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By Brendan O'Brien and Mary Wisniewski
MILWAUKEE/CHICAGO (Reuters) - Investigators looking into possible wrongdoing by Republican Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker expanded their probe the day before he was elected governor in 2010, seizing computers and hard drives from his offices, documents revealed on Wednesday.
The documents were released in connection with a criminal case involving a former Walker aide, as part of an investigation into county workers illegally campaigning for Republican candidates when Walker was working as county executive.
Walker was not indicted in the three-year probe that led to six convictions. His campaign said that the documents were part of a legal process completed early last year, and he is confident they were "thoroughly reviewed by the authorities."
Democrats compared the Walker case with the controversy surrounding New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, another potential Republican presidential candidate, whose aides are accused of tying up traffic to punish a political opponent.
"This wasn't the work of a few rogue staffers - this was a coordinated effort that goes right to the top," said Michael Czin, national press secretary for the Democratic National Committee.
Walker is running for re-election as governor in 2014 against Democratic businesswoman Mary Burke and is considered an emerging top-tier candidate for the Republican presidential nomination in 2016.
The 28,000 pages of documents, mostly emails, involve Kelly Rindfleisch, Walker's former deputy chief of staff, who is appealing her conviction for misconduct in public office. A state appellate judge ordered the documents unsealed at the request of news organizations.
Rindfleisch has admitted to doing campaign work for Republicans while she was on the clock for Milwaukee County, where Walker was county executive from 2002 until his election as governor in 2010.
The documents show that on November 1, 2010, investigators requested and received permission to seize hard drives and other equipment from Walker's offices, though it did not seek Walker's own computer, according to a transcript of a secret court hearing.
David Budde, an investigator for the Milwaukee County district attorney's office, testified that Walker "would appear to be aware" that laptops were used in his offices for accessing non-County networks, according to the transcript.
Budde refers to a May 14, 2010 email in which Walker discusses a Milwaukee Journal Sentinel story which reported that Walker aide Darlene Wink spent much of her time at her county job posting pro-Walker comments online. The Walker email has already been made public, according to the Journal Sentinel.
Walker wrote in the e-mail: "We cannot afford another story like this one. No one can give them any reason to do another story. That means no laptops, no web sites, no time away during the workday, et cetera."
Budde also discusses e-mails that seem to set up a daily campaign coordination conference call in Walker's office.
The document release will not likely hurt Walker's chances to be Republican presidential candidate, said Mordecai Lee, a political science professor at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee.
"His ultimate defense is that they had all these documents and I wasn't indicted and I was never charged," Lee said.
(Reporting by Mary Wisniewski and Brendan O'Brien; editing by Gunna Dickson, Bernard Orr)