Caught in the Political Grinder
The woman who became collateral damage in the prosecutorial pursuit of Scott Walker talks about her story for the first time.
By Collin Levy
March 28, 2014 6:37 p.m. ET
'My greatest fear," says Kelly Rindfleisch, is that most people "look at my story and think, this is just politics. And it's only going to get worse until all of us are impacted."
The resident of Columbus, Wis., is sitting at a restaurant in Chicago, talking for the first time to a reporter about the four-year criminal investigation that has stolen her life savings, isolated her from friends and former colleagues, and put her in danger of losing her home. As a midlevel staffer for then-Milwaukee County executive Scott Walker, she became collateral damage in the pursuit of Mr. Walker by Milwaukee prosecutors. When the secret investigation turned up nothing on the governor, prosecutors made Ms. Rindfleisch their consolation prize.
In October 2012, she pleaded guilty to misconduct in public office for sending fundraising emails during the workday for Brett Davis, a candidate for lieutenant governor. She is now appealing that conviction, but she is also a target of prosecutors' continuing pursuit of theories of illegal political coordination between conservative groups and the Walker administration. A leak about that secret probe (which she won't discuss) recently cost her only means of income.
In slacks and a boxy sweater, the 45-year old Ms. Rindfleisch has a defeated tone but still sounds incredulous about the process that began with her looking for a job to pay the bills and ended with prosecutors turning her life into a "deterrent." It's a cautionary tale about what it's like to get caught in the grinder of modern winner-take-all politics.
The story began in January 2010 when Ms. Rindfleisch was hired as a policy adviser for Mr. Walker's Milwaukee County executive's office. To make her mortgage payments, she took a second job as a part-time fundraiser for Mr. Davis. Mr. Walker was gearing up to run for governor in 2010 but endorsed no one for lieutenant governor.
Then in May 2010 the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel ran a story about Darlene Wink, a constituent-services coordinator in the county executive's office who had posted pro-Walker comments on the newspaper's website. Investigators from the district attorney's office soon seized documents and a computer from Ms. Wink's office.
Affidavits in support of search warrants that we've seen from that period show that prosecutors and chief investigator David Budde used this as an opening to investigate others who had corresponded with Ms. Wink. Eventually they happened onto a senior aide to Mr. Walker, Tim Russell, and his correspondence with Ms. Rindfleisch.
On Nov. 1, 2010, the day before Mr. Walker was elected governor, investigators from the D.A.'s office, including Mr. Budde, returned with a warrant for the office computer's hard drives. "Our chief of staff wasn't there so I was the one who had to deal with it," Ms. Rindfleisch says.
Investigators told her they were looking into her work for Mr. Davis and had search warrants for her house and car. "I said I needed to contact county corporation counsel and they wouldn't let me. . . . I assume that they're using the John Doe secrecy order to justify that." Under Wisconsin law a John Doe is a kind of grand jury probe bound by secrecy, though somehow details about the targets always seem to leak. (It was widely reported in 2012 that Mr. Budde had a Recall Walker sign in his front yard.)
"They took away my phone and kept me in my office against my will" while taking the computers, Ms. Rindfleisch says. One investigator, Bob Stelter, "pulled me into the room and told me how much trouble I was in."
She soon learned the issue was her fundraising work for Mr. Davis. Though she had not used county resources—she used her personal computer, personal phone and email accounts to do the fundraising—she didn't always leave the building. "For me, it didn't make sense to take five minutes to get outside to respond to an email for 30 seconds and then spend another five minutes to get back inside," she says. "The only thing I was using was time."
Though her hours were supposed to be 7 a.m. to 4 p.m., she says she never left at 4 p.m. and averaged 9-10 hours a day in the office. According to prosecutors, her work for Mr. Davis was perfectly legal but her presence in a government building when she sent the emails was a felony. With that threat dangling, the D.A.'s office gave Ms. Rindfleisch immunity to talk about anything related to Mr. Walker and told her that investigators would "look favorably" if she cooperated.
"I had answered all their questions truthfully and provided any factual information I had knowledge of," Ms. Rindfleisch says, but they kept asking the same questions and intimating that she was holding back. "In one of the interrogations, they had the gall to bring up my dad. . . . They were going through my emails, and my dad's obituary was in there. . . . I wanted to say, my dad would be disgusted by what you are doing, that you are destroying everything he put his life on the line for" fighting in World War II.
As an older single woman, Ms. Rindfleisch says, prosecutors may have seen her as an "easy target" who could be pressured to implicate others. "I know who they were targeting. They were targeting Tim Russell, Jim Villa and John Hiller who were the three closest to the governor. . . . I felt they were trying to intimidate me into providing speculation that would implicate [them] in some wrongdoing. But I didn't have any knowledge of anything they've done wrong."
When her cooperation produced nothing against Mr. Walker, Democratic District Attorney John Chisholm charged Ms. Rindfleisch in January 2012 with four felony counts of misconduct in public office. "I had been told again and again and again that if I cooperated they would look favorably on this. And instead they charged me with four felonies that could have amounted to 12 and a half years in prison."
Fundraising in a public building is a misdemeanor under section 11.36 of the Wisconsin criminal code. But in Ms. Rindfleisch's case, prosecutors opted for the much less specific misconduct charge in order to convict her of a felony. Section 946.12 of state law bars public officials from acting in a way that is contrary to their duties and confers a "dishonest advantage" on themselves or others.
By then the political environment was vicious. Wisconsin was inflamed over Mr. Walker's union reforms and election recall fervor was at its peak. "One of the Madison stations broadcast my address and this was at the height of the recall and they were trying to get signatures," she says. She was unable to pay her legal bills.
"I was in a deep, deep depression," Ms. Rindfleisch says. "I knew I wouldn't make it through [a trial], having to sit there and listen to people talk about me, and I knew that emotionally I couldn't do it. So Frank [Gimbel, her lawyer] got me the best deal he could," pleading no contest to one felony. At her plea hearing, Milwaukee County Circuit Judge David Hansher would only accept the deal with a guilty plea. "The judge sentenced me to [six months in] jail and three years probation, which is completely inconsistent with what other people have been sentenced to."
It was, however, consistent with what prosecutors requested in a sentencing memo written by assistant District Attorney Bruce Landgraf. Like many criminal defendants, Ms. Rindfleisch had "positive aspects of her life," he wrote, but with the exception of a minor detail she "provided no information deemed useful by prosecutors." While that doesn't mean she was untruthful, he continued, "it is my judgment that her loyalties rested and continue to rest" with the Republican Party and Friends of Scott Walker.
The memo asked the judge not to be swayed by Ms. Rindfleisch's good character, but to see her work as an "aggravated offense" that "is properly addressed with a jail sentence as a condition of probation." "Deterrence," he added, "is a key component" of her sentence.
At the sentencing hearing, Mr. Landgraf spent most of his time discussing issues unrelated to her charges—spending over an hour on a 78-page slideshow largely composed of emails and other allegations of coordination between the county executive's office and the Scott Walker for Governor campaign. No charges were ever filed against Ms. Rindfleisch related to her communications with the Walker campaign.
As for residual loyalty with Mr. Walker and the GOP, there's no evidence of that. Mr. Walker has declined multiple opportunities to speak on Ms. Rindfleisch's behalf, and her former colleagues have been similarly silent.
"I liquidated my entire retirement, $75,000, to pay part of my legal fees," she says, and she now owes thousands of dollars in taxes on the money she withdrew. She asked Phil Prange, a friend and fundraiser for former Gov. Tommy Thompson, for help with a legal defense fund, but prosecutors heard about it and called to ask him about it. After that, there was no more help. "They cut off any means I had of being able to pay for those bills . . . They did everything they could to financially devastate me," she says. (Mr. Prange declined to comment.)
And they're still doing it. In February, prosecutors disclosed her as a target of the current John Doe investigation by failing to redact her initials (as well as those of Wisconsin Club for Growth director Eric O'Keefe ) on court documents. If this was an accident, it also conveniently exposed two of the prosecutors' main political targets. Despite her plea deal, Ms. Rindfleisch has the right to challenge the process used for evidence gathering and she is now appealing her conviction on grounds that the search warrants were overly broad. Mr. O'Keefe has spoken out against the current Doe investigation in statements to this newspaper.
Last month, a court released some 27,000 pages of Ms. Rindfleisch's personal emails at the request of Wisconsin media outlets. That exposed thousands of personal emails irrelevant to any public interest in the case, further isolated her from friends and made it impossible for her to get a job. When the news of the second John Doe probe broke, the man she had been working for doing online marketing stopped returning her calls. She worries about defaulting on her mortgage. Her probation officer has asked if she has considered changing her name.
Ms. Rindfleisch realizes she is taking a risk in speaking publicly about her case. "I have no doubt there will be repercussions for me for talking. They'll figure out a way to do it. But it's going to be harder for them to try to do that. If they put me in jail at least people will know exactly what they are doing," she says, referring to reprisals by prosecutors.
"I'm not telling my story to help [Scott Walker], or to hurt him," she adds. "I don't care who is doing it, the right or the left. I don't want this to happen to anyone. I'm hoping that by telling my story I can wake people up to realize what's happening."Ms. Levy is a senior editorial writer for the Journal who has been following the John Doe investigations in Wisconsin. Read more ...