Posted Aug. 22, 2002
Debate gets personal
Trading jabs over drug use and an FBI probe while calling each other every thing from “liar” to “mediocre,” the three Republican candidates in Winnebago County’s acrimonious district attorney race made their first meeting as nasty as was expected.
Incumbent Joseph Paulus, his challenger and whistleblower Edmund Jelinski and Waupaca County Assistant District Attorney William Lennon sent the packed audience of about 100 people at Oshkosh’s City Hall Wednesday night into laughter at times during the hour-long Oshkosh League of Women’s Voters forum.
The three will square off in the Sept. 10 primary, with the winner facing Democrat and Winnebago County Assistant District Attorney Brad Priebe in the Nov. 5 general election.
It was the first meeting of the three after months of stewing criticism and accusations, largely from Jelinski who alerted the FBI to possible bribery influenced cases under Paulus’ watch.
But the biggest fireworks of the night came after the candidates were asked of their histories with illegal drugs and alcohol. Lennon, 44, owned up to drug use years ago that was an issue in his 1994 challenge of Paulus.
“I admitted early on I used drugs. I admitted eight years ago that in my first race to Mr. Paulus I used drugs. … It’s wrong, and I’ve often said it’s wrong,” Lennon said.
Paulus, in a follow-up statement, accused Lennon of not only using but also dealing cocaine while a prosecutor.
“Trust in me when I tell you that’s a lie,” Lennon responded to Paulus. “Trust me when I say I that I resent the implication and the accusations. You criticize mudslinging and in the next breath you come up with these allegations. It’s wrong. You reek with the stench of hypocrisy, and I’m not taking your bait. I’m not coming down to your level and getting in the mud. You can wallow in that mud all by yourself. You look like a fool. You’re not worth it.”
Applause erupted from the audience after Lennon’s statement.
“Then if it’s not true, you should sue me tomorrow for slander,” Paulus, 43, said.
Jelinski repeatedly criticized Paulus as dishonest. “Mr. Paulus is an accomplished public speaker,” Jelinski, 29, said, after being asked why voters should trust any of the candidates. “I believe he is also an accomplished liar.
Jelinski, who faced Paulus for the first time in public since his April 9 campaign announcement, said Paulus is guilty of defense attorney favoritism that ultimately prompted his contacting the FBI.
“I grew up in this county and as such, it’s not possible for me to stay silent as so many have for too many years,” Jelinski said in his opening statement.
“We don’t do things in the back room or in the back alley,” Paulus said. “It’s impossible to do.”
He said Jelinski’s months-old “FBI witch hunt” to dethrone him was merely the result of a trend in politics.
“It’s no secret we live in an era of campaign by allegation,” said Paulus, who repeatedly touted his 13-year record as a district attorney hard on crime.
Lennon, a 16-year prosecutor, lauded himself as the moral outsider in the Jelinski-Paulus fracas.
“With all due respect, one candidate here just doesn’t have that experience,” Lennon said, referring to Jelinski’s hiring as a prosecutor this year. “And with all due respect, the current district attorney simply has lost the faith and the trust of this county.”
All three candidates agreed prosecution of sexual crimes on the rise in the county needs to be vigorous. Lennon and Paulus both disagreed with laws allowing concealed weapons, arguing dangers outweigh any anti-crime benefits. Jelinski said he wanted “to look at more studies” before taking a position.
On plea bargaining, Lennon said, if elected, he would institute an “emergency policy” requiring all assistant district attorneys to have any proposed amended felonies and misdemeanors pass by his desk first.
Paulus said that practice is in place.
“We’re regarded around the state as a model office, contrary to Mr. Jelinski’s claims,” Paulus said.
Paulus said police-prosecutor cooperation is a hallmark of his office. Jelinski said few to no police departments in the county “have faith in Mr. Paulus.” Lennon said, if elected, he would assign an assistant district attorney to keep close contact and open communication with each of the county police agencies.
In the end, audience reaction was the loudest when the candidates were at each other’s throats.
The candidates were asked how they would each handle an employee who secretly recorded them. It was a reference to Jelinski’s taping of Paulus in February.
Lennon said the tapes should have been turned over to the state’s Office of Lawyer Regulation and not flaunted for political reasons. Jelinski defended his taping as a means of showing the man that voters don’t see in front of the cameras.
Paulus said he’d do with an employee caught taping him exactly what he did with Jelinski.
“I’d fire the person,” he said.
Alex Hummel: (920) 426-6669 or firstname.lastname@example.org