MILWAUKEE – Milwaukee County Sheriff David A. Clarke Jr. assailed District Attorney John Chisholm for “abuse of prosecutorial power” and announced his support for an independent prosecutor to investigate the DA.
Both men are Democrats, although Clarke is well known as a conservative.
The outspoken African-American sheriff has often clashed with the more liberal Democrats who dominate Milwaukee politics, including Chisholm.
At issue this time is the district attorney’s two-year criminal investigation into Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker and 29 allied nonprofit conservative groups. The district attorney contends that the governor, a Republican, is coordinating with outside groups in violation of state campaign-finance laws.
So far, no criminal charges have been filed and all claims of wrongdoing are denied. Both a state and a federal judge have ruled that none of the conduct under investigation appears to have been illegal. Those decisions are on appeal.
“This will go down as one of the ugliest chapters in the political history of Wisconsin,” Clarke said. “This is a witch hunt by a hyper-partisan prosecutor’s office using the institution of government to go after political adversaries they disagree with. People don’t trust it.”
In an exclusive interview with AMI, Clarke said he agreed with a formal petition seeking appointment of a special prosecutor to investigate Chisholm. Free-market activist Eric O’Keefe, who is one of the main targets of the district attorney’s probe, filed that petition on Sept. 26. The petition alleges a number of allegedly criminal abuses of power by Chisholm and his staff and is now before Milwaukee Chief Judge Jeffrey Kremers.
The sheriff said that a highly unusual criminal investigation of the district attorney was warranted “because of the appearance … that John has a hyper-partisan agenda here, and because of the political nature of the investigation.”
In addition, Clarke said, Chisholm has been evasive in his Oct. 8 response to the petition, especially with regard to its reliance on allegations by whistleblower Michael Lutz that Chisholm had shown personal and political bias against the governor in a private conversation in March 2011. Chisholm “didn’t answer the questions,” Clarke said.
The interview was Clarke’s most forceful public criticism of Chisholm since the latter’s investigation into the governor began in 2010.
Clarke, who has been elected sheriff since 2002, is running for re-election on Tuesday as the Democratic nominee. He recently survived a bruising primary fight with a pro-union challenger. His support comes from an unusual coalition of African-Americans and white conservatives.
The sheriff said he had regarded Chisholm as a “standup guy” years ago when, as a police captain, Clarke worked with then-Assistant District Attorney Chisholm on gun cases. His view of the DA changed as he learned about Chisholm-launched investigations of so many of the Wisconsin Democratic Party’s political rivals, Clarke said.
“I was appalled by some of the stuff that had gone on in the John Doe investigation, and that image I had of [Chisholm] as a person of unquestioned integrity started unraveling,” said Clarke.
A “John Doe” investigation allows prosecutors, under state law, to operate in secrecy and to bar witnesses and targets from talking to the press, the public or anyone other than their attorneys. Targets of the John Doe investigation, including O’Keefe, say these restrictions denied their federal constitutional rights.
The investigation started in 2010 when then-Milwaukee County Executive Scott Walker’s office reported a minor theft from a charity fund. The district attorney leveraged that into a sweeping investigation of Walker’s staff and, later, his political supporters, many of who never worked in government.
The change in the investigation’s direction startled Clarke.
“It became, ‘Let’s see what we can find,’ without any allegation [of crime] … just snooping around,” he said. “I found the whole thing scary. It’s a poster child for abuse of power.
“When you get [prosecutors] abusing their power, they can take out anyone. I’m a Democrat, but what if he [Chisholm] says, ‘Let’s go get Clarke?’ I might be next. They can ruin your life.”
Clarke pointed to what he called politically motivated leaks by Chisholm’s office to embarrass Republicans, including Walker.
“John said his office didn’t originate the leaks,” Clarke said with a scoff. “It’s just preposterous. Who else would have leaked it? They’re the only ones who had the information. I’m surprised as well that John Chisholm never displayed any concern or disgust that there were leaks coming out of … his own staff.”
The investigation should be shut down, Clarke said. “You would think he’d shut the investigation down, it’s so tainted. I wouldn’t trust him as far as I could throw him to keep in house what should be kept in house.”
Chisholm and his personal lawyer have not responded to a request for comment. Chisholm has conducted the probe since last year in conjunction with Special Prosecutor Francis Schmitz, now the titular head of the investigation, and the state’s Government Accountability Board.
Chisholm was a good, tough prosecutor before becoming district attorney, Clarke said, but he has since “turned more liberal” and soft on crime.
“I don’t recognize him,” he said. “He started to drink the Kool-Aid from the academic elites” and became “part of that revolving-door justice system that’s had terrible effects on minority communities.”
Clarke’s view that Chisholm was a good prosecutor who became “hyper-partisan” is strikingly similar to that of whistleblower Michael Lutz, the former Chisholm subordinate and decorated former police officer who has accused Chisholm of privately exuding strong personal and political bias against Walker.
“I admired him [Chisholm] greatly,” as a friend and a mentor, Lutz has told AMI, at first anonymously, explaining that he was very friendly with both John and Colleen Chisholm because her brother had been Lutz’s police partner and was still his best friend.
But during the bitter partisan battle in the winter of 2011 over Walker’s successful push to reduce the power of the state’s public-sector unions, Lutz said, “it was surprising how almost hyper-partisan he [Chisholm] became.”