MADISON, Wisconsin — Newly released court documents include excerpts from emails showing that Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker's recall election campaign team told him to instruct donors to give to a key conservative group that would run ads for Walker and distribute money to other conservative groups backing him.
The documents released Friday by a federal appeals court also show that prosecutors believe Walker personally solicited donations for conservative group Wisconsin Club for Growth to get around campaign finance limits and disclosure requirements as he fended off the recall attempt in 2012.
Aides told Walker to tell donors that they could make unlimited donations to Wisconsin Club for Growth without having the gifts publicly disclosed. Wisconsin Club for Growth then funneled the money to other conservative groups that advertised on Walker's behalf.
"As the Governor discussed ... he wants all the issue advocacy efforts run thru one group to ensure correct messaging," Walker fundraiser Kate Doner wrote to campaign adviser R.J. Johnson in April 2011, a little more than a year before the recall election. "We had some past problems with multiple groups doing work on 'behalf' of Gov. Walker and it caused some issues ... the Governor is encouraging all to invest in the Wisconsin Club for Growth."
It's not clear whether Walker followed the instructions from his team. But the documents say millions of dollars later moved from donors he was set to speak with to Wisconsin Club for Growth, which in turn funded groups backing Walker in the recall election.
The documents are part of a secret investigation into whether Walker's campaign illegally coordinated with conservative groups during the run-up to the June 2012 recall, which was spurred by anger over Walker's signature law stripping most public workers of nearly all their union rights. The probe has dogged Walker as he is locked in a dead heat with Democratic Mary Burke in the governor's race and considers a 2016 presidential run.
In one of the documents, for example, Walker was scheduled to meet in spring of 2012 with real estate mogul Donald Trump, who gave Wisconsin Club For Growth $15,000 days later, prosecutors said, citing emails and bank statements.
Other Wisconsin Club for Growth donors included Gogebic Taconite LLC, which has proposed opening a 4 ½-mile long iron mine in northern Wisconsin. The company gave $700,000 to Club for Growth in 2011 and 2012. Walker signed legislation last year streamlining state mining requirements and paving the way for the project. The documents don't show whether Walker directly solicited donations from that company. A spokesman for the company did not return a message seeking comment.
The pages contain mostly briefs and other legal documents filed by the prosecutor leading the probe, Wisconsin Club for Growth and others involved in the case. Many contain excerpts from investigators' statements, but the statements themselves weren't included in the release. Portions of some documents remain blacked out.
Federal law allows groups like Wisconsin Club for Growth to accept unlimited anonymous contributions as long as they engage in only limited political activity. Prosecutors contend Walker and the club stepped over a line by working together to secretly funnel unlimited sums to groups backing Walker.
As one example, investigators say Walker was set to participate in a December 2011 conference call with James Buchen, a top official with Wisconsin Manufacturers and Commerce, the state's largest business group. Wisconsin Club for Growth gave WMC $2.5 million the following year, which WMC used to produce and air commercials promoting Walker and criticizing his recall opponent, Democrat Tom Barrett.
WMC spokesman Jim Pugh said the group spent millions to educate the public during the recall election. He declined to talk about the club, saying WMC does not discuss its donors.
Walker's campaign issued a statement Friday saying Walker isn't a target in the probe. However, the documents indicate his recall campaign manager Keith Gilkes is. Gilkes did not immediately respond to a message left late Friday night requesting comment.
Wisconsin Club for Growth attorney David B. Rivkin said in an email that it should come as no surprise that Walker would "encourage support" for groups that back him and there's no evidence to support the investigation.
A federal judge in Milwaukee halted the probe in May after Wisconsin Club for Growth filed a lawsuit alleging the investigation violated its free speech rights and the prosecutors are liberals out to harass and tarnish conservatives.
The prosecutors have asked the 7th Circuit Court of Appeals to allow them to restart the probe. The court released the documents tied to that appeal in response to a lawsuit filed by a coalition of media and open government groups.
The documents became briefly available on a federal court website Friday afternoon. Attorneys have been arguing over which ones should be made public, and the records were quickly removed.
Johnson reported from Milwaukee. Associated Press writer Dinesh Ramde in Milwaukee contributed to this story.