3 Charged In Investigation Related To Walker

A former close aide to Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker during his time as Milwaukee County executive is among three people who’ve been arrested and charged with felonies as part of an ongoing criminal investigation.

At a brief news conference Wednesday, Milwaukee County District Attorney John Chisholm announced charges from at least a part of an ongoing John Doe investigation.

Felony embezzlement charges were filed Thursday against Tim Russell and Kevin Kavanaugh related to stealing money that was intended to help veterans, according to court documents.

Walker said he’s “extremely disappointed” that Russell, a former longtime aide, has been charged with felony embezzlement for allegedly stealing more than $21,000 from Operation Freedom, a group he ran that was supposed to help veterans and their families.

The complaint alleges Russell used the stolen funds to pay for cruises, a political trip and website domain names for Walker’s campaign.

Russell worked for Walker off-and-on between 2002 and 2010, when Walker was Milwaukee County executive. Russell worked as a Walker campaign staffer and as his county housing director. He did not follow Walker to Madison after he was elected governor last year.

Kavanaugh, a former Milwaukee County Veteran Service Commission member, was charged with five felonies, including embezzlement and fraud, according to court documents. Walker appointed Kavanaugh to the commission.

Kavanaugh was the treasurer of the Milwaukee chapter of the Military Order of the Purple Heart. In addition to collecting donations to help the children of soldiers killed, the group served as the fiscal agent for Operation Freedom, an annual military appreciation day that Walker held at the Milwaukee County Zoo while county executive. Russell coordinated the event for Walker.

Walker’s then-chief of staff had requested the investigation into Kavanaugh after he was concerned about how money was being handled for the annual veterans’ picnic at the zoo.

“The investigation started when the former county executive’s chief of staff, Tom Nardelli, approached my office and asked us to locate funds he believed were missing from that event,” Chisholm said.

The complaint alleges that Kavanaugh stole $11,000 that was raised in 2007 for the Operation Freedom event, but went missing.

“In addition to the theft of Operation Freedom funds, Mr. Kavanaugh is charged with illegally using funds intended to support the families of Wisconsin service members killed in action in wars in Iraq and Afghanistan,” Chisholm said.

According to the criminal complaint, Kavanaugh embezzled at least $42,232 from the Military Order of the Purple Heart. That includes money that former state Rep. Mark Gundrum donated to the group from his legislative salary while he was serving in Iraq that was intended to benefit wounded veterans.

Walker said that while he’s disappointed in the charges filed against his former aide, he appreciates that the District Attorney’s Office investigated the concerns of his county executive administration.

“Obviously anyone can try and twist things, but I think in the end people realize it was my office at the time that brought this to the attention of the District Attorney’s Office and we are thankful the district attorney acted on it,” Walker said.

Chisholm said the John Doe investigation is ongoing.

“I will make every effort in the near future and as soon as appropriate to inform you of additional information as we transition from the investigative phase to the prosecution phase,” Chisholm said.

Walker originally ran the Operation Freedom event through his county office, but reassigned its leadership after receiving legal advice that it should be handled by a charitable organization, and Milwaukee Purple Heart was selected.

Both Russell and Kavanaugh appeared in court late Thursday afternoon. Each was released on a $20,000 signature bond.

Department of Public Instruction worker Brian Pierick was charged with two felony counts of child enticement, according to court documents. Pierick lives with Russell and is his business and domestic partner. According to the complaint, investigators found evidence to support the charge after confiscating computers in the home the two share in Sun Prairie.

According to the complaint, Pierick exchanged illicit text messages with a 17-year-old Waukesha boy. Pierick was terminated Thursday morning from his job with the Department of Public Instruction, an agency spokesman said.

Last month a commercial real estate broker in Milwaukee was arrested for failing to cooperate with the investigation and released with no charges being filed.

The secret investigation, known as a “John Doe,” began in May 2010 and has served as a distraction for Walker as he faces a possible recall election next year.

Walker has said he has not been contacted by prosecutors and he has defended his integrity.