working for then-Rep. Brett Davis’ 2010 campaign for lieutenant governor while on the county clock. Davis, who lost in the Republican primary, is now Walker’s state Medicaid director.
The complaint says that Rindfleisch told a friend in an Internet chat shortly after taking the job with Walker that “half of what I’m doing is policy for the campaign.”
During work hours between February 2010 and early July 2010, it says, Rindfleisch sent more than 300 emails to Davis and 1,380 fundraising emails. The John Doe also turned up more than 1,000 emails between Rindfleisch and top staffers on Walker’s 2010 campaign during work hours over the same period.
The complaint said Walker’s chief of staff, Tom Nardelli, was unaware that Rindfleisch had been hired when she showed up on her first day of work.
Franklyn Gimbel, her attorney, said he will be raising a number of legal objections to the case against his client. He said those issues need to be resolved before he can discuss the merits of the case.
“There’s no discussion of a plea,” Gimbel said.
Each of the felony counts against Rindfleisch carries a maximum penalty of 3½ years behind bars and a $10,000 fine.
Davis did not respond to repeated requests for comment made to his cellphone and office phone.
Wink, Walker’s onetime constituent services coordinator, has agreed to plead guilty to two misdemeanor counts for using county resources to raise money for Walker’s 2010 gubernatorial bid. Prosecutors will ask that a judge not lock up Wink as part of the deal.
In a letter outlining the agreement, Assistant District Attorney Bruce Landgraf said Wink’s political activity was not as extensive as other county workers’. Plus, Landgraf wrote, she has “valuable information” that might be needed in future cases. She already has given investigators information on the destruction of some unspecified digital evidence.
“Her truthful testimony in this regard is a thing of value to the State of Wisconsin,” Landgraf wrote.
According to complaint:
Wink worked on campaign fundraisers, phone banks, Reagan Day dinners and Milwaukee County Republican Party matters while working in Walker’s office. In one 2009 chat with Timothy Russell, a longtime friend and fellow Walker aide, Wink asked how she could clear a document from her chat session. Russell told her it would disappear when she logged out.
“I just am afraid of going to jail – ha! ha!” Wink wrote in August 2009.
Russell replied, “You wouldn’t, not for that.”
Public workers are prohibited from doing campaign work at the courthouse.
Peter Wolff, Wink’s attorney, said she never intended to do anything wrong and remains adamant that Walker knew nothing of her campaign activity.
“She’s a genuine and good-hearted person,” Wolff said.
Wink, a former vice chair of the county Republican Party, resigned from her county job in May 2010 after admitting to the Journal Sentinel that she was spending part of her work day doing campaign work.
According to the Rindfleisch complaint, Walker responded to the public controversy by sending an email to a top aide from a private email account.
“We cannot afford another story like this one,” Walker wrote to Russell. “No one can give them any reason to do another story. That means no laptops, no websites, no time away during the work day, etc.”
The maximum penalty for each of Wink’s two misdemeanor counts is six months in jail and a $1,000 fine if convicted.
Milwaukee County officials expressed shock at the criminal charges and said Walker or another high-level Walker staffer should have known about the alleged campaign activity and stopped it.
“Scott’s no neophyte – he knows what the rules are,” said Supervisor Mark Borkowski, who noted that he doesn’t view Walker as someone who would condone something so blatantly illegal but was at a loss to explain it.
The charges are the latest in a 20-month John Doe investigation into the activities of Walker’s former and current staffers. A John Doe is a secret probe in which prosecutors can compel testimony and subpoena documents while looking into possible criminal activity.
Already, District Attorney John Chisholm’s office has charged Russell, former Walker deputy chief of staff, and former county veterans official Kevin Kavanaugh with stealing more than $60,000 in donations intended for Operation Freedom, an annual event honoring veterans at the county zoo. Both are facing multiple felonies.
Russell’s domestic partner, Brian Pierick, was also charged with two felony child enticement counts.
Rindfleisch, 43, went to work for Walker in January 2010 as a policy adviser before replacing Russell as the county executive’s deputy chief of staff at a salary of $59,560 a year. She left the county job on Nov. 12, 2010, less than two weeks after Walker defeated Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett in the governor’s race.
Now listing herself as a consultant, she previously worked in government relations for the Wisconsin Association of Health Plans and as a legislative staffer, including time as an employee of the Assembly Republican Caucus and Senate Republican Caucus.
The partisan legislative caucuses were disbanded in 2001 after investigators concluded they were taxpayer-financed campaign machines for their respective political parties. That investigation led to criminal charges and fines against five lawmakers and four legislative aides.
Though he was serving in the Assembly when the caucus scandal broke, Walker was never mentioned in connection with it.
The criminal complaint says that as part of that caucus probe, Rindfleisch told investigators that she spent part of her time organizing and planning campaign fundraisers while working for the state. She spoke with agents after being given immunity.
Records show Rindfleisch is the registered agent for JVS Consulting, a company created a little more than a week after she joined Walker’s staff.
During his campaign for lieutenant governor, Davis, a three-term Oregon Republican, paid a total of $5,000 to JVS for consulting and fundraising work between March 31 and July 1, 2010.
Walker did not officially endorse any of the four Republicans running for lieutenant governor in 2010.
The criminal complaint against Rindfleisch shows that Walker’s campaign manager, Keith Gilkes, had spoken with one donor on behalf of Davis and told the donor that Davis was “the candidate” for lieutenant governor.
Despite this behind-the-scenes support, Davis was seen as too moderate by some Republicans and ultimately lost the primary to Rebecca Kleefisch, the state’s current lieutenant governor and Walker’s running mate. After Kleefisch won the primary, Walker said he had voted for her.
Gilkes did not respond to a request for comment.
The complaint reveals a “secret email system” that was “routinely used by selected insiders within the Walker administration” for county business as well as unofficial purposes such as campaigning.
“It should be (illegal) because it defeats the public’s right to know,” said Bob Dreps, an attorney who handles open records cases for clients such as the Journal Sentinel. “If it’s official business, it belongs in the official system.”
The existence of the email system was a closely held secret, and it was not made known to the county employee responsible for gathering county emails in response to requests for information by the public, reporters and groups, the complaint said. The secret system used personal Internet email accounts.
“In the course of the investigation, it was learned that a private email network was established and operated out of the county executive’s office and that the private network was used to communicate both political campaign and government-related information to select individuals,” Chisholm said in a statement.
The complaint does not list all the officials who used the secret system, but it does say the unofficial networking system was set up in the county executive’s office suite by Russell while he was Walker’s deputy chief of staff.
Russell’s county office was less than 25 feet from Walker’s on the third floor of the courthouse, the complaint notes.
The complaint does not say whether Walker was aware of the secret email system.
Rindfleisch and Wink did campaign work on the unofficial network, the complaint says.
The secret email system also was used for county business “which could have and which did include communications” subject to the state’s open records statute, the complaint says.
Laurie Panella, the acting director of the county’s information management division, testified that the email system was never disclosed to her, “although it would have been important for her to know.”
Because of her role on an open records committee set up to handle the public’s requests for information, Panella testified that Russell knew of requests for his emails with Wink. But Russell never told Panella that he and Wink had used the secret email system during the course of the business day, Panella testified.
Rindfleisch, who was also on the committee, never disclosed that she used the system.
The complaint includes a lengthy log of some of the hundreds of campaign-related emails sent by Rindfleisch to Davis and his campaign.
Rindfleisch was in regular contact with Walker’s campaign as well, the complaint says. She spent, it says, significant periods of county time on communications with the Friends of Scott Walker campaign committee.
The John Doe investigation “has identified in excess of 1,000 emails” between Rindfleisch and Gilkes, campaign manager Stephan Thompson or Walker campaign communications director Jill Bader.
State Administration Secretary Mike Huebsch said Thursday that to his knowledge there is no such alternate Internet and email system in state government being used by Walker appointees to avoid the open records law.
“Not that I’m aware of,” Huebsch said.
Huebsch was named as one of the people that Rindfleisch worked with to set up fundraisers for Davis. The complaint said he didn’t realize that Rindfleisch was a county employee.
Wink, 61, joined Walker’s county office shortly after he took over as county executive in 2002 after years as a Republican activist in Milwaukee County’s southern suburbs.
The criminal complaint showed Wink spending hours and hours during the work day trying desperately to organize a fundraiser in honor of Walker’s November 2009 birthday. The event was derailed by news that former vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin would be attending a West Allis event on the same day.
Wink then contacted Reince Priebus, now the national Republican National Committee chairman, to use his influence to get Palin to stop by the Walker event, the complaint says.
“We are already losing people to that event,” she complained.
The fundraiser was eventually canceled, and Walker attended the Palin rally, receiving one the biggest ovations when he entered the hall. Wink immediately began spending much of her time at work putting together a replacement fundraiser for her boss, the complaint says.
She abruptly resigned her $41,269-per-year job in May 2010 after admitting doing political work on county time.
Using a pseudonym, Wink acknowledged posting scores of comments on Journal Sentinel blogs and stories – most of them praising her boss, touting his gubernatorial bid or ripping his two opponents. She also agreed that nearly all of her online comments could be described as political. Asked if that was a good idea, she said, “Probably not, no.”
“I never gave it a thought that it was going to be an issue,” Wink said.
Wink resigned two hours after the newspaper asked for her payroll records.
In the email from Walker to Russell that day, Walker wrote, “I talked to her at home last night. Feel bad. She feels worse.”
Rindfleisch scaled back on her fundraising work on county time after Wink resigned, according to the criminal complaints.
“I took the wireless down,” she wrote Russell in an email on the day Wink quit and the Journal Sentinel published its story about Wink’s comments.
The complaint reported some testy exchanges between the Walker allies.
In one May 2010 electronic chat exchange between Rindfleisch and longtime Walker associate Jim Villa, Villa made it clear that he thought both Rindfleisch and Davis were obliged to him for his fundraising efforts on behalf of Davis.
“Brett AND YOU owe me,” Villa wrote.
In an April 2010 exchange, Rindfleisch emailed Cullen Werwie, a Davis campaign aide who has gone on to become Walker’s official spokesman. She attached documents related to Davis’ campaign and asked Werwie to send them out to others on her behalf.
“I can’t have my name on it, otherwise I’d send it,” Rindfleisch said.
Werwie received immunity from prosecution to testify in the case. He declined to comment Thursday, referring questions to his attorney.
The complaint reveals that search warrants were executed on Walker’s county office on Nov. 1, 2010, the day before the gubernatorial election. Previously, it was known search warrants were served on his campaign that day, but not his county office.
In addition, the Rindfleisch complaint indicates that many top Walker aides and associates have testified in the John Doe. Among them are Villa, Walker’s former chief of staff; Huebsch, the secretary of the state Department of Administration; and Thompson, who was Walker’s deputy campaign manager and is now executive director of the state Republican Party.
Huebsch and Thompson had previously declined to discuss their involvement in the criminal probe.
Also, the complaint against Wink shows that Joe Fadness, the operations manager for Walker’s campaign, also testified before the Doe.
Patrick Marley and Jason Stein, reporting from Madison, and Bruce Vielmetti, Steve Schultze and Ben Poston, reporting from Milwaukee, contributed to this report.