MILWAUKEE — Wisconsin Democrats pounced Tuesday on newly released emails that indicate Republican Gov. Scott Walker's campaign aides worked closely with his Milwaukee County staff on media strategy during the run-up to his election, saying there's no doubt Walker himself was involved in illegal campaigning.
Milwaukee County Assistant District Attorney Bruce Landgraf revealed the emails during a sentencing hearing for one of Walker's county aides Monday. The proceeding was part of a monthslong secret investigation into Walker's county executive office. The governor hasn't been charged with any wrongdoing, but the probe's status is unclear.
The state Democratic Party issued a statement calling the emails a "bombshell" revelation that shows Walker turned his county office into a campaign machine.
"We believe this shows a much greater level of involvement of Scott Walker," party spokesman Graeme Zielinski said. "We believe he was running Milwaukee County like his campaign office."
Walker's campaign has insisted there's nothing uncouth about campaigns communicating with government workers.
"It is a common and routine procedure for campaign staff and an elected official's staff to discuss matters involving the elected official they mutually serve," Walker campaign spokesman Tom Evenson said in a statement. "These frivolous attacks have no factual basis."
Walker served as Milwaukee County executive until he was elected governor in November 2010. Milwaukee County District Attorney John Chisholm, a Democrat, launched a so-called John Doe probe into the county office in May 2010, some six months before the election.
His office has charged six people so far on counts ranging from exceeding campaign contribution limits to theft. Four have been convicted, including Kelly Rindfleisch, Walker's former county deputy chief-of-staff.
Prosecutors accused her of working on Republican Brett Davis' 2010 lieutenant governor campaign on county time using a secret email system. She pleaded guilty to one felony count of misconduct in office and was sentenced to six months in jail on Monday.
During the sentencing hearing, Landgraf presented dozens of emails Rindfleisch traded with potential hosts for Davis fundraisers during county work hours. Landgraf also told the judge that Rindfleisch was in close contact with Walker's campaign on government time. He noted investigators seized 2,216 emails between Rindfleisch and Walker's top gubernatorial campaign officials, including campaign manager Keith Gilkes and spokeswoman Jill Bader, that were transmitted during business hours in 2010.
Landgraf also pointed to an email Walker's county chief of staff, Tom Nardelli, sent to Rindfleisch, a number of other county workers, Gilkes, Bader and campaign consultant R.J. Johnson. Nardelli wrote that Walker wanted them to hold a daily 8 a.m. conference call in the county executive's office to coordinate on messages to the media.
The county office didn't release any statements without vetting them through the media group, Landgraf said. The emails showed Walker personally approved a news release on the county tax levy during work hours.
During one exchange in May 2010, Gilkes and Rindfleisch discussed leaking a story to the media about problems at the state-run Mendota Mental Health Institute to draw attention from the county's mental health hospital, where nine people have died since 2010.
"There has to be a way to blow up the Mendota story before they attack Scott," Rindfleisch wrote, adding in another message efforts to gather information on Mendota "must be done covertly so it's not tied to Scott, the county or the campaign in any way."
In another instance, Rindfleisch and Gilkes discussed how to respond to the June 2010 death of Jared Kellner, who was killed when a block of concrete fell off a county parking structure and hit him. Gilkes tells Rindfleisch in a message written the day of the accident to stay on top of other county staff and "make sure there is not a paper anywhere that details a problem at all." He also ordered Rindfleisch to have the county's attorney review "every piece of paper ever created on this structure."
Rindfleisch's attorney, Franklyn Gimbel, questioned why prosecutors haven't charged Walker, Gilkes or Davis.
Landgraf told the judge that Davis, who now serves as Medicaid director for the state Department of Health Services, is a matter for Dane County District Attorney Ismael Ozanne since Davis lives in that county. He told The Associated Press on Tuesday that Rindfleisch sent emails to Davis telling him she was working on his campaign off government time.
He referred questions on Walker and Gilkes to Chisholm, who declined to comment. Davis didn't immediately return messages left at DHS or at his home Tuesday. Gilkes declined to comment. Evenson, Walker's campaign spokesman, said Walker is cooperating with authorities and isn't a target in the investigation.
Still, Democrats said Walker's campaign has acknowledged he played a role in directing routine illegal coordination between his campaign and the county.
"Emails to and from Scott Walker himself, introduced into the court record, remove any doubt about whether he was involved in the commission of crimes," the party said, "as well as whether his Milwaukee County office was merely an illegal adjunct of his 2010 campaign for governor."
Associated Press writer Scott Bauer in Madison contributed to this report.