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Liberal group asks Wisconsin Supreme Court to stay out of John Doe case

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MADISON, Wisconsin — The Wisconsin Supreme Court should stay out of a dispute over subpoenas in a secret investigation into possible illegal coordination between conservative organizations and recent recall campaigns, a liberal group said Monday.

One Wisconsin Now sent the court a letter saying two groups involved in the investigation — Wisconsin Club for Growth and Wisconsin Manufacturers and Commerce, the state's chamber of commerce — helped get the court's four conservative-leaning justices elected. The two groups have spent a combined $7.3 million to support Annette Ziegler, David Prosser, Michael Gableman and Patience Roggensack's campaigns since 2007, the letter said.

"Were the court to accept (the case) and act to squash the inquiry into wrongdoing, the appearance if not the existence of impropriety would indelibly stain the integrity of the Wisconsin Supreme Court for generations to come," One Wisconsin Now Executive Director Scot Ross said in the letter.

The five-county investigation began in August 2012 as a so-called John Doe probe, a proceeding similar to a grand jury investigation where information is tightly controlled and witnesses cannot speak publicly about their testimony.

Court documents, however, have confirmed the probe focuses on alleged illegal campaign coordination between conservative groups and Republican candidates' campaigns during the 2011 and 2012 recalls. Those elections were sparked by outrage over Republican Gov. Scott Walker's law that stripped most public workers of nearly all their union rights.

The judge overseeing the investigation, Gregory Peterson, granted a request from the Club for Growth in January to quash five subpoenas. Court documents indicate Club for Growth was one of the groups subpoenaed; the Wall Street Journal has reported the other subpoena targets included Walker's campaign and WMC.

The special prosecutor leading the investigation, Francis Schmitz, has asked the 4th District Court of Appeals to reverse Peterson's decision and reinstate the subpoenas. Walker's campaign last week asked the state Supreme Court to bypass the appellate court and take the case directly. The court has not yet said whether it will accept the case.

The Supreme Court also is considering whether to take two other lawsuits seeking to halt the investigations. Club for Growth also filed a lawsuit in Milwaukee asking a federal judge to halt the probe, arguing prosecutors are using the investigation to harass conservatives.

WMC spokesman Jim Pugh didn't immediately return a telephone message. Andrew Grossman, an attorney representing Club for Growth in the federal lawsuit, referred questions to attorney Ed Greim, whom Grossman said was representing the organization in state court. Greim refused to confirm he represented the group in any matter, citing the secrecy of the probe.

Supreme Court spokesman Tom Sheehan didn't immediately return an email message.

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