Score one for the defense of free speech.
Earlier this year, a Wisconsin judge overseeing the secret “John Doe” investigation of conservative groups terminated multiple subpoenas that were used to seize their communications and other records. While this is a victory for First Amendment rights, the abuses continue with the intent to sideline all conservatives before the state's 2014 elections. More ominously, it appears to be part of a larger effort by left-leaning government officials to use campaign finance rules against one party, despite the law.
In August 2012, Milwaukee District Attorney John Chisholm launched the secret probe of conservatives and recruited DAs in four other counties and a criminal prosecutor with no experience in campaign law to join him. His probe targets every center-right organization that participated in the state’s 2011 and 2012 recall elections and accuses them of supposedly "coordinating" with political candidates. The groups include the Wisconsin chapters of Americans for Prosperity and Club for Growth, the Republican Governors Association, Friends of Scott Walker and the Wisconsin Republican Party among others — 29 groups in all.
What’s chilling in this "investigation" is the tactics the Chisholm posse has used — including raids on private homes and government seizure of personal computers, emails and phone records. One of the subpoenas ordered the groups to turn over “all records of income received, including fundraising information and the identity of persons contributing to the corporation.” The subpoenas were broad in scope, and in his ruling, Judge Gregory A. Peterson found that they “fail[ed] to show probable cause that a crime was committed.” Along with terminating the subpoenas, Peterson also ordered a return of all of the property seized during the raids.
There is plenty of other evidence to suggest this inquisition has nothing to do with bringing accountability to elections. Instead, it is the continuation of a campaign Chisholm, an elected Democrat, started in 2010 to target associates and allies of Republican Gov. Scott Walker. His secret probe has yielded no convictions for "coordinating" or any other campaign-related transgressions. Instead, it has produced a few random convictions for unrelated activities, two false arrests and a mounting recall campaign against Chisholm by non-political groups in Milwaukee who wonder why their district attorney is not fighting real crimes in his community.
What’s happening in Wisconsin is not isolated. It bears a striking resemblance to other partisan attempts to bring down conservative groups, including the Obama administration’s use of the Internal Revenue Service to handicap conservative organizations. News of that scandal broke last year as hundreds of Tea Party groups were denied tax-exempt status for months and years, under demands they turn over donor lists and other private information to the IRS.
The Justice Department has indicated no criminal charges will be filed against any IRS employee. Worse, the IRS has proposed guidelines that will further restrict protected speech by these groups. One of the new regulations would prevent organizations from even mentioning candidates' names 60 days before an election.
Other high-profile conservatives have been targeted and falsely accused in similar fashion. Consider the late Sen.Ted Stevens of Alaska and former House Majority Leader Tom DeLay. Both were cleared of any wrongdoing after years of government probes, but not before the intended damage to their reputations was complete.
Stevens was accused of an election law violation for failing to report remodeling work on his home. His conviction was reversed, and Justice Department prosecutors were accused of gross misconduct for withholding crucial evidence in the case, but not before their actions ended Stevens’ political career.
Similarly, DeLay was targeted by a state prosecutor for allegedly using corporate cash to fund candidates in Texas state elections. Last year, a Texas appeals court overturned his conviction — six years after the attacks that destroyed his political career began.
The Wisconsin investigation is part of a campaign by the Left to use government power against citizens and groups who disagree with them, even if it means breaking the law and violating constitutional rights.
Despite Peterson’s courage, the probe continues. And if liberals are successful, we will see more government-sponsored persecutions by the Obama administration, and from state prosecutors who take their cues from the top.
Steve Forbes is chairman of Forbes Media Inc. and editor-in-chief of Forbes magazine. Thinking of submitting an op-ed to the Washington Examiner? Be sure to read our guidelines on submissions for editorials, available at this link.