MADISON, Wis. — The U.S. Supreme Court declined Monday to reopen a long-stalled investigation into Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker’s 2012 campaign against a recall effort, permanently ending a probe that had dogged the Republican even as he launched a brief presidential bid last year.
Justices left in place a year-old Wisconsin Supreme Court decision that shut down the so-called John Doe probe into whether Walker illegally coordinated with outside conservative groups.
Walker, who won re-election in 2014 and is up for a third term in 2018, issued a statement praising those who had fought the investigation.
“I applaud the individuals and organizations who fought for and successfully defended their First Amendment rights against political opponents who wanted to silence them,” Walker said.
Prosecutors investigated whether Walker’s campaign coordinated with Wisconsin Club for Growth and other conservative groups on advertising during the 2012 recall without reporting the groups’ contributions. The recall itself stemmed from Walker’s signature law that stripped public unions of nearly all of their bargaining rights.
Those groups challenged the investigation, which was conducted under Wisconsin’s John Doe law that allowed secret probes into misconduct by public officials. The judge overseeing the case determined the activity in question wasn’t illegal and effectively halted the investigation in 2014.
Conservative-leaning justices who control the Wisconsin Supreme Court agreed and ended it last year. They ruled that the groups and the campaign’s coordination on ads that don’t expressly call for the election or defeat of a candidate amounts to free speech and isn’t subject to disclosure requirements.
The Wisconsin Club for Growth, which fought the investigation, praised the court’s decision to end it.
“From its inception, this proceeding was a politically motivated attack and a criminal investigation in search of a theory,” said the group’s president Eric O’Keefe in a prepared statement. He called for documents seized during the investigation to be given back.
Not taking the case “is a major setback for democracy, transparency, and accountability,” said Matt Rothschild, director of the government watchdog group the Wisconsin Democracy Campaign.
The controversy attracted renewed attention last month when The Guardian newspaper obtained more than 1,000 pages of leaked documents from the investigation. Those documents showed how Walker’s top adviser in the recall campaign was coordinating with the Wisconsin Club for Growth on how to spend the millions Walker was raising to help him and Republican senators win the 2011 and 2012 recall campaigns.
The newspaper reported that a leading manufacturer of lead that was once used in paint was among a host of corporate leaders who donated to a conservative group that helped Walker and Republican legislators fight the recall challenges.
Wisconsin Club for Growth received $750,000 in 2011 and 2012 from Harold Simmons, the billionaire owner of NL Industries. The company produced lead that was used in paint before such practices were banned.
The donations came as the Legislature was considering law changes that benefited the lead paint industry, including protecting companies like NL Industries from being retroactively sued.
Walker and his fundraisers also solicited money from Donald Trump, who gave $15,000; Home Depot co-founder Ken Langone, who gave $25,000; and hedge-fund manager and Manhattan Institute for Policy Research Chairman Paul Singer, who gave $250,000.
Walker has called the information contained in the leaked documents “old news” and insisted he did nothing wrong.
The prosecutors who brought the appeal are Milwaukee County District Attorney John Chisholm, Iowa County District Attorney Larry Nelson and Dane County District Attorney Ismael Ozanne — all Democrats.
They issued a joint statement saying they were disappointed, but not commenting on whether any additional legal action is planned.
“We are proud to have taken this fight as far as the law would allow and we look forward to the day when Wisconsin adopts a more enlightened view of the need for transparency in campaign finance,” the district attorneys said.
The prosecutors had urged the high court to decide how broadly free speech rights protect campaign coordination with outside groups. They also said that the judicial process was unfair because two state court justices had received campaign help from some of the groups under investigation and should have stepped aside. The justices are Michael Gableman and David Prosser, who has since retired and left the court.
The Republican-controlled Wisconsin Legislature made a host of law changes in the wake of the investigation, including dismantling the nonpartisan elections and ethics board that approved the investigation; disallowing secret John Doe probes into suspected misconduct by politicians; and changing state law to make clear that the coordination at the heart of the case was legal.
Associated Press writers Mark Sherman in Washington and Todd Richmond in Madison, Wisconsin, contributed to this report.