Posted by Ruth Conniff on January 28, 2012

The criminal complaints raise serious questions about what Walker knew and when he knew it.

The secret John Doe investigation of Governor Scott Walker's associates by the Milwaukee County District Attorney, with help from the FBI, keeps turning up new dirt.

The worst, so far, are the allegations that Walker staffers Tim Russell and Kevin Kavanaugh stole money that was supposed to go to Wisconsin veterans and vendors at a Milwaukee County Zoo veterans' event, as well as the widows and children of Wisconsin's war dead--and used it to pay for cruises, restaurant meals, and a Walker-for-governor campaign web site.

Russell and Kavanaugh are pleading not guilty.

Russell's partner, Brian Pierick, was also dragged into court to face child enticement charges because investigators found records on computers and iPhones of a sexual relationship with an underaged boy, and visits to Internet porn sites using the handle "Walker04".

Pierick's lawyer asked that those charges be dropped on the grounds that the boy misrepresented his age as 19.

The gory stories in the criminal complaints make bad politics for Walker.

The indictment of Kavanaugh in particular, and details about interviews with upset widows who never received the money from a veterans' group, the Military Order of the Purple Heart, addressed to them after their husbands died, can't help but turn off some of his base. (Among the funds Kavanaugh is accused of stealing was $4,800 from former Republican Senator Mark Gundrun, now a Wisconsin judge).

But so far, Walker himself has not been directly implicated.

On Friday Walker told reporters that he knew nothing about the wrongdoing in his office when he was County Exec, that he fired Darlene Wink when he learned of the campaigning, and that he is not a target in the probe.

"I have every confidence that when this is completed, people will see that our integrity remains intact," Walker told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.

But the criminal complaints raise questions about what Walker knew and when he knew it, both about illegal campaigning on county time, and about the theft of funds from vets that his own chief of staff suspected back in 2008, but did not report until 2010.

As the probe goes on, the news looks worse for Walker.

The probe made new headlines last week, when four felony charges were filed against for former Walker deputy chief of staff Kelly Rindfleisch, along with misdemeanor charges against former staffer Darlene Wink for campaigning on county time. Other indictments last week point to possible favoritism in a fishy real estate deal involving Walker campaign donors in the real estate industry and office space for public employees in Milwaukee.

But the biggest deal in the latest round of criminal charges is a quote from an email Scott Walker sent from his campaign email account in May 2010, which directs Rindfleisch, the staffer now facing felony charges, to avoid embarrassing news stories.

"We cannot afford another story like this one," Walker wrote in the email, quoted in the criminal complaint that came out Thursday. "No one can give them any reason to do another story. That means no laptops, no websites, no time away during the workday, etc."

The complaint also alleges that Walker's staff when he was county executive created a secret Internet network to conduct county and campaign business away from the public eye. That alone is against Wisconsin law.

Milwaukee County Supervisor John Weishan, who first blew the whistle on Darlene Wink, does not buy the idea that Walker didn't know what was going on in his office. "I put in multiple open records requests over the years, asking about the political activities of Tim Russell and Darlene Wink," Weishan said in a Friday conference call with reporters. In answer to one such request, Weishan says he was charged $2,800 and received a record of only a handful of visits to Wispolitics, a much used political site on the Internet--two visits each by Russell and Wink, in April and May. He and other Democrats did not consider the response credible, he says, since is would be standard practice to visit such sites.

"That's why we thought for a long time there was a secret communication network set up," says state Democratic Party spokesman Graeme Zielinski. "Now we know."

In Walker's email telling staff to avoid using laptops and web sites, Weishan says, "He's telling his people, 'Don’t be so blatant about it. Don’t be stupid and make it so public. Use the private system.'"

State senator Chris Larson of Milwaukee, who was on the county board when Walker was county exec, agrees: "Scott Walker came into office after running as a clean-government reformer," Larson says. "He knew these kinds of things were wrong, and he knew just what to look for."

The email in the Rindfleisch indictment, Larson says,"shows his real intent is not, 'don't do this,' but, 'Don’t get caught.'”

But Walker maintains his innocence, and says he has cooperated fully with the probe. When Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reporter Daniel Bice asked him "about the proximity of his office to Kelly Rindfleisch, and whether he knew what she was doing, he declined to comment:

And while Walker maintains that he is not a target, he also declined to answer a question about whether he or his lawyers had met directly with investigators--a question he answered in the negative the week before, Bice points out.

If you liked this article by Ruth Conniff, the political editor of The Progressive, check out her story " Walker's Deceitful State of the State."

Follow Ruth Conniff @rconniff on Twitter