MADISON, Wisconsin — For two years, Republican Gov. Scott Walker, who became a national conservative hero after his confrontation with public employee unions in Wisconsin, has insisted that he didn't know that some of his aides were improperly doing political work on government time when he was the top official in Milwaukee County.
A Milwaukee County district attorney's probe led to six convictions, including one for felony misconduct by Walker's then deputy chief of staff. But no charges have been filed against Walker.
However, about 28,000 pages of staff emails collected in 2010 during the investigation and released this week present a picture of Walker that clashes with the impression of a top executive above the daily fray of his agency. They appear to show an often hands-on manager in close touch with his staff and carefully tending his public image and political prospects.
The emails could provide ammunition for political opponents challenging Walker's candor as he runs for re-election this year and as he weighs whether to make a presidential bid in 2016.
Walker's difficulty parallels that of another Republican governor with national aspirations, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, whose has been embroiled in a scandal surrounding a traffic jam around the George Washington Bridge into New York City. Christie has denied knowing that his staff closed access lanes to retaliate against a mayor who had declined to endorse Christie's re-election.
Already, the Democratic National Committee has created a chart highlighting similarities between the two scandals. The liberal political action group American Bridge 21st Century has launched a website dedicated to the emails.
Walker became nationally known for his successful effort to effectively end collective bargaining for public workers after he won election in 2010. The emails show he was carefully protecting himself against political blowback as Milwaukee County executive while preparing to make the race.
"We cannot afford another story like this one," Walker wrote to a county aide in 2010. His email was in reaction to a newspaper story about another employee who was posting pro-Walker comments on a variety of websites during office hours. Walker's messages referred to private computers that some workers were using for their political activities.
"No one can give them any reason to do another story," Walker wrote. "That means no laptops, no websites, no time away during the work day, etc."
The emails show Walker setting daily strategy calls with county and campaign staff, ordering staff to give a reporter "grief" for a negative story and trying to manage a stream of damaging news reports about sexual assaults in the county's mental health complex.
The messages "unmask the real Gov. Walker," said Mike Browne, deputy director of the liberal group One Wisconsin Now.
"He is revealed as a politician personally managing the minutest details of his public persona and during times of crisis showing more concern for protecting his image and prospects for higher political office than solving problems," Browne said.
It's difficult to see Walker as detached from his county staff's campaign activities, said Democratic state Rep. Cory Mason.
"These emails show him to be very much involved in the decisions being made around him, so his argument that he didn't know about the illegal campaign work loses credibility," Mason said.
Walker has not commented on the emails since their release Thursday. Earlier, Walker said he hadn't reviewed them but assumed his political enemies would try to use them against him.
"These people are naysayers who want things bad to happen in Wisconsin, so they are going to be circling again today," Walker said. "It's exactly what's wrong with the political process that they're hoping for something bad to happen in Wisconsin."
Dan Blum, a Republican strategist who worked briefly for Walker in 2012, said the emails were just "white noise."
In the emails, Walker is particularly engaged in attempting to insulate himself from the scandal at the county mental health center, in which some residents were assaulting other patients.
"We need to continue to keep me out of the story as this is a process issue and not a policy matter," Walker wrote on March 27, 2010. As county executive, Walker oversaw county government and agencies.
The emails show Walker telling both his campaign and county staffers to be "100% certain that everything is working and that all state and federal regulations are in place" at the mental health center. He also told administrators there that he wanted to be kept in the loop "on all issues."
With an eye on political repercussions, Walker suggests reaching out to editorial writers at the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.
"The next problem will be editorials and this can nip it in the butt," he wrote.
In one email chain, he tries to arrange for damaging news about a lawsuit against the county to break on a Friday night, when political operatives believe many people aren't paying attention. He directs his political team to give a copy to a reporter who might not have one.
"If not, do we want him to get a copy so it is out late on a Fri?" Walker wrote.
The newly released emails were collected for the case brought against Walker's former deputy chief of staff Kelly Rindfleisch. She was convicted of felony misconduct in office for the illegal campaign work.