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By Dave Umhoefer October 23, 2014

Mary Burke ad leaves impression Scott Walker at center of conspiracy that led to six convictions

A new Mary Burke TV ad strikes a weary tone, with a narrator describing Gov. Scott Walker’s term as "four years of political fistfights, criminal convictions … and secret donations. Tax cuts for the wealthy 10 times the size of yours, and a jobs promise -- broken."

In the middle of the narrator intoning the list of ills, there is an audio snippet from a TV newscast -- "The criminal convictions of six Walker aides or supporters..." -- and mugshots of the six appear on the screen.

But the ad’s real gut punch is a silent blow.

Above the mugshots, the ad spotlights a Milwaukee Journal Sentinel headline: "Prosecutors allege Scott Walker at center of criminal scheme."

The ad is referring to two separate criminal investigations: a now-closed one that snared three top Walker aides and three others from his days as Milwaukee County executive; and a currently stalled probe into whether his campaign coordinated with nonprofit groups during the 2012 recall election.

But the ad mashes together the two investigations -- neither of which have led to actual charges of wrongdoing by Walker -- to leave a false impression for viewers.

Let’s untangle the ad.

About the investigations

Both investigations were sought by Milwaukee County District Attorney John Chisholm.

And both used what is referred to in Wisconsin as a "John Doe" investigation, which allows prosecutors to compel people to testify and produce documents and bar them from talking publicly about the probe.

As such, they have become known as John Doe 1 and John Doe 2.

The first began in May 2010 and actually grew out of a request by Walker’s county office to Chisholm to probe whether money was stolen from Operation Freedom, a Walker-run event for military veterans.

From there, the investigation went in several directions.

By the time it closed in February 2013, there had been five convictions for charges ranging from theft tied to the veterans event to campaigning on public time and illegal donations to Walker’s campaign. A sixth person, the domestic partner of a Walker aide, was convicted of contributing to the delinquency of a child for exchanging sexually explicit text messages with what turned out to be a 17-year-old boy.

Walker set up a criminal defense fund during the investigation. He was not charged.

Three of those convicted worked in key jobs in Walker’s county office, and the conduct under investigation dated to 2010 and earlier.

Back to the ad.

Featured Fact-check

The headline concerning prosecutors alleging that Walker was at the center of a criminal scheme was from a June 19, 2014 Journal Sentinel story.

That’s well over a year after John Doe 1 shut down.

The story referred to a subsequent investigation, the so-called John Doe 2, which concerned Walker’s time as governor, not Milwaukee County executive.

Prosecutors launched the second John Doe probe in August 2012 in Milwaukee County and in 2013 expanded it to four other counties.

There is some overlap in the subjects of the two investigations, and sources have told the Journal Sentinel the second probe grew out of evidence prosecutors found in the first one.

But the probes are legally separate and cover different territory and time frames.

In the second probe, prosecutors are looking at whether Walker illegally coordinated fundraising among conservative groups to help his campaign and those of Republican state senators facing recall elections during 2011 and 2012.

One of the groups has sued prosecutors, and the probe was halted by two court rulings.

In January 2014, John Doe Judge Gregory Peterson quashed subpoenas that had been issued in the investigation, ruling he did not believe anything illegal had transpired. The decision effectively shut down the investigation. Later U.S. District Judge Rudolph Randa in Milwaukee blocked the probe, only to be overturned by the 7th Circuit Court of Appeals.

Various appeals are pending.

In court documents unsealed in one of the lawsuits, the prosecutors laid out what they consider an extensive "criminal scheme" to bypass state election laws by Walker, his campaign and two top Republican political operatives.

But it’s important to note this was, in effect, their theory of the case. The word "allege" in the headline is not tied to charges, as viewers may assume. None have been filed.

Walker has denied any wrongdoing and has charged that Chisholm, a Democrat, has acted in partisan fashion.

When asked to back up the ad’s linkage, the Burke campaign told us its intent was not to conflate the two investigations. Rather, spokeswoman Stephanie Wilson said, the campaign believed tackling multiple topics from Walker’s four years in one 30-second ad required condensing the references to the criminal investigations.

But the screen’s imagery speaks for itself.

Our rating

Burke’s TV spot leaves the impression that six convictions are connected to an allegation by prosecutors "that Gov. Scott Walker is at the center of a criminal scheme."

Investigations have marked Walker’s four years in office. And the prosecution theory in one case has Walker at the center of campaign violations, as the ad notes. But no charges have been filed in that case, with a state judge throwing out subpoenas prosecutors requested. The probe has been stalled by various lawsuits.

Burke’s ad compresses time and two separate investigations to suggest prosecutors have charged six people in a case in which they allege the governor is at the center of the misconduct.

We rate the claim False.

Our Sources

Mary Burke campaign, "Four Years" ad, Oct. 21, 2014

Email exchange with Stephanie Wilson, Burke campaign spokeswoman, Oct. 20, 2014

Politifact Wisconsin archives

Milwaukee Journal Sentinel archives

Browse the Truth-O-Meter

More by Dave Umhoefer

Mary Burke ad leaves impression Scott Walker at center of conspiracy that led to six convictions

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