Embattled Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker has now acknowledged in a press conference and in a nationally television interview -- with Fox News host Greta Van Susteren -- that he engaged in discussions with political allies about hiring "troublemakers" to disrupt peaceful demonstrations against his budget repair bill.
"You said you thought about it?" asked Van Susteren.
"We did," replied Walker. "We had people contacting (us). I even had lawmakers and others suggesting riling things up."
Lester Pines, one of the most prominent lawyers in Madison, the Wisconsin capital city where the largest demonstrations have taken place, referred to that comment as "a scandal."
"If , in fact, they took any steps toward implementing that (plan to disrupt rallies), that's a crime," explained Pines. "If they took steps to implement that, they engaged in a conspiracy to deny people their civil rights."
After learning of the governor's comments in the Thursday interview, Madison Police Chief Noble Wray, a 27-year veteran lawman, said: " I spent a good deal of time overnight thinking about Governor Walker's response, during his news conference yesterday, to the suggestion that his administration ‘thought about' planting troublemakers among those who are peacefully protesting his bill. I would like to hear more of an explanation from Governor Walker as to what exactly was being considered, and to what degree it was discussed by his cabinet members. I find it very unsettling and troubling that anyone would consider creating safety risks for our citizens and law enforcement officers. Our department works hard dialoging with those who are exercising their First Amendment right, those from both sides of the issue, to make sure we are doing everything we can to ensure they can demonstrate safely. I am concerned that anyone would try to undermine these relationships. I have a responsibility to the community, and to the men and women of this department - who are working long hours protecting and serving this community -- to find out more about what was being considered by state leaders."
On Friday, Madison Mayor David Cieslewicz went further, releasing a letter to the governor that read:
"Dear Governor Walker: In a press conference yesterday you were asked about comments you made regarding a suggestion to bring 'troublemakers' to downtown Madison to disrupt the peaceful protests taking place here. At the press conference you said that this suggestion was made and considered but rejected for political reasons.
"I believe I join most Wisconsinites who find those comments deeply troubling. The protests in Madison have received national recognition for their civility. They have been loud and passionate, but also peaceful.
"Police and protesters have complimented one another on their behavior. The police have been patient and professional while the protesters have been orderly and respectful of their surroundings. For their governor to seriously entertain for even a moment the idea of disrupting the peaceful expression of civic engagement is a very serious concern.
"Like most Wisconsinites I want to believe that our governor would not engage in this kind of behavior. Yet, your response so far has been less than reassuring. I hope that you can address these concerns by answering the following questions:
"• Who made the suggestion to disrupt the protests?
"• What was the exact nature of the suggestion?
"• What was your immediate response?
"• What steps, if any, did you or others take to carry out the plan to disrupt protests?
"• Why didn't you reject it along legal and moral grounds instead of political considerations?
"I am not necessarily expecting a direct response to me. But I hope that you will deal with these questions in the coming days and provide your responses to the media and to the people of Wisconsin.
"Our police officers work hard to protect the public. When the top elected official in our state and a person sworn to uphold the law entertains the notion of breaking the peace that official needs to reassure these officers and the public of his intentions."
Public interest and media groups have filed Freedom of Information Act requests for details of Walker's conversations regarding stirring up violence. And legislators are demanding answers.
"As the father of two young children who have been at these demonstrations, along with thousands of other children who came from across Wisconsin with their parents to participate in these marches and rallies, I want to know exactly what transpired in those conversations," said state Rep. Cory Mason, a Racine Democrat. "How seriously did the governor take these proposals to disrupt demonstrations? Did he explore this option? Who brought it up with him? And did he turn the names of the people who made these suggestions over to the appropriate law-enforcement agencies?"
Attorney Pines notes that in all of his descriptions of internal discussions about disrupting demonstrations -- and perhaps causing violence -- the governor has seemed to suggest that he entertained those discussions as part of a broader discourse about how to respond to peaceful protests that have brought hundreds of thousands of Wisconsinites into the streets of major cities and smaller towns across the state.
"If someone suggests someting like this to a governor, the response should be: 'I would never talk about such a thing. I took an oath to a constitution that requires me to protect people's freedom to assemble and speak freely.' And that governor should tell anyone who suggests such a thing that he will not have any further dealings with them," said Pines. "What troubles me is that Governor Walker seems to have joined in these discussions without sending a strong signal that it is wrong to propose disruptions. That's outrageous."