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Joe Conason: The Burgeoning Wisconsin Scandal That Major Media Ignored

Gov. Scott Walker should be grateful to the editors and producers who failed to tell the real story

If the Wisconsin recall is truly second in importance only to the presidential race, as many media outlets have trumpeted lately, then why have those same outlets so badly neglected one of that election’s most salient aspects?

As millions of dollars in dark right-wing money pour into the state to preserve Gov. Scott Walker from his progressive opposition, it seems relevant that he and many top aides are under investigation in a campaign finance and corruption scandal that has been growing for two years.

Yet the national media have largely ignored the fascinating details of that probe — which has already resulted in indictments, convictions and cooperation agreements implicating more than a dozen Walker aides and donors. Only readers of the local newspapers in Madison or Milwaukee would know, for instance, that law enforcement documents have emerged in court during the past few days suggesting that Walker stonewalled the investigation in its initial phase.

The typical reference to the scandal in the national media notes that Tom Barrett, Walker’s Democratic opponent, is seeking to “stoke suspicions” regarding the investigation, “in which former Walker aides stand accused of allegedly misappropriating campaign funds.”

But the suspicions have been stoked by actual events, not campaign propaganda, including guilty pleas, immunity deals and home raids by law enforcement officials. (Last September, a team of sheriff’s deputies and FBI agents raided the Madison home of Cindy Archer, a former top county official who served as the governor’s deputy administration secretary until going on extended “sick leave” in 2011.) And Walker’s associates stand accused of felonies that go well beyond the mere misuse of campaign funds.

Without close attention to the Wisconsin media, you might not know that a top Walker associate is currently facing charges of embezzling funds from a veteran’s charity — or that Walker’s former spokeswoman just became the 13th figure in the scandal to accept an immunity deal from prosecutors.

Indeed, nearly all of Walker’s highest-ranking aides and associates from his years as county executive appear to be either facing prosecution or cutting immunity deals to save themselves.

What is easy to learn about the controversial governor is his confrontational attitude toward the state’s workers and perhaps his fealty to extremist billionaires like the Koch brothers. From the perspective of Fox News — whose TV personalities resent the idea that a public school teacher who imparts facts might receive a tiny fraction of what they are paid for broadcasting lies — these are great virtues that they praise loudly. But in the mainstream media, there has been a curious reticence in exploring the sort of scandal that ought to excite reporters, editors and producers.

Of course, Walker has benefited greatly from the secrecy surrounding the investigation, which began in May 2010 under the “John Doe” rubric at the request of Milwaukee County prosecutors. According to documents that surfaced in court only during the past week, that original decision was due, ironically, to the prosecutors’ belief that Walker, then running for governor, might cooperate with them if he didn’t have to worry about damage to his own career.

On May 5, 2010, an assistant district attorney filed a court petition asking to initiate a secret probe into the disappearance of thousands of dollars in donations to “Operation Freedom,” an annual event for local veterans partially underwritten by county officials. Walker was then the county executive and a Republican candidate for governor who would narrowly win the following November.

If the prosecutors could open the case under the cover of secrecy provided by the state’s “John Doe” statute, they hoped to obtain greater cooperation from Walker’s office in providing information and documents — which had not been made available.

“It may be the County Executive’s Office is reluctant to provide information to investigators due to a fear of political embarrassment,” Assistant District Attorney Bruce Landgraf wrote in the secrecy petition, as reported by the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel.

The irony of this revelation was double — not only because Walker has used the investigation’s secrecy to avoid answering questions or providing records to the local media, but because he has brushed aside the convictions and immunity deals by claiming that he “initiated” the investigation and cooperated all along.

Not so incidentally, the governor has established his own legal defense fund, into which he has so far transferred at least $160,000 in campaign money. It seems increasingly likely that his biggest problems may still lie ahead.

Meanwhile, however, he has escaped the echo effect that serious national media coverage of the Wisconsin scandal would have inflicted on his immediate fortunes — and for that he should be grateful to the editors and producers who failed to tell the real story.

Joe Conason writes for Creators Syndicate. Click here for more information, or click here to contact him.

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