When word surfaced in October 2013 that prosecutors were expanding their political John Doe investigation to multiple Wisconsin counties, Wall Street Journal editorial writer Collin Levy began to dig around.
It didn’t take long before Levy and her boss, Paul Gigot, Pulitzer Prize-winning editor of the Journal’s Editorial Page, knew they had a powerful story — a story different from what the groupthink press was peddling.
Thanks to Eric O’Keefe, one of scores of conservative activists targeted by partisan prosecutors and Wisconsin’s political speech cops, the newspaper’s editorial board began piecing together the facts. The “John Doe II” was an assault on basic constitutional rights in which investigators illegally raided homes, spied on citizens, and silenced the left’s political opponents. And it was all driven by a bogus campaign finance law theory.
“Eric O’Keefe was willing to go on the record with us, at considerable risk to himself. That’s when we put into work that first editorial,” Gigot told Empower Wisconsin on this week’s Power Up! podcast. (Full disclosure: Eric O’Keefe is president of the Empower Wisconsin Foundation.)
The first piece was headlined, “Wisconsin’s Political Speech Raid,” and, as Gigot said, it blew the lid off the investigation, and exposed coordination theory prosecutors based their secret probe on. “We also had the subpoenas and, bravely, Eric O’Keefe went on the record, risking contempt of court for violating the gag order.”
O’Keefe and his fellow John Doe targets and witnesses faced jail time and hefty fines if they told anyone about the secret investigation.
Wisconsin’s old John Doe procedure, unlike the standard grand jury, was built on silence.
“(In a grand jury,) (Y)ou can speak to the public about what you told the grand jury if you want. You can have a lawyer. You can talk to a lawyer,” Gigot said. “According to targets of this probe, they were told under no uncertain terms, ‘Don’t talk to a lawyer. Don’t talk to anybody about this. Don’t ask anybody else if they were the subjects of the raids. Don’t talk.’”
The gag order made the story that much more compelling. But the tactics used by the prosecutors to target conservative speech never seemed to concern mainstream media outlets like the New York Times and the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, Gigot said. Nor were most news organizations overly concerned that the campaign finance law theories of state regulators and investigators didn’t match with settled court rulings on political speech.
“In fact, they cheered on the John Doe. The New York Times, the New Yorker, the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, they were all in lockstep,” Gigot said.
“The media ought to be, you would think, a protector of the First Amendment and the right to speak, but in this case, they were cheerleaders for reducing political speech,” the editor added. “It was just astounding to me that the rest of the press corps did not show any doubt about what the prosecutors were doing.”
In 2015, the Wisconsin Supreme Court agreed with a lower court decision that quashed the subpoenas used in the probe. The court also declared the investigation unconstitutional and ordered iit shut down for good. John Doe Prosecutors tried to take their bogus theory all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court. They lost there, too.
“They had this theory that was a violation of First Amendment and the constitution, yet they used the awesome prosecutorial power of the state to eavesdrop for months on people. (The John Doe targets were) fundraisers, not Gambino Crime Family members. Just people who were trying to raise money to participate in the American democratic process. And they were raided at home at dawn, their children left in tears, they were told they can’t talk, their businesses were forced to shut down, in some cases because they couldn’t raise money anymore in politics.”
“It’s just a tremendous abuse of power in my view. That’s why we stayed on it, that’s why we stayed in it. Someone had to speak up about this because it wasn’t right,” Gigot added.