Politics

Wisconsin Governor Had Supporters Leave Positive Comments About Him on Online Articles

by | February 24, 2014

By Jason Stein, Patrick Marley and Daniel Bice

In the heat of the 2010 governor's race, Scott Walker urged both county employees and campaign aides to go to news websites and post comments promoting him and his record, newly unsealed documents show.

It was just such anonymous posts by a county worker on campaign issues that prompted prosecutors to expand a secret "John Doe" investigation -- launched to probe into missing money in a veterans fund -- to also examine whether taxpayer dollars were being used illegally to finance political operations.

In one instance in May 2010, for example, a close ally posted online a portion of a Walker email almost verbatim on a Journal Sentinel story just minutes after receiving the directive. Walker had sent the note to an inner circle that included county administrators as well as campaign operatives.

Tapping out a message on his campaign Blackberry on the afternoon of May 4, 2010, Walker urged county aides, campaign staffers and other trusted volunteers to go to an online Journal Sentinel business story and respond to critics of his plan to privatize the airport in the comments section below the story.

"Someone should comment on the fact that the only way for the county to benefit from that success is to contract out operations," Walker wrote in an email. "Having a well performing airport increases the value that the county could receive."

A half-hour later, Brian Pierick -- the boyfriend of Walker aide Timothy D. Russell -- posted a comment on the story under the alias "WI_Calvin," calling rising airport traffic "another example of Scott Walker's outstanding leadership."

"The only way the county can to (sic) benefit from that success is to contract out operations. Having a well performing airport increases the value that the county could receive," Pierick wrote, adding only a single word to Walker's phrasing. Pierick and Russell were both later convicted of other activities in the secret probe. Walker's airport directive came a little more than a week before he ousted county aide Darlene Wink after the Journal Sentinel reported she had been spending much of her government work hours posting anonymous political comments promoting Walker on the JS Online website.

At the time, Walker and his spokeswoman said he didn't know Wink was making anonymous postings on his behalf and that he had a strict policy against mingling campaign work with government services work paid for by taxpayers. The newspaper's report of Wink's activities led prosecutors to expand their secret investigation into Walker's county aides and associates.

On Friday afternoon, Walker repeated earlier statements that he didn't know about those close to him making anonymous postings on his behalf.

"Again, your information is incorrect," Walker told a reporter. "We actually let someone go after (columnist) Dan Bice from the Journal Sentinel let us know of someone who had done that."

Walker's campaign spokesman Jonathan Wetzel said Friday that emails asking people to post comments were not directives to government employees.

"The post was an observation made to a multitude of individuals. They were trusted to determine how best to handle that observation based on their own individual capacity," Wetzel said. "Neither the governor nor the campaign are aware of who made the post."

The post duplicated and carried out an email directive Walker sent to about two dozen people. Walker alsopublicly thanked @WI_Calvin through his Twitter account for his support during the 2010 campaign.

The 27,000 pages of records unsealed last week from the John Doe investigation don't appear to show Walker doing anything illegal. Prosecutors didn't file criminal charges against Walker or anyone in his current administration.

But the documents do reveal Walker was willing to engage himself and his staffs in comments about even short and minor news stories, with his aides concealing their identities behind Internet monikers or using private email accounts rather than official county ones. It was the mingling of campaign with government work that broadened and significantly extended the nearly three-year investigation.

Walker issued his May 2010 directive on website comments during the same period when some of his aides were crossing a line by anonymously posting about campaign matters while being paid by taxpayers.

Wink, Walker's constituent services coordinator, resigned on May 13, 2010, after the Journal Sentinel contacted Walker's county office about Wink's political postings on her boss' behalf under the alias "RPMCVP" -- a reference to Wink's position with the county party.

One day after her resignation, Milwaukee County District Attorney John Chisholm asked the judge overseeing the John Doe investigation to allow prosecutors to look into possible illegal campaigning and other crimes by Walker aides.

The John Doe probe -- which was conducted in secret -- netted six convictions through plea deals.

Wink pleaded guilty to two misdemeanor charges of fundraising for Walker in the county courthouse. Russell, Walker's former deputy chief of staff, pleaded guilty in 2012 to embezzling more than $21,000 from a fund for veterans and their families at the county.

Pierick, Russell's business and domestic partner, was sentenced in 2013 to 50 hours of community service for contributing to the delinquency of a child.

Kelly Rindfleisch, another former deputy chief of staff to Walker, was sentenced in 2012 to six months in jail for campaign fundraising at the courthouse using a secret email system installed there. Rindfleisch's sentence was stayed while she appeals her conviction.

As a result of her appeal and a related lawsuit by the Journal Sentinel and other media organizations, an appellate court judge ordered last week's release of Rindfleisch's emails and other documents from the secret investigation.

Those emails show Walker prodding his staff to post on news websites on more than one occasion.

For Walker, no political detail was too small.

Early on Saturday, April 17, 2010, McLaughlin sent an email rounding up the day's headlines, as she routinely did. The email went to a mix of campaign staff, top county officials and Walker allies -- about two dozen in all. Walker's top county staffers received the message on their private email accounts rather than their county ones, a step that kept the email exchange out of the public eye.

Walker responded by asking McLaughlin to comment on a Journal Sentinel story about the long-closed Calvin Moody Pool at 2200 W. Burleigh St.

"Fran, you should post a comment (since they did not ask our office) that notes that this was closed by (former County Executive) Tom Ament," Walker wrote.

Soon after, Walker sent a follow-up email telling her to contact the newspaper directly to tell a reporter the pool closed eight years earlier because of low attendance.It's not clear from the story if she ever did that.

On Aug. 21, 2010 -- a Saturday -- someone posted a lengthy comment to the Journal Sentinel site under the moniker "capt1." In one of the recently released emails, Cindy Archer -- the county's administration head at the time -- let Walker and other associates know that she was behind the post.

"I know you have all told me to stay off the blogs. Below is my post to the MJS story on federal $ for teachers. Perhaps this is something SKW should talk about," Archer wrote to her colleagues, using Walker's initials.

"Capt1" was a regular on the Journal Sentinel website in 2010 and early 2011, a period in which Archer also served as deputy administration secretary under Walker's state administration.

"Capt1" posted 114 comments, most of them on weekends or before or after work hours on weekdays.

Seven were posted on a weekday between the hours of 9 a.m. and noon or 1 and 4 p.m., a review of the profile shows.

Neither Archer nor Pierick responded to a request for comment. In other anonymous comments, both Pierick and Wink posted anonymously below a Journal Sentinel story on Oct. 1, 2009, about a rally at the courthouse seeking restoration of social services funding under Walker's county budget proposal.

"These people are coming out to complain just because they are so used to complaining or have been misled into doing so. Maybe the reporter and the dozens of people that are at the 'rally' should look at the budget a little closer," WI_Calvin posted at 3:45 p.m. that day.

Wink posted at 10:49 a.m. on Oct. 3: "Not all programs can continue to be funded -- and the reason for that is Milwaukee County employee benefits -- so I find it interesting that you have a story about the County Executive balancing his budget on the back of poor Milwaukee County employees and at the same time you report about the concerns of the disabled not getting enough funding from Milwaukee County."

In March 2010, the Journal Sentinel reported that Russell would be transferring from Walker's deputy chief of staff to become county housing director and would receive a $2,500 raise to just under $76,000 a year.

In a WI_Calvin comment, Pierick wrote that Russell was at the bottom of his pay range, concluding, "Pretty sloppy and biased reporting as usual."

Along with defending Walker on news stories, Pierick operated an anonymous pro-Walker blog called ScottForGov.com. In 2010, Walker's campaign and county officials said they had no tie to the website, but newly released records show Walker approved the name and launching of the blog.

At 2:55 p.m. on the day of Wink's resignation in May 2010, McLaughlin wrote Walker, his chief of staff Tom Nardelli, Rindfleisch and several campaign aides saying the Journal Sentinel wanted information about Wink's salary and whether she took time off during the day to work on campaigns.

By then, Wink had already talked to the newspaper.

"She has not let us know anything about this call and we had no idea she was doing this," McLaughlin wrote.

At 3:16 p.m., Nardelli responded to the group that he was concerned about potential charges and how it would look for Walker's office.

"This could be extremely serious for us from the standpoint of bad news, but potentially for her should there be an effort to seek charges i.e. Scott Jensen," he wrote, referring to the former Assembly speaker charged more than a decade ago with directing aides to campaign on state time. "We may be looking at a resignation, as it appears there are many, many emails throughout the work day. Worse yet, part of her salary is federally funded!" Twelve minutes later, Walker wrote he wanted the matter investigated, but wasn't seeking an immediate termination or resignation as actually happened.

"If she was posting comments from her office computer, she has to be suspended pending an official review," he wrote. Wink resigned shortly thereafter.

Three months later, as the John Doe investigation ramped up, Archer wrote Walker and Rindfleisch to alert them that Russell's computer had been seized by prosecutors the day before. She also asked questions about a county employee suspected of doing political work for liberals on county time.

"My sense is taking some kind of discipline is not a high priority," Archer wrote. "Seems like a double standard given we had to sacrifice one of our own (Darlene) for something far less."

(c)2014 the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel

Journal Sentinel reporters Dave Umhoefer and Meg Kissinger and correspondent Jim Myers in Washington, D.C., contributed to this story.

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