Precisely what brought Eric O'Keefe to Wisconsin isn't completely clear, but he is having a huge impact here and may ultimately put a stop to the second John Doe investigation targeting Gov. Scott Walker and various conservative advocacy groups.
O'Keefe rarely speaks to the media. He was born in Grosse Point, a wealthy suburb of Detroit, but has lived in Spring Green for years, where he and his wife, Leslie Graves, raised their children. As a teenager, O'Keefe was inspired by his membership in the Conservative Book Club, the Washington Post has reported, and by his mid-20s had gotten involved with the Libertarian Party. He inherited money and then made more through investments, which freed him to work on political causes.
Graves became the Wisconsin chair of the Libertarian Party in 1979 and was a regional representative on its national committee. O'Keefe also served on the committee and in 1980 became the party's national director. The two must have gotten to know each other then and ultimately married and settled down in her native state. They also became friends of David Koch, the Libertarian candidate for vice president in 1980.
Graves and O'Keefe have had their fingers in a lot of pies, not always baked with purely right-wing recipes. Graves has been a strong anti-abortion advocate but is also the president of the Lucy Burns Institute, a Madison-based nonprofit that seeks to empower citizens by sponsoring such websites as Ballotpedia, which tracks elections and ballot measures at the state level, and WikiFOIA, which provides information on how to use state and federal Freedom of Information laws.
Similarly, O'Keefe created the third-party group U.S. Term Limits to campaign in favor of term limits and defeat incumbent politicians. While their big victory was the defeat of Democratic House Speaker Tom Foley in 1992, the group occasionally targeted Republicans.
Of course, the old Libertarians were almost equally opposed to both major parties, but that's changed as the Republican Party moved further right. Beginning in the 1980s, O'Keefe and the Koch brothers got involved in building a network of secretive, conservative advocacy groups. These groups, like the Wisconsin Club for Growth, which O'Keefe runs, never expressly advocate the election of anyone but attack candidates they don't like and support those they do. Under the law, this means the groups needn't reveal their donors and can secretly collect "dark money," as it's been called, from wealthy people across the country.
Millions of such dollars went from groups controlled by O'Keefe and the Kochs to help Walker win the 2012 recall election. He's their man. But they have recently split with him regarding the John Doe probe and have pushed the Wall Street Journal to blast the governor with its editorials. Walker's sin? His campaign has met with prosecutors to suggest a settlement, hoping to put the Doe -- and its endless distractions -- behind him as he works to get reelected governor in a race that's currently a statistical tie.
But O'Keefe and the Kochs want to kill all restrictions on campaign finance, and to that end O'Keefe has hired a top Washington, D.C., attorney, David Rivkin, to sue all the prosecutors involved in the Doe probe, accusing them of violating the civil rights and freedom of speech of O'Keefe and others under investigation. O'Keefe has more recently sued the Government Accountability Board, also involved in the probe.
O'Keefe seems to want to punish the prosecutors: His federal lawsuit has targeted them both professionally and personally, and Rivkin has warned he intends to squeeze the prosecutors "like grapes." O'Keefe has them so tied up with legal actions the Doe investigation has come to a standstill.
But O'Keefe also has a big principle in mind. Under the law his conservative advocacy groups couldn't coordinate with the Walker campaign. Yet during the 2012 recall election, O'Keefe was friendly with Walker and hired longtime Republican operative R.J. Johnson as a consultant for the Wisconsin Club for Growth, even as Johnson served as an adviser to Walker's campaign.
Such decisions help explain why the John Doe investigators are probing potential coordination between the O'Keefe-led groups and Walker's campaign. But O'Keefe, in his appeal of the probe, argues that such coordination should be allowed, since these groups don't expressly tell people how to vote. And federal judge Rudolph Randa recently made a ruling that essentially accepts this argument.
So O'Keefe doesn't want a settlement to the probe by Walker's lawyer, which might make the whole thing moot. He wants to go all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, which seems increasingly willing to throw out any restrictions on campaign donations. And this could be the final blow.
O'Keefe, in short, wants to remake America into a country where average people have the power of one vote, and wealthy people have that plus the ability to practice "free speech" by spending untold millions to buy elections. Compared to that grand vision, Walker's concern about his reelection is small potatoes.
Bruce Murphy is the editor of UrbanMilwaukee.com.