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New document links Wisconsin governor’s campaign, two national groups

MADISON — A newly released document alleges Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker’s campaign illegally coordinated with two national groups on political advertising in a way that went further than what had been previously known.

If proved, prosecutors’ claims would undercut the argument that Walker and his allies did nothing wrong. Walker has stressed that two judges have ruled against prosecutors and he is not a target of the probe.

One group mentioned in the newly available filing is an arm of the Republican Governors Association that has run ads backing Walker since 2010. The other, the Republican State Leadership Committee, ran ads in 2011 against then-Sen. Jim Holperin, a Democrat, who survived a recall election that year but did not run for re-election in 2012.

The two groups have both filed statements with state election officials saying they were independent and not working in conjunction with candidates. But special prosecutor Francis Schmitz contended in court documents that the groups had conveyed information to Walker’s campaign.

Prosecutors have been investigating whether the Republican governor’s campaign colluded with the Wisconsin Club for Growth and other conservative groups in the 2011 and 2012 recall elections, but the probe was halted in May by a federal judge who said nothing illegal had occurred. Prosecutors are appealing that decision in hopes of restarting the investigation.

In recently released documents, prosecutors contend Walker encouraged outside groups and individuals to funnel millions of dollars to Wisconsin Club for Growth. The investigation has centered on Walker’s campaign, and an attorney for the special prosecutor has said Walker himself is not a target of the probe.

Walker and the club have said they followed the law, and they argue that any consultation between them was allowed because the club engages only in “issue advocacy.” Its ads may praise or criticize candidates, but they don’t flatly tell people to vote for or against those candidates.

Prosecutors allege such activities can be illegal if the coordination is done to help a candidate’s chances at the polls.

The newly released filing shows Schmitz contends there is evidence Walker’s campaign had worked with the Republican State Leadership Committee and the Right Direction Political Action Committee, which is run by the Republican Governors Association.

Unlike the Wisconsin Club for Growth, those groups explicitly back candidates in filings with the state Government Accountability Board.

R.J. Johnson served as a consultant to both the Wisconsin Club for Growth and Walker’s campaign. According to prosecutors, Johnson sought and received campaign strategy from an unnamed representative of the Republican State Leadership Committee.

“Need to know what you are up (to) and the content of your spot. We are drafting radio to complement. Also need to know if you plan to play any further in WI beyond Holperin,” Johnson wrote.

The plans were then shared in July 2011 — just before Holperin’s recall — with Walker; Keith Gilkes, Walker’s campaign manager; and Kate Doner, a consultant for both Walker’s campaign and the Wisconsin Club for Growth, according to prosecutors.

Other emails show Walker’s campaign regularly discussed campaign strategy and polling with the Republican Governors Association, according to Schmitz. The group ran at least eight ads critical of Walker’s opponents in the 2012 recall.

The document describing the alleged coordination between Walker’s campaign and the Republican Governors Association and Republican State Leadership Committee is from a once-secret filing made in February 2014.

Schmitz’s filing is from a trove of hundreds of pages of records that were unsealed Friday by a federal appeals court. Within hours, the documents could no longer be accessed on the court’s website after some claimed the court had inadvertently made public some records that were meant to remain sealed.

Prosecutors launched their John Doe probe in August 2012. This February, the Wisconsin Club for Growth sued prosecutors in federal court alleging the investigation violated their First Amendment rights of free association.

U.S. District Judge Rudolph Randa sided with the group in May and shut down the investigation. Prosecutors are asking the 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals to overturn that decision.