It looks like the Wisconsin GOP’s demand for the private emails of a Wisconsin professor -- in apparent retaliation for his criticism of Scott Walker’s proposal to roll back bargaining rights -- may be proving a total bust.

As you may recall, soon after University of Wisconsin professor William Cronon published a New York Times op ed and blog post sharply criticizing Walker and Republicans, the Wisconsin GOP demanded access to all emails sent from Cronon’s university account containing a variety of keywords related to the state’s continuing standoff over bargaining rights. Though the GOP refused to say why they were seeking these emails, Cronon speculated that they were trying to catch him using his state account to organize or lobby for the recall of Wisconsin GOP state senators — a use of state resources for political activity that would surely damage his career. Cronon dismissed the tactic as “McCarthyite.”

Now the university’s senior legal counsel has responded with a pointed reply, claiming they have gone through all of Cronon’s emails and have found no evidence whatsoever of any such violations. University lawyer John Dowling, in a letter to Wisconsin Republicans, said the university was complying with the GOP’s demand and turning over the emails, but noted that the GOP will, alas, find nothing incrimating in them:

At our request, Professor Cronon immediately undertook a search of all of his accumulated e-mails for the specific words, terms and names as you stated them in your request. The university’s legal staff then reviewed all of the identified e-mails to determine which ones must be made available to you pursuant to the Wisconsin Public records law. Those determinations have been reviewed and approved by the appropriate university officials. Copies of the records determined to be available to you under the law are enclosed...

You should further note that the e-mails that we have reviewed contain absolutely no evidence of political motivation, contact from individuals outside normal academic channels or inappropriate conduct on the part of Professor Cronon. The university finds his conduct, as evidenced in the e-mails, beyond reproach in every respect. He has used his university e-mail account appropriately and legitimately. He has not used his university e-mail account for any inappropriate political conduct. In fact, none of the e-mails contained any reference whatsoever to any of the specific political figures that you identified (except Governor Scott Walker), nor do they in any way reference the proposed recall efforts.

In other words, Cronon and the university are claiming they went through every email containing the keywords noted by the GOP, but have found not a shred of evidence of any inappropriate political activity. The university might be expected to stand by such a distinguished professor, obviously, but ieep in mind that the university has turned over all the emails to the GOP, so if there were any such evidence, Republicans could immediately release it. Until they do, there’s no apparent reason to doubt the university’s claim.

In a bizarre statement responding to the university, the Wisconsin GOP simply reiterated the claim that “university faculty are not above the rules prohibiting the use of state resources for political purposes,” without saying whether they were alleging that Cronon had done this or even addressing the requested emails in any way. If the current situation holds, and no evidence surfaces of any inappropriate political activity on Cronon’s part, it will only reinforce perceptions that the Wisconsin GOP has gone completely off the rails and is vindictively seeking to punish, intimidate and silence political opponents by any means necessary. Of course, the last couple of months have already shown that in this regard, Wisconsin Republicans aren’t terribly concerned about appearances, even if this kind of stuff only succeeds in lending more energy to the drive to recall them.