Probe of Scott Walker: Could it affect his chances if he runs for president?

County prosecutors allege that Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker participated in a coordinated effort with national conservative and business groups to illegally raise money during recall elections.

Jeffrey Phelps/AP/File
Wisconsin Republican Gov. Scott Walker speaks in Milwaukee in May. Prosecutors in Wisconsin say Walker acted criminally by coordinating the fundraising and spending of outside conservative groups.

Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker (R) won a contentious battle with big labor in his state and withstood a subsequent recall election effort. But his latest challenge has the potential to be of consequence on the national stage, as he eyes a possible presidential bid in 2016.

In 268 pages of court documents released Thursday, Milwaukee County prosecutors allege that Governor Walker participated in a coordinated effort with a dozen national conservative and business groups to illegally raise money during the 2011 and 2012 recall elections that targeted not only the governor but also state senators.

In the court documents, the effort is described as “a wide-ranging scheme” and “criminal.” Charges have not yet been filed, although the documents characterize Walker and others as breaking multiple election laws.

Should he attempt a presidential bid, his opponents would probably use the allegations to portray him as deceptive, says Dennis Dresang, a political scientist at the University of Wisconsin in Madison who specializes in state and local politics.

“Most people throughout the country have not heard of who Scott Walker is and have not been fully introduced to him yet,” says Mr. Dresang, who is a professor emeritus. “So there are opportunities in the Republican primary or, in the event he wins the nomination, in the general race to use the scandal. It will likely have an impact nationally than within the state.”

Walker denies any wrongdoing and characterizes the prosecutorial efforts as partisan. In his defense, he cites a state judge and a federal one who worked to halt the investigation in previous rulings.

“This is a case that has been resolved. Not one, but two judges have said it’s over,” Walker said on Fox News early Friday. “This is a prime example of what happens when you take on the big government special interests. They’re looking for ways to come at us.”

The court documents were released Thursday as part of an appeal of the halt to the investigation.

There is a third judge, at the county level, who has supported the investigation moving forward by authorizing as many as 100 subpoenas and ordering raids of the homes of several targets.

Not only is Walker considering a presidential bid, but he is in the midst of a tight race to win a second term as governor. According to a Marquette Law School poll from last month, he has 48 percent of likely voter support, but he is in a dead heat against Democratic opponent Mary Burke, a former Wisconsin Commerce secretary, who is receiving 45 percent support. The poll has a margin of error of 3.5 percentage points.

Because Wisconsin is politically polarized, the real threat against Walker may not be his opponent, but rather his own record. “Most people have actually made up their mind,” Dresang says. “He’s got this core of people who really don’t agree with his policies and don’t think he’s done much as a governor.”

Turnout will be critical in November, he says.

The investigation into Walker opened in March 2012. Federal and Wisconsin election laws allow outside groups to freely spend money for efforts supporting candidates of their choice, prosecutors note, but the candidates, as well as their representatives, are not allowed to coordinate that spending for their campaigns.

Court documents say that Walker, alongside longtime campaign operatives R.J. Johnson and Deborah Jordahl, worked in concert with conservative groups including Americans for Prosperity, Wisconsin Club for Growth, the Republican Party of Wisconsin, and the Republican Governors Association.

In addition, the documents say, Walker’s official campaign organization, Friends of Scott Walker, failed to disclose close ties with such organizations. For example, Mr. Johnson is also a key adviser to Wisconsin Club for Growth.

The court documents quote from an e-mail that Walker allegedly sent former Bush White House strategist Karl Rove on May 4, 2011. The e-mail boasts of Johnson’s help in keeping “in place a team that is wildly successful in Wisconsin. We are running 9 recall elections and it will be like 9 congressional markets in every market in the state (and Twin Cities).”

On Thursday, Walker told reporters he had not read the court documents but could not “imagine” he ever communicated with Mr. Rove about Johnson’s work.

On “Fox & Friends” on Friday, Walker brought up what he says is the partisan nature of the investigation. “What you see is the [political] left and others up there trying to stir things up,” he said.

The court documents were unsealed Thursday by federal appeals Judge Frank Easterbrook as he presides over a lawsuit leveled by Wisconsin Club for Growth against county prosecutors, saying the investigation violates their constitutional rights.

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