By SCOTT BAUER
MADISON, Wis. (AP) — Gov. Scott Walker said Monday he remains "absolutely" confident that he is not a subject of a criminal investigation involving former aides in his Milwaukee County office.
Walker talked about the probe that has shadowed him for more than two years during a wide-ranging interview with The Associated Press at his Capitol office. He also talked about his legislative priorities for next year and his thoughts on running for president in 2016.
The investigation into Walker's former aides and associates began in May 2010, six months before he was elected governor. Six people have been charged with crimes including misconduct in office and theft, but Walker has not been charged or accused of any wrongdoing.
The governor, who hired high-profile criminal defense attorneys from Chicago and started a legal defense fund, met voluntarily with prosecutors in April. He has insisted he did nothing wrong and did not know that county workers were illegally campaigning while on the job.
Still, the investigation hounded Walker during his recall election, which he won handily in June. Then new questions about his involvement were raised last week at a sentencing hearing for Kelly Rindfleisch, his deputy chief of staff when he was Milwaukee County executive. She was sentenced to six months in jail after pleading guilty to felony misconduct in office for doing campaign work on county time.
Prosecutors revealed emails that showed regular contact between Walker's county executive and gubernatorial campaign staffs. The emails showed workers held daily telephone meetings, discussed how to handle politically sensitive topics and even suggested planting stories in the press to distract attention from problems at Milwaukee County's mental health hospital, where nine people have died since 2010.
Walker repeated Monday that he had no knowledge of anyone in his county office doing illegal campaign work, and said if he had, he would have stopped it. He said nothing during Rindfleisch's sentencing made him think he was under investigation.
"Absolutely," Walker said when asked if he was confident he is not a target of the probe.
Democrats have said the emails show that Walker was involved in illegal campaigning.
"It defies reasonable belief that Scott Walker was completely ignorant of the fact that he was surrounded by people committing criminal acts in his office as county executive," Wisconsin Democratic Party Chairman Mike Tate said Monday. "It is not believable. If true, it raises serious questions about his management ability, including who he chooses to surround himself with."
The Republican governor insisted the contact between his county and campaign staffs was routine. The morning calls were used to coordinate staff and schedules and discuss how to handle questions from the media, he said.
"Oftentimes, there's not a distinction between asking a political question in the official office and the campaign office," Walker said. "All those things are things that need to be coordinated. There's nothing wrong with that."
Walker said he had built a firewall to ensure county workers were not ordered to do campaign work while on county time. He said he didn't know Rindfleisch was doing anything illegal, including working on Republican Brett Davis' 2010 lieutenant governor campaign on county time using a secret email system.
"If I had known about that, we would take taken action," Walker said.
Along with the so-called John Doe investigation, the governor talked about his plans for public meetings to get input on the state budget and legislative priorities for next year. His "Talk with Walker" tour begins Tuesday in Green Bay.
Walker said he is confident the Legislature will pass a bill that he says will streamline the state's mining laws while protecting the environment. Lawmakers failed to reach a deal last year, but Walker said their work was hampered by the recall election.
He said comments he made earlier this month in a California about his support for doing away with same-day voter registration have received undo attention. While he would sign such a bill, it is not a priority, he said.
Walker also downplayed talk of a potential presidential bid in 2016. He and Wisconsin Rep. Paul Ryan, the GOP vice presidential nominee this year, have been frequently mentioned as possible candidates.
"I've worked far too hard to become the governor and governor again to worry about anything else after that," Walker said. "I'm just not thinking about it. After two elections in less than two years, I'm just happy being governor, still being governor."
Walker said he has talked with Ryan, who lives in Janesville, but not about running for president.
"I've talked to him about pheasant hunting, I've talked to him about going to Mass, I've talked to him about things in Janesville, but I haven't talked with him about anything presidential," Walker said.
The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reported late Monday that another former Walker aide, Timothy D. Russell, had reached a plea deal in his felony embezzlement case. He had been charged last January with embezzling more than $20,000 from a veterans group that Walker had assigned him to lead.
Assistant Milwaukee County District Attorney Bruce Landgraf would not confirm a deal. But online court records show a new plea hearing has been scheduled for Russell for Thursday. His trial was supposed to start next week.