Judge says he shouldn't have released ethics probe details

A judge who released previously unknown details about an ethics investigation into Republican office holders and others said Monday that he made a mistake letting that information become public.

Details about the probe, including the names of who was targeted, should have remained secret because no one was charged, Jefferson County Circuit Judge William Hue said in a telephone interview.

"In an ideal world it would have played out differently," he said. "I just feel bad."

Details of the investigation that looked into Republicans campaigning on state time were divulged in a report written by Attorney General Brad Schimel released earlier this month. The report's primary focus was on Schimel's investigation into the leak of material collected during a secret John Doe investigation into Gov. Scott Walker's campaign.

The first John Doe investigation focused on aides to Walker when he was Milwaukee County executive. The second John Doe looked into coordination between Walker and conservative groups during recall elections in 2011 and 2012.

In his report, Schimel describes what he called a "John Doe III" investigation into illegal campaigning on state time that involved Republican office holders, staff, operatives and others. Schimel, in a statement Monday, said that investigation included material collected by the now-defunct Government Accountability Board obtained through a search warrant issued during the first John Doe probe and then co-mingled with other evidence.

Schimel said disclosing the existence of "John Doe III" was "critical to document the circumstances" that led to more than 1,300 pages of secret information being leaked to a newspaper.

"The 'John Doe III' records were not kept in such a way as to indicate whether the investigation was 'closed' and the allegations unsubstantiated," Schimel said.

But Hue, the judge, said it was still wrong of him to allow details about "John Doe III" in Schimel's report to be publicly released.

State law bars prosecutors and investigators from releasing information about closed ethics investigations that don't result in any charges. Hue said he didn't think a judge could be criminally prosecuted under that law.

Hue said he was embarrassed about what he did and took responsibility for it, even though Schimel did not call for any redactions, including the names of 35 people who were investigated.

"I didn't intend to hurt these people," Hue said. "I didn't intend to out them or embarrass them."

The ethics investigation began in December 2011 and closed in March 2013 with no charges filed. The Wisconsin Supreme Court ended the John Doe investigation into Walker in 2015, saying the coordination between his campaign and outside groups was legal.

Hue first spoke to the Wisconsin State Journal on Monday about his regret in releasing the information. Hue earlier this month stepped aside from overseeing the case after the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reported that he had tweeted about it before it was assigned to him. Brown County Circuit Judge Kendall Kelley is now overseeing the case.

Schimel, in his report, recommended that six former GAB workers and three employees of the Milwaukee County district attorney's office be found in contempt for allegedly violating court orders to keep emails and other documents obtained during the Walker investigation secret.

More than 1,300 pages of documents were leaked to the Guardian U.S. newspaper, which published them in 2016. Schimel did not recommend any criminal charges because he could not determine who had leaked the material. However, he did conclude that it came from a hard drive that is now missing from the former GAB offices.


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