Oshkosh Northwestern

Posted Sept. 12, 2004

Paulus under scrutiny in ’97

Judge asked for review of speeding ticket case

By Alex Hummel
of The Northwestern

Russell H. Lang didn’t beat his speeding ticket in 1997. But seven years later, prosecutors’ 1997 attempt to throw it out in court raises additional questions about the integrity of the justice system in Winnebago County while Joseph Paulus was District Attorney.

What possessed an assistant prosecutor to try and dismiss the 27-mph-over-the-limit speeding charge against the repeat speeder back in 1997?

That is the question that vexed Winnebago County Circuit Court Judge William Carver when he refused to grant the dismissal. And it spawned a secret, lawyer conduct probe five years before the FBI combed through case files, fueled by different allegations of ticket-fixing corruption under Paulus.

The scrutiny Lang’s case was afforded is one example of Winnebago County judges questioning Paulus’ practices long before a federal probe was launched, culminating in Paulus’ five-year prison sentence this summer. Now, Carver’s resurrected 1997 grievance on the dismissal attempt is under fresh scrutiny by the State Attorney General’s office.

Carver’s original grievance and the process that followed never alleged bribery in the case as was documented years later in different cases. However, there was a question whether the attempt to dismiss the speeding ticket was just.

Was an opportunity to seriously probe Paulus’ handling of cases missed seven years ago?

Carver thought so.

Documents obtained by the Oshkosh Northwestern detail Carver’s 1997 grievance of how the speeding ticket was handled. Carver questioned a vague “in the interest of justice” motion to dismiss the ticket against Lang -- an Oshkosh man whose family had political connections to Paulus.

A local panel and part of the state’s self-policing lawyer conduct and discipline system, then the “Board of Attorney’s Professional Responsibility,” reviewed the case in 1998. But it did not recommend discipline nor any other action, the documents show.

In 2002, four years after his grievance was rejected and the Madison copy of it was shredded per board policy, Carver resubmitted the 1997 paperwork to the renamed Office of Lawyer Regulation, documents show. That followed the revelation that two other Winnebago County judges had relayed different cases to Madison, concerned by suspicious charge reductions authorized by Paulus.

The OLR fielded Carver’s file with his frank cover letter.

“In my opinion, had your office followed up on the conclusions made by your investigator, these new (judge’s) complaints could well have been avoided,” Carver wrote in the May 2, 2002 letter to OLR. “I suggest this enclosed information and investigation be used to supplement any new allegations of a similar nature.”

The response from OLR Director Keith Sellen was brief.

“Thank you for your letter and accompanying enclosures related to your 1997 grievance,” Sellen stated in the May 3, 2002 response. “I intend to follow your suggestion and to use this to supplement any new allegations of a similar nature.”

The former assistant district attorney who requested and signed the speeding-ticket dismissal motion rejected by Carver in 1997 and faced the BAPR probe in 1998 is now a candidate for judge in Outagamie County.

“There was nothing there to find,” Outagamie County Assistant District attorney Bradley Priebe told The Northwestern, questioning the timing of these revelations given his bid for Outagamie County judge.

In July, Paulus received a 58-month, federal prison sentence for his role in the bribery scheme that tainted the 22 Winnebago County cases from 1998 through 2000 uncovered by the FBI. The state Justice Department continues to investigate possible misconduct in other cases.

Winnebago County District Attorney William Lennon said Carver did refer his attorney ethics panel file and the speeding case itself to his office. As he did with other cases under state review, Lennon relayed the speeding ticket files to state Justice Department investigators.

“That status of that investigation is totally up to the attorney general,” Lennon said.

Carver declined to comment for this story.

“The record speaks for itself,” he said, adding he felt it was his “obligation” to report the matter in 1997.

The case

On May 1, 1997, in Carver’s court, Priebe filed the motion to dismiss the speeding charge against then-20-year-old Russell H. Lang, court records show. A state Highway Patrol officer clocked Lang doing 72 mph in a 45 mph zone off Fountain Avenue and State Highway 110 on April 4, 1997, court records state.

When a question arose as to Priebe’s justification for dismissing the speeding ticket, Carver’s staff aide said Priebe told her it “was the conclusion of a deal by the defendant who had pled to other charges in another court,” according to Carver’s June 5, 1997 grievance letter.

But Carver found no such charges “pending or recently disposed of” against Russell Lang. He wouldn’t sign the dismissal.

Lang – who had no documented defense attorney representation, according to court records – eventually pleaded to a slightly lesser charge on May 13, 1997: speeding 19 mph over the limit.

Russell Lang declined to comment when contacted by The Northwestern. He said review of the case was an attempt to drag Paulus, “through the mud.”

Carver’s aide “got it wrong” in 1997, Priebe told The Northwestern. He said he never suggested there was a deal in another court to absolve Lang of the speeding ticket.

“It’s exactly like I said to the (BAPR) board,” Priebe said. “He (Lang) had been recently convicted in other counties and after that, guess what, he could have lost his license.”

A month before his April Winnebago County ticket, Lang had been charged with and pleaded no contest to an Outagamie County citation for traveling more than 35 mph over the speed limit, court records show.

Priebe insisted he did not do anything wrong in seeking the dismissal nor did he carry out a direct order from Paulus, as Carver suggested in the grievance.

Priebe said he argued dismissing the ticket was warranted based on the recent traffic-related conviction against Lang. He said the new Winnebago County ticket could lead to revocation of Lang’s license.

“I did it in an attempt to save this guy’s drivers license,” Priebe said, adding he has “made that decision a hundred times.”

“I’m not saying it’s the greatest decision ever made,” he said.

Priebe said speeding tickets that could lead to loss of a defendants’ driver licenses are commonly dismissed, “every day, all the time.”

He suggested the scrutiny he endured had more to do with Paulus than him – however unfounded he maintains it was.

“In my opinion, this referral was never about me,” said Priebe, who ran for district attorney as a Democrat amid the 2002 bribery allegations leveled at Paulus. “It was always to do with other people.”

The complaint

In his June 1997 grievance letter, Carver explained his suspicions. He described Lang as “the nephew of a political and financial supporter of the District Attorney and brother of a former employee of the District Attorney’s office”

But Carver primarily took exception to the justification for the dismissal order. He complained Priebe tried to carry out the dismissal, probably “following directions of others in the District Attorney’s office.” In his grievance letter to BAPR, he labeled it a “subterfuge.”

Russell Lang is the nephew of James Lang, owner of Lang Oil, a local gas station and convenience store company. According to State Elections Board records in Madison, James Lang is one of Paulus’ more-frequent campaign supporters, giving Paulus $500 in $100 increments in 1995, 1996, 1997, 1999 and 2002, election records show.

But James Lang told The Northwestern he had no inkling of the Carver complaint, nor did he maintain close ties with his nephew. He said he gave and gives regular campaign contributions to several local Republican politicians, Paulus included.

“For Judge Carver to say I supported Paulus – I do that with a lot of people,” James Lang said, adding he had “no clue” there was any scrutiny into his nephew’s 1997 speeding ticket case. “Paulus never discussed it with me,” he said.

The “former employee of the District Attorney’s office” Carver refers to in his grievance is Russell Lang’s sister, currently a staff member in another county judge’s office.

While Carver would not allow the speeding ticket to be dismissed, the mere attempt was concern enough for him. As most in Winnebago County’s courthouse knew, Carver had become an enemy of Paulus in the 1990s.

Carver’s daughter had lost an election bid to unseat Paulus. The judge’s and veteran district attorney’s bad blood was made worse over a controversy involving secret tape recordings of the judge’s conversations. And, at the time of the complaint, Carver faced an election challenge by Thomas Gritton, an assistant district attorney under Paulus who eventually won a different judicial seat in 2000.

Regardless of any venom, Carver’s 1997 grievance did not go unchecked. It spawned an independent local attorney conduct investigation. BAPR’s local, volunteer review panel convened in 1998 to weigh the findings.

The matter was scrutinized. It died.

“A lack of surprise,” was how retired Winnebago County Circuit Court Judge Robert Haase summed up his reaction to the Carver complaint.

Haase was one of the two judges to refer Paulus cases to the OLR in 2002. One of the cases was among the 22 bribe-influenced cases the FBI based federal charges on. However, that case was dismissed after referred to an OLR special investigator. Haase was stunned, questioning whether OLR’s system wasn’t merely “the foxes guarding the henhouse.”

“I have some concerns in that they (OLR) have more interest in self-preservation than in protecting the public,” Haase said after reviewing the Carver complaint.

However, the documents show after fielding Carver’s complaint, BAPR officials in Madison did muster a Ripon attorney and local BAPR panel member, assigning him to independently investigate.

Ludwig Wurtz found reasons for concern, too, according to the records.

The investigation

Wurtz’s Jan. 26, 1998 report show he confronted Priebe about whether or not the former assistant district attorney was under direct orders from Paulus to dismiss the Lang speeding ticket case.

“In my conversations with Attorney Priebe in his office I was left with the impression that he was not telling me the entire truth concerning how he found himself in the middle of the controversy,” Wurtz states in the nearly-seven-year-old report. “It is clear from his statement that Attorney Paulus, the District Attorney, was involved in this traffic case and had conversations with Attorney Priebe. My concern is exactly what statements were made to Attorney Priebe by District Attorney Paulus.”

Wurtz was convinced Priebe was not being honest, the report states.

“… I suggested that anyone reviewing this case could reasonably infer that Attorney Paulus had told him to dismiss the Lang citation,” Wurtz states. “I also suggested to Attorney Priebe that it was a better course of action for him to simply state exactly how this problem developed rather than sticking with the story that all Attorney Paulus directed him to do was ‘to do what he feels is appropriate.’”

Priebe never met nor talked with Lang and did not perform a check of Lang’s prior court record before filing the dismissal paperwork, Wurtz’s investigative report states.

Priebe “indicated that his recollection of his conversation with Attorney Paulus was to the effect that Attorney Paulus had received a call from a man by the name of Russell Lang who indicated to Attorney Paulus that he received a 4-point ticket in Winnebago County that would result in him losing his driver’s license. Attorney Priebe stated that he recalls Attorney Paulus telling him, ‘Do what you feel is appropriate’ or words to that effect.”

Wurtz agreed with Carver’s concerns that Lang “did in fact know Attorney Paulus. It would appear on the surface that Attorney Paulus may have had a reason to want to dismiss the ticket against Russell Lang …,” the report states.

Priebe told The Northwestern Wurtz was simply sold on Carver’s grievance and theory.

Committee weighs in

The local BAPR committee concluded Wurtz’s details were “essentially correct,” according to a March 23, 1998 memo to the state BAPR board from committee chairman and Oshkosh attorney Tim Young.

Despite the report’s conclusions, the local BAPR committee wanted an admission from Priebe acknowledging Paulus’ orders for case dismissal. It never came. Priebe insists it would have been a lie.

There was no recommendation for discipline or further investigation. The matter – at that point nearly one-year under review -- died.

Martin Farrell, a Ripon College political science professor who served on the panel in 1997 and 1998, recalled his committee spent about two hours questioning Carver and Priebe based on Wurtz’s investigative findings.

“I think that at the time we pushed it as far as we thought we could, given what evidence we had,” Farrell said, recalling what he could of the matter, which wasn’t heard by the panel until early 1998. “We just didn’t have any other evidence. It seemed that something was wrong, but we didn’t know where the ultimate blame lay.”

Young and several other members of the BAPR committee in 1997 and 1998 declined comment after being contacted by The Northwestern.

Young cited the “completely and totally confidential” nature of attorney-conduct investigations – secrecy that, to protect reputations in the event of unfounded complaints, is still required.

“It’s like asking a priest has he heard any interesting confessions lately,” Young said in declining comment. “We are not privileged to share any of that with you.”

Farrell acknowledged the 1998 hearing was rare – only one of a few grievances to progress to a serious review by the local panel. But he said the panel “couldn’t necessarily prove” Wurtz’s suspicions.

“But we had a suspicion that somebody wasn’t telling the truth,” Farrell said.

Without a committee recommendation, BAPR’s Madison officials closed the matter.

Carver was notified that Madison’s copy of his complaint was destined for the shredder.

“It is the decision of the Administrator that the facts presented in this matter do not constitute a basis to find a violation of the Rules set forth by the Supreme Court,” BAPR Investigator Nancy Warner wrote in a April 1998 letter to Carver. “It is, therefore, the determination of the Administrator to dismiss this matter and close our file.”

Alex Hummel: (920) 426-6669 or ahummel@thenorthwestern.com.


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