Wisconsin 501(c)(4) Group Sues Over “John Doe” Investigation

The Wisconsin Club for Growth, a conservative group under secret investigation in the state in connection with possible illegal coordination between 501(c)(4) nonprofits and political campaigns, has filed a federal suit seeking to end the probe, claiming members’ constitutional rights are being violated.

Much of the talk about scrutiny of politically active nonprofit groups of late has centered on action at the federal level. But a recent civil rights lawsuit raises similar—though not identical—concerns in Wisconsin.

The Wisconsin Club for Growth filed a federal lawsuit on Monday seeking to end a secret investigation into possible illegal coordination between tax-exempt social welfare organizations and political campaigns. The conservative 501(c)(4) nonprofit argues that the probe is limiting its members’ political activities during the 2014 election cycle—violating their constitutional rights to free speech, free assembly, and equal protection under the law.

About the probe

Officials in Wisconsin have been looking into the political activities of the Wisconsin Club for Growth and other such groups during a series of recall elections of state officials in 2011 and 2012—the most prominent being that of Republican Gov. Scott Walker, who became the first governor to survive a recall effort in U.S. history.

According to the Wisconsin Democracy Campaign, a citizens watchdog group, the Club for Growth spent $9.1 million during the recall campaigns, the fourth-highest total among special-interest groups.

Since the elections, there have been investigations into political spending during the contentious campaigns. The current one is a so-called John Doe probe, which allows prosecutors to compel people to produce documents and give testimony and bars them from talking publicly about the investigation.

Though the full details of the investigation have not been publicly disclosed, The Wisconsin State Journal reports that it focuses on possible illegal coordination between a campaign, believed to be Walker’s, and political groups, including the Wisconsin Club for Growth.

About the lawsuit

In its complaint [PDF], which is partly redacted due to the investigation, the Wisconsin Club for Growth argues that those targeted by the probe—including Eric O’Keefe, a plaintiff in the suit who has spoken openly about the matter, as well as a director of the group—have faced unfair scrutiny for their political activities. The group says that its political activities, which it argues are protected by the First and Fourteenth Amendments, have been “chilled” by the 17-month investigation.

The lawsuit suggests that the investigation is politically motivated, noting the Democratic leanings of Milwaukee County District Attorney John Chisholm, who is a named defendant in the case. The group argues that the probe specifically focuses on individuals in five Wisconsin counties—including O’Keefe and former Walker aide Kelly Rindfleisch, who was convicted of misconduct in 2012 for doing campaign work on government time—and claims it is one of many such efforts to discredit political opponents. (Rindfleisch’s conviction stemmed from charges that arose from a previous John Doe investigation, which lasted three years and led to the current probe.)

“Within three years [the political motive] had become the basis for a statewide probe into virtually every conservative independent organization involved in Wisconsin politics,” David Rivkin, O’Keefe’s attorney, wrote in the lawsuit.

This isn’t the first legal effort to end the current investigation. A prior lawsuit, brought by three John Doe figures, asked the court to stop the probe based on procedural technicalities, but a three-judge panel refused last month.

Wisconsin Club for Growth has been under investigation for reported ties to the campaigns of Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, above. (photo by Gage Skidmore/Flickr)

Ernie Smith

By Ernie Smith

Ernie Smith is a former senior editor for Associations Now. MORE

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