Scott Walker Makes a Mess

Did Scott Walker allegedly violate campaign finance laws because they're stupid? Or because he is?
In documents released last week, prosecutors alleged that Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker had illegally coordinated campaign spending on behalf of various Republicans, including himself.

It's not easy to find a hero in the case against Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker. The prosecutors seem more than a tad overzealous, especially in light of a previous case in which six former Walker aides were convicted of performing political business on public time when he was Milwaukee County executive.

Pretty much all senior aides perform political work for their respective bosses while on public salaries. Politics and government often coincide in ways that, ideally, they're not supposed to. Getting busted for that requires a pretty hard-nosed, unforgiving prosecutor -- or an especially partisan one. Or a really, really dumb staff.

That's also true in the case that caused headlines -- and, no doubt, headaches -- for Walker last week. Due to a convoluted series of related legal claims, a court released documents in which prosecutors alleged that Walker had illegally coordinated campaign spending on behalf of various Republicans, including himself.

Here is the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel's explanation:

In the documents, prosecutors laid out what they call an extensive "criminal scheme" to bypass state election laws by Walker, his campaign and two top Republican political operatives — R.J. Johnson and Deborah Jordahl. No one has been charged, but this marks the prosecutors' most detailed account of the investigation yet.

The governor and his close confidants helped raise money and control spending through 12 conservative groups during the recall election campaigns, according to the prosecutors' filings.

These types of cases are rare for two reasons. One, from the prosecutors' perspective, they are difficult to prove, making convictions elusive. Two, from the politician's perspective, they are easy to avoid. In fact, Republican donors looking for a 2016 presidential candidate might legitimately wonder whether Walker is a certified dunce for making himself vulnerable to such charges -- especially after already having seen six of his staff indicted on equally obscure political charges.

Aside from the phrase "criminal scheme," never a good calling card for a politician, the stickiest part of last week's document dump seems to be a reference to a May 4, 2011 e-mail Walker sent to Republican strategist and money collector Karl Rove, bragging about the effectiveness of Walker adviser R.J. Johnson's Wisconsin network:

"Bottom-line: R.J. helps keep in place a team that is wildly successful in Wisconsin. We are running 9 recall elections and it will be like 9 congressional markets in every market in the state (and Twin Cities)."

The e-mail is not the smoking gun that some would like it to be. But it's pretty solid evidence that Walker is a numbskull. Again, this is a guy who has seen six aides convicted for violating campaign laws. And here he is sending a highly suspicious, potentially incriminating, e-mail to a man whose reputation is synonymous with political subterfuge.

If Walker wanted R.J. Johnson to run a bunch of sketchily coordinated campaigns in his home state, he could have done so without crossing a criminal line. The world of political operatives is reliably chatty. Johnson could've told a Republican friend exactly what he thought would most benefit Walker's efforts to rebuff a state recall, and word surely would've filtered back to the right people. In fact, he could've had a series of such conversations with any number of sympathetic, well-connected people.

Sometimes, you don't even need to talk. It's easy, for example, to make a campaign's television advertising purchases known. Outside allies preparing independent expenditures can then buy advertising for the specific weeks and media markets where the campaign buy is short, thereby ensuring a steady onslaught. It's not as good as controlling all aspects of the buy yourself, but it's a pretty good second-best.

Part of the problem may be that conservatives generally think campaign-finance laws are ridiculous, and so are less inclined to follow them. They're generally right, of course. Even committed goo-goos have difficulty defending campaign-finance laws and the public doesn't begin to understand them. In one way or another, the laws are all hideous contortions necessitated by the Supreme Court's decision -- well before Citizens United -- that money is speech.

The laws are a mess. Until you violate them and leave an incriminating e-mail trail, that is. Then, sometimes at least, it's your political future that starts to look like a mess. It's too soon to count out Walker. But things in Wisconsin are looking pretty messy.

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