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A recent ruling by the US District Court Eastern District of Wisconsin has come as an unexpected win for the targets of the Milwaukee John Doe investigation launched by DA John Chisholm. The lawsuit was brought by the Citizens for Responsible Government Advocates against:

…Milwaukee County District Attorney John Chisholm and officials with the state Government Accountability Board, which oversees campaign finance laws.

CRG [wanted] to collaborate with candidates on a website and ad campaign about fiscal responsibility, but said in its lawsuit it hadn’t done so because Chisholm and the accountability board [believed] such collaboration can be illegal.

However, in his ruling, Judge Rudolph Randa asserted that the laws were meant to prevent quid pro quo arrangements, and that the CRG case failed to meet that test:

This Court … concluded that a candidate’s coordination with and approval of issue advocacy speech, along with the fact that the speech may benefit his or her campaign because the position taken on the issues coincides with his or her own, does not rise to the level of ‘favors for cash,’ or a ‘direct exchange of an official act for money.’

The effect of his ruling was that he had issued “what amounts to a Temporary Restraining Order” on enforcing anti-coordination statutes in Wisconsin. This cleared the way for the CRG to engage in issue advocacy

But, it also dealt a blow to the John Doe investigation that has been going since 2012. That investigation centered around whether:

… [Governor Scott Walker’s] political team and outside conservative groups violated Wisconsin’s stringent rules against direct coordination between independent political groups and candidates

However, now that Randa has ordered that the anti-coordination rules not be enforced, the probe is in even worse shape than before. In January, Chisholm’s subpoenas were quashed by Judge Gregory Peterson, who said:

… he saw no evidence of wrongdoing in the sweeping five-county investigation of campaign finance practices during recent recall elections, but that prosecutors had a legitimate legal theory to pursue.

Peterson explained this further by saying:

The issue in this case is the scope of Wisconsin’s campaign finance laws. The State’s theory is that various parties engaged in illegal coordinated activities during the recent recall elections. I concluded, however, that the coordinated activities are not prohibited under the statutes

With Peterson’s view that the coordinated activities were not prohibited, and Randa’s ruling that the state can no longer enforce their legal theory, the John Doe investigations are dead in the water.

However, that doesn’t mean that things have been decided.

Randa’s decision will likely be appealed. His last decision dealing with the John Doe investigation was reversed. Because of that, it is far from certain that the 7th Circuit Court of Appeals will agree with his decision.

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