UPDATED: 1:09 a.m. to include information on Senate passage of the bill.
MADISON, Wis. – The Legislature passed two noteworthy bills on Wednesday.
The Senate, in a rare burst of bipartisanship, unanimously agreed there ought to be criminal consequences for creeps who shoot “upskirt” photos and videos of unsuspecting women in public places.
But a bill that would put a stop to predawn, paramilitary-style raids on the homes of citizens suspected of campaign finance violations received a cold reception from Democrats.
“This happened in America,” state Rep. Joe Sanfelippo, R-New Berlin, said of the raids during heated floor debate in the Assembly that featured plenty of hyperbole – or hyper-bul, as Milwaukee Democrat Christine Sinicki repeatedly pronounced the word.
“This bill is about people being terrorized in their own home,” Sanfelippo added.
But the raids on conservative targets and their families, people who were not charged with any wrongdoing in the lengthy probe, seemed superfluous to Assembly Democrats.
The Republican-led measure passed in both the Assembly and Senate with unified opposition from Democrat lawmakers.
The minority party attempted to paint the bill as a free ride for politicians because the proposal gets Wisconsin’s controversial John Doe procedure out of the partisan business of political crime investigations.
“There’s a reason we call it the Corrupt Politician Protection Act,” said state Rep. Gary Hebl, D-Sun Prairie, repeating an erroneous and, as Assembly Speaker Robin Vos described it, hyperbolic narrative.
The bill’s co-author, state Rep. Dave Craig, R-Town of Vernon, said bribery and other political crimes will still be investigated, but through other means than a John Doe law that demands secrecy of targets and threatens them with imprisonment if they violate the procedure’s gag orders.
Under Assembly Bill 68, targets and witnesses in a John Doe investigation would no longer be bound by such secrecy, although prosecutors and judges would.
The measure limits the use of John Doe probes to serious felonies and abuse of public trust by law enforcement officials. It sets time limits on investigations, allowing extensions with the approval of a panel of Wisconsin’s chief judges. And prosecutors would have to provide a general summary of the costs.
The Senate passed the same version early Wednesday morning along party lines after a lengthy delay.
“Today, the State of Wisconsin moved one step closer to end secret, unconstitutional, and open-ended investigations using the John Doe process,” state Sen. Tom Tiffany, R-Hazelhurst, who labored for months alongside Craig to keep the bills on track, said in a statement following the Senate’s post-midnight passage.
Investigators in the political John Doe, launched in August 2012 by Milwaukee County District Attorney John Chisholm, a Democrat, have yet to disclose the full tally of a probe estimated to be in the millions of dollars. Nor has the state Government Accountability Board, the state’s political speech regulator that worked closely with Chisholm and his assistants.
The GAB doesn’t have to disclose those costs under a confidentiality provision woven into state law.
Craig and the proposal’s supporters said the high profile political John Doe investigation was just one of 195 such probes around the state last year – many of them secret, all of them subject to abuse.
While the minority party sees the reform legislation as Republicans protecting their own, the bill has the backing of Attorney General Brad Schimel, a Republican, and the state Public Defender’s Office, certainly not known for its conservative ideals.
Vos told his colleagues on the other side of the aisle that they too would support the bill if they could only shed their “Walker Derangement Syndrome.”
The left’s charge is that, because Gov. Scott Walker’s campaign was targeted in the John Doe probe, the legislation is all about protecting the Republican from similar investigations moving forward.
But critics of the political John Doe note that dozens of conservatives were also targeted, and their only “crime” was their political point of view and their engagement in politics. Several courts have ruled that the prosecutors showed no probable cause of wrongdoing, including the state Supreme Court, which ruled the investigation was unconstitutional and ordered it shut down.
“Is it fair to raid someone’s home and not allow them to even call a lawyer? … That’s what you want to stand up for,” Vos, R-Rochester said. The John Doe law, as it stands, “allows for unconstitutional investigations, it curbs free speech and is ripe for abuse.”
State Rep. Fred Kessler, D-Milwaukee, was apoplectic on the point of the predawn raids. He had no time for accounts of a 16-year-old boy who was at home alone when armed law enforcement raided his home, rooted through his family’s possessions and told him he could not contact his parents, grandfather or an attorney.
“That’s how warrants are executed all over,” Kessler said of the Oct. 3, 2013, raids. Kessler, a former Milwaukee County judge, said the element of surprise is critical when dealing with individuals accused of a crime.
State Rep. Jim Ott, R-Mequon, agreed that the search warrants in the political John Doe probe were “properly executed.”
“They were properly executed if you were investigating a murderer or a rapist or a child trafficker,” he said. “What we are saying is, it is not proper to invade people’s home for, what? Because you suspect they might be involved in a campaign finance crime?”
“Can you imagine if your homes were invaded with a search warrant in the middle of the night?”
Perhaps the Democrats cannot. The political John Doe investigation, it appears, did not target any groups or politicians on the left, even though liberal organizations and lawmakers are suspected of being engaged in the same kinds of coordination acts that prosecutors incorrectly had deemed illegal.
The bipartisan bill that ends a legal loophole and criminalizes “upskirting” now heads to the governor’s desk.
The bill to reform Wisconsin’s ancient John Doe law passed the Assembly along party lines.
Craig called Tuesday a “great day” for the First Amendment in Wisconsin.
“No longer will witnesses before John Doe proceedings be unable to discuss events with their friends and family members as investigators indefinitely look into the most intimate aspects of their lives,” Craig said in a statement.
Tiffany added that it’s the Legislature’s job to “protect the rights of citizens against abusive prosecutors, and the John Doe Reform Bill works to preserve those rights to the fullest extent.”