The Senate has begun debate on the John Doe bill with Dems portraying it as a move to protect politicians from prosecution and Republicans countering the legislation would create new accountability for the secret probes.
Minority Leader Jennifer Shilling, D-La Crosse, said today’s bill was part of a three-pronged GOP attack on good government in Wisconsin. The coming steps, she said, included breaking the GAB into two agencies and re-writing the state’s campaign finance laws.
Today’s bill, she said, shields public officials from investigations into corruption and scandal. It also is not a priority for the general public.
“No one has ever, ever come up to me at the grocery store or the gas station suggesting we need less accountability in government, that we need more partisanship in our state, that we need secrecy,” said Shilling, questioning if Republicans want the legislation to be part of their legacy.
GOP Sen. Tom Tiffany, one of the co-sponsors, countered the bill was about making the John Doe more transparent and accountable. Among other things, the probes would be limited to six months, though prosecutors could seek permission from a panel of judges before continuing the investigation and the costs of those probes would also be public record.
Tiffany said John Doe I and II raised the profile of the secret probes as they touched on Gov. Scott Walker, his old Milwaukee County exec aides and the conservative groups that backed him in the recall elections. But he said changes have been needed for some time, noting federal courts have raised concerns about a gag order provision in the John Doe that prevents those involved from discussing the case.
“I can tell you I want this to be my legacy that we are protecting the weakest among us,” said Tiffany, R-Hazelhurst.
One of the frequent points of contention between Dems and Republicans on the bill has been how it impacts elected officials. Dems argue it shields them from John Doe probes into political crimes. Republicans reject the argument that elected officials would be exempt from the probes, saying they would still be subject to the same standards as others.
Sen. Jon Erpenbach, D-Middleton, pressed Tiffany whether public officials would be exempt from prosecution from political crimes under the bill. Tiffany declined to answer.
That prompted Erpenbach to accuse Republicans of welcoming “with open arms the possibility of corruption.”
“Republicans don’t want to govern. They want to rule,” Erpenbach said.
Sen. Van Wanggaard, R-Racine, countered John Doe II was used to prosecute citizens who were exercising their First Amendment rights. That probe focused on coordination between outside groups and Walker's campaign, but the Wisconsin Supreme Court shut it down, ruling there was nothing illegal about what they were alleged to have done.
"This is what they were using this for, and it was not what it was intended for," Wanggaard said.