John T. Chisholm

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John T. Chisholm
Milwaukee County District Attorney
Assumed office
January 1, 2007
Preceded by E. Michael McCann
Personal details
Born John Theodore Chisholm
March 14, 1963
Milwaukee, Wisconsin, U.S.
Political party Democratic[1]

John Theodore Chisholm (born March 14, 1963) is an American prosecutor and the district attorney of Milwaukee County, Wisconsin, serving since 2007. Prior to his election as district attorney, Chisholm was an assistant district attorney and the supervisor of the office's gun-crime unit. He has prosecuted several notable cases, including those of former Milwaukee alderman Michael McGee, Jr., serial killer Walter Ellis, and several associates of Wisconsin Governor Scott K. Walker. Conservative groups have criticized Chisholm, a Democrat, for initiating an investigation into allegations of possible violations of Wisconsin's campaign finance laws during the 2012 Wisconsin gubernatorial recall election.


Chisholm was born in Milwaukee and raised in the suburban communities of Menomonee Falls and Elm Grove in Waukesha County. He graduated from Marquette University High School in 1981 and attended St. John's University and Marquette University, graduating from the latter in 1986.[2] Between 1986 and 1990, Chisholm enlisted in the U.S. Army and was stationed in the Korean demilitarized zone, rising to the rank of first lieutenant. In 1994, Chisholm graduated from the University of Wisconsin Law School. He was hired that year as an assistant district attorney by E. Michael McCann, then the district attorney of Milwaukee County.

In 1999, Chisholm was selected as supervisor of McCann's firearms enforcement unit.[2] In this position, Chisholm prosecuted millionaire marijuana dealer Kenneth L. Green and members of Jamaican and Latin Kings organized crime outfits.[2][3] When McCann announced his impending retirement in December 2005, Chisholm entered the race to replace him. After defeating former Milwaukee alderwoman Larraine McNamara-McGraw in the Democratic primary, Chisholm easily outpolled independent Lew Wasserman in the general election.[2]

Tenure as district attorney[edit]

As district attorney, Chisholm established a public integrity unit, resulting in the prosecution of Milwaukee alderman Michael McGee, Jr., who was later convicted of federal crimes including bribery and extortion. McGee was also convicted of two state crimes, to which he pleaded nolo contendere.[4] Chisholm's office has prosecuted other officials, including Milwaukee County supervisor Toni Clark[5] and fellow supervisor Johnny Thomas, a candidate for Milwaukee City Comptroller who was prosecuted in 2012 for bribery but acquitted at trial.[6]

In October 2012, Chisholm charged four Milwaukee police officers with crimes ranging from sexual assault to misconduct in public office for their involvement in the unlawful rectal probing of detained suspects.[7] Michael Vagnini, the officer most implicated[clarification needed] in the illegal searches, was sentenced to 26 months in state prison.[8] Chisholm has also investigated and prosecuted violent felons, including preacher and organized crime figure Michael Lock and serial killer Walter E. Ellis, known as the "North Side Strangler" who targeted prostitutes in Milwaukee for two decades.[9]

Chisholm implemented criminal justice reforms, which focus primarily on community-based prosecution, evidence-based decision-making, and the deferred prosecution of drug-addicted and mentally ill defendants.[10][11] Chisholm is a director and past chair of the Association of Prosecuting Attorneys, a national organization of American prosecutors.[12]

John Doe probes into certain staffers of Governor Scott Walker[edit]

In 2010, Chisholm conducted a confidential "John Doe" investigation into financial and political misconduct on the part of staff and campaign supporters of politician Scott Walker, then the Milwaukee County Executive and a successful candidate for Governor of Wisconsin.[13][14] The investigation resulted in four felony convictions, including those of Timothy Russell and Kelly Rindfleisch, who had served successively as Walker's deputy chief of staff.[15] During the course of this investigation, Chisholm initiated a second John Doe probe, investigating potential violations of Wisconsin's campaign finance laws during the 2012 gubernatorial recall election. Due to the geographic breadth of this investigation, Chisholm and four other Wisconsin district attorneys turned over its management to former Assistant United States Attorney Francis Schmitz.[16]

Conservative activists have alleged that this investigation, which was permanently halted by the Wisconsin Supreme Court on June 16, 2015, was a partisan undertaking against Walker's supporters.[2] This claim was reiterated by Michael Lutz (who committed suicide in 2015), who served as a short-term special prosecutor in Chisholm's office and who claimed to have been a close friend of the Chisholm family. Lutz alleged that Chisholm's investigation was motivated by his wife, a public school teacher and union steward. Chisholm's attorney, Samuel Leib, denounced this claim as "scurrilous, desperate, and just plain cheap."[17][18]

Conservative activists including Eric O'Keefe sued and filed complaints against Chisholm, in both federal and Wisconsin courts, alleging the commission of civil rights violations during the course of the investigation. The United States Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit dismissed a federal civil rights claim but did not restart the investigation, pending litigation in state court ultimately resolved in 2015.[19] Following the federal court ruling, conservative activist Chris Kliesmet requested that a Dodge County prosecutor and circuit judge probe Chisholm's conduct during the second investigation. The judge, Steven Bauer, ruled on November 6, 2014 that Chisholm had acted "in good faith" and noted the campaign finance laws used as the investigation's basis "were and are arguably still enforceable", depending on the outcome of appellate litigation in state court.[20][21]

In July 2015, the Wisconsin State Supreme Court ended Chisholm's probe. Justice Michael Gableman, writing for the majority, noted, "It is utterly clear that the prosecutor has employed theories of law that do not exist in order to investigate citizens who were wholly innocent of any wrongdoing."[22] Chisholm appealed the court's decision to the U.S. Supreme Court, and on October 3, 2016 the court rejected his request to hear the case.[citation needed]


  1. ^ Stein, Jason (October 23, 2014). "Nearly 50 DAs decline to investigate Chisholm in John Doe". Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel. Retrieved July 9, 2015. 
  2. ^ a b c d e Gunn, Erik (January 21, 2013). "Invisible No More". Milwaukee Magazine. Retrieved February 17, 2014. 
  3. ^ Doege, David (July 9, 2001). "Protective order OK'd in drug case". Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. Retrieved May 28, 2015. 
  4. ^ Diedrich, John (November 14, 2008). "McGee pleads no contest to two state charges". Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. Retrieved August 18, 2013. 
  5. ^ Schultze, Steve (March 5, 2010). "Toni Clark gets six months in jail". Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. Retrieved August 18, 2013. 
  6. ^ Schultze, Steve (August 24, 2012). "Jury acquits Thomas on bribery, misconduct charges". Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. Retrieved August 18, 2013. 
  7. ^ Barton, Gina; Diedrich, John (October 9, 2012). "4 Milwaukee police officers charged in strip-search case". Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. Retrieved May 28, 2015. 
  8. ^ Vielmetti, Bruce (June 21, 2013). "Ex-Milwaukee officer gets 26 months in prison for strip, cavity searches". Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. Retrieved May 28, 2015. 
  9. ^ Baird, Kathee. "UPDATED: Authorities say Walter Ellis is Milwaukee's North Side Strangler serial killer?". Retrieved May 28, 2015. 
  10. ^ Murphy, Bruce. "How Chisholm is Reducing Black Imprisonment". Urban Milwaukee. Retrieved May 28, 2015. 
  11. ^ Toobin, Jeffrey (May 11, 2015). "The Milwaukee Experiment". The New Yorker. 
  12. ^ "Board of Directors". Association of Prosecuting Attorneys. Retrieved May 28, 2015. 
  13. ^ "Wisconsin is the only state to use such a system. A state or two may have laws similar to Wisconsin's John Doe statute, he said, but he could find no evidence they had been used for decades.",; accessed April 21, 2015.
  14. ^ Explanation of what a "John Doe investigation" is,; accessed November 8, 2014.
  15. ^ Bice, Daniel; Dave Umhoefer (March 2, 2013). "John Doe probe of Scott Walker office closed with no new charges". Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. Retrieved August 18, 2013. 
  16. ^ Umhoefer, Dave. "Special prosecutor rejects Scott Walker's 'partisan' take on John Doe". Retrieved November 29, 2014. 
  17. ^ Martosko, David. Daily Mail report on Chisholm's "John Doe" investigations,; accessed November 5, 2014.
  18. ^ Stein, Jason. "DA John Chisholm denies Doe probe a political vendetta". Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. Retrieved November 28, 2014. 
  19. ^ Stein, Jason; Bice, Daniel; Marley, Patrick (September 24, 2014). "Federal court overturns Doe ruling, sends it back to state judges". Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. Retrieved May 28, 2015. 
  20. ^ Stein, Jason. "Judge won't launch a probe of prosecutors in John Doe case". Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. Retrieved November 28, 2014. 
  21. ^ Judge Bauer won't launch probe of "John Doe" prosecutors,; accessed November 28, 2014.
  22. ^ Marley, Patrick (2015-07-16). "Wisconsin Supreme Court ends John Doe probe into Scott Walker's campaign". Retrieved 2016-10-05.