MADISON, Wis (Reuters) - Two former aides to Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker were charged on Thursday with political fundraising on public time in a development that could give fresh ammunition to critics seeking to toss the Republican out of office over a law he championed last year curbing the rights of public sector unions.
The charges against the women, both aides to Walker when he was Milwaukee County executive, stemmed from a probe into allegations of misconduct in public office as well as political solicitation by public officials and employees, according to the criminal complaint.
The investigation found that a private e-mail network had been set up and run out of Walker's office in 2010 to communicate campaign and government-related information to "select individuals," Milwaukee County district attorney John Chisholm's office said in a statement.
The charges, against former deputy chief of staff Kelly Rindfleisch and former executive assistant Darlene Wink, are the latest to involve former staffers close to the first-term Republican governor.
Earlier this month, another former deputy chief of staff to Walker was charged with fraud, accused of embezzling thousands of dollars from a fund for families of U.S. soldiers killed in Iraq and Afghanistan.
The charges against the former aides follow a fierce partisan battle in the state last year in which Republican lawmakers successfully pushed through controversial measures to curb the collective bargaining power of public sector workers.
A spokeswoman for a Walker campaign group, Friends of Scott Walker, said the policy at the county executive's office under Walker was that employees could not use county "time or resources to conduct any political activity."
"Scott Walker expected everyone to follow the law and made that clear publicly and privately," the spokeswoman, Ciara Matthews, said. Walker's office did not immediately respond to a voicemail and e-mail requesting comment.
The charges come as opponents of Walker who are seeking to unseat him submitted petitions with more than a million signatures last week to force a recall election, far more than needed. Democrats have yet to settle on an opponent to face Walker in any recall, and he retains a strong base.
Organizers are also seeking to recall four Republican state senators, including Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald and Lieutenant Governor Rebecca Kleefisch.
Officials at the state's Government Accountability Board are working to verify the petitions, which could trigger special elections in the late spring or early summer.
The illegal fundraising charges stem from the execution of a search warrant at Walker's Milwaukee offices on November 1, 2010 - just a day before Walker beat Democrat Tom Barrett in the race to replace outgoing Wisconsin Governor Jim Doyle.
On the laptop of Rindfleisch, Walker's then-deputy chief of staff, authorities found what they said were hundreds of e-mails and instant messages showing Rindfleisch raising money for Brett Davis, a Republican candidate for lieutenant governor favored by the Walker campaign, while she was being paid by Milwaukee taxpayers, the criminal complaint said.
In one instant message chat with a friend in January 2010, Rindfleisch confides that "really half of what I'm doing" on the clock was related to the Davis campaign.
Rindfleisch, 43, has been charged with four felony counts of misconduct in public office. Each charge carries a maximum term of 3-1/2 years in prison and up to a $10,000 fine.
Wink, a former executive assistant in the county executive's office, was charged with two misdemeanor counts of political solicitation for engaging in fundraising for Walker while in a county building and using county equipment, prosecutors said.
The charges against Wink, 62, carry a maximum six months in prison and up to a $1,000 fine.
(Reporting by Jeff Mayers, Brendan O'Brien, David Bailey and James B. Kelleher; Writing by James B. Kelleher and David Bailey; Editing by Paul Thomasch and Will Dunham)