Legislative leaders said Friday they would take up a bill next month that would exempt many political crimes from the purview of secret John Doe investigations.
The bill comes after the conclusion of a series of John Doe investigations into alleged campaign violations committed by Gov. Scott Walker and his staff while he served as Milwaukee County Executive and during the 2012 recall elections.
Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, R-Rochester, and Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald, R-Juneau, said in a joint statement the bill would prevent investigations from being used for political purposes.
“We look forward to the final legislative passage of the bill that reaffirms free speech, puts an end to unconstitutional investigations for political purposes, and continues to give investigators the tools needed to solve serious crimes,” the Republican leaders said in the statement.
The proposal, authored by state Sen. Tom Tiffany, R-Hazelhurst, and state Rep. Dave Craig, R-Big Bend, would allow John Doe investigations to be used for only the most serious felonies and would require judges to approve any investigations lasting longer than six months.
The state’s John Doe laws allow prosecutors and judges to subpoena witnesses in secret, placing those who testify under a gag order. Conservative activists have long said the probes lack transparency and stifle free speech.
“Free speech is the foundation of a free society,” Eric Bott, director of the conservative group Americans for Prosperity Wisconsin, said in a statement. “It’s unbelievable to think that law abiding citizens would have their homes raided, families terrorized and businesses ruined simply because of their political beliefs.”
Bott called the series of probes against Walker “screamingly unconstitutional.”
The investigations allege that Walker’s staff misused county funds when he was county executive and, later, that his campaign illegally worked with the Wisconsin Club for Growth during the 2012 recall elections. The Wisconsin Supreme Court ended the probe, ruling that the practice being investigated was not illegal.
Democrats have labeled the bill the “Corrupt Politicians Act” and vowed to fight the legislation.
"Dismantling the John Doe process strictly for political crimes is an assault on our democracy and shows once again why Republicans cannot be trusted to uphold clean, open and transparent government,” Assembly Minority Leader Peter Barca, D-Kenosha, said in a statement.