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Explicit tape muddies a messy campaign

Winnebago DA on defensive as challenger releases graphic conversations

of the Journal Sentinel staff
Last Updated: Aug. 18, 2002
The woman shows up at the lawyer's office around 10:30 a.m. and tells the secretary she has an appointment.

15812Winnebago County

Photo/Kristyna Wentz-Graff
Winnebago County District Attorney Joseph Paulus, shown at an inquest in 2000, has dismissed the conversation as made-up locker room boasting.

Photo/Karen Sherlock
Edmund Jelinski, says he taped graphic statements made by his then-boss, Winnebago County District Attorney Joseph Paulus, in case he was fired upon announcing his candidacy for Paulus' job.

The lawyer knows his sexy visitor isn't there on business, but he agrees to see her anyway.

The woman walks into his private office, locking the door behind her. She's wearing a short, leather-look jacket, which she quickly removes to reveal a slinky dress. She leans against the desk as the telephone, the intercom and the responsibilities of his workday are forgotten.

It's not an anonymous letter to the Penthouse Forum.

It's a story the Winnebago County district attorney told a couple of his assistants - and which they secretly recorded and released to the media earlier this month. The tape, in which Joseph Paulus recounts the sexual encounter in graphic detail, is the latest in a series of high-profile pre-election episodes in the county - from an FBI investigation to the firings of the two assistants.

Political observers call it one of the messiest campaigns in the state's history and expect it will only get worse.

"The primary has become very nasty . . . And typically Paulus' reaction to that is to go for the jugular," said Jim Simmons, chairman of the political science department at the University of Wisconsin-Oshkosh.

Paulus, 42, has been district attorney in this mostly Republican county south of Green Bay for 13 years. Colleagues describe him as "abrasive" and "blunt," with an in-your-face style that convinces more juries than it offends.

Nicknamed "Hollywood Joe" by the local media, Paulus also is known for going after - and often winning - cases that generate publicity. In 1990, he won a conviction against a grocery bagger for having sex with a woman suffering from multiple personality disorder. The story ended up in the New York Times and as the subject of a nationally televised courtroom drama.

After the trial, it was revealed that the victim, identified only as Sarah, was sleeping with several other men - including the state's star witness. Sheila Berry, who worked as Paulus' victim-witness coordinator, told the judge her boss knew about Sarah's affairs during the trial but failed to notify the defense. The judge overturned the conviction. Paulus denied the allegations, but dropped the charges against the man instead of convening a new trial.

In 1999, Paulus also won a conviction against former Green Bay police detective John Maloney in the alleged murder of his estranged wife, a case that ended up on ABC's "20/20." Maloney's appeals attorney says the death was accidental, and that evidence to prove it was kept from the jury.

"He's taken on a lot of high-profile cases, hoping they would be a springboard to higher office, which hasn't happened," Simmons said.

Passed over for key post

In fact, Paulus' failed bid for U.S. attorney may be the root of some of his current problems. When Berry heard President Bush was interviewing Paulus for the job last year, she wrote a letter to U.S. Sen. Herb Kohl (D-Wis.) that questioned her former boss' integrity. At about the same time, Edmund Jelinski - one of the subsequently fired assistants - and a female police officer who worked in Paulus' office went to the FBI.

Their allegations of impropriety center on drunken driving cases in which defendants claimed they paid former defense attorney Milton Schierland under the table in order to plea-bargain for shorter sentences. Schierland now works as an assistant district attorney under Paulus. Both have publicly denied any wrongdoing.

The FBI has confirmed an investigation is under way. A source close to the investigation said a federal grand jury has not yet begun hearing testimony. If the FBI finds enough evidence to warrant prosecution, the case will likely be assigned to a lawyer from the Department of Justice in Washington, D.C., because Steven Biskupic, who got the U.S. attorney's job about six months ago, has recused himself from the case. The fact that Biskupic, his first assistant, Fran Schmitz, and Paulus all were finalists for the post would pose a potential conflict for the local office, the source said.

In the meantime, two Winnebago County judges have asked the state Board of Lawyer Regulation - the state Supreme Court's lawyer disciplinary panel - to investigate Paulus on charges of potentially unethical conduct.

"He's made a lot of enemies - with the police, with some of the judges. That's affected party politics and courthouse politics," Simmons said. "He's been accused of showing favoritism in court with Republican lawyers, and he's questioned the credibility of some officers. A lot of people don't like that."

Jelinski is one of them. Although he graduated from law school just last year, Jelinski said he decided to run for district attorney because everyone else was afraid to challenge Paulus. Jelinski said he knew he and his campaign manager, Thomas Chalchoff, would be fired as soon as he announced his candidacy in April, and that's why they made the tapes. The two had worked for the county less than a year and did not have union protection.

"The tapes were originally made with the intent to use them to challenge our termination," Jelinski said. "But then Joe mentioned the tapes in the media and said that we taped him in the bathroom and in private meetings, which wasn't true. . . . He had lied to the public and lied about his relationship with us, and because he's an . . . incumbent, everybody believes him."

The tapes were the only way to prove the lies and to show Paulus' true character, Jelinski said. He claims to have recordings of more sexually explicit conversations, but said he didn't release them because none discuss sex on company time.

Once again, Paulus found himself in the middle of a media firestorm. Fox News anchor and Appleton native Greta Van Susteren dedicated a portion of her program to the saga. At least one morning radio show in Milwaukee played excerpts over and over, mocking Paulus between sound bites. Media commentators also had some fun with a Paulus interview about Jelinski, during which he called his former assistant "a vicious and vindictive little man."

Despite a statement on the tape that he's had sex with "about five or six girls" in the office, Paulus has publicly dismissed the conversation as made-up locker room boasting. He did not return repeated phone calls seeking comment for this story.

Ripple effects

Their beleaguered golden boy's troubles have not spared the Winnebago County Republican Party. Schierland, the former defense lawyer tied to Paulus in the questionable drunken driving cases, resigned as party chairman in May but still works in the district attorney's office.

The sex tapes have alienated some members of the caucus, especially the women, said Michelle Litjens, the new party chairwoman. "Obviously, some people were disappointed with the way it was phrased, and a lot of women were very offended when they heard it," she said.

The tapes also have hurt Jelinski's chances in the Sept. 10 primary, said Anthony J. Palmeri, host of Oshkosh's weekly public affairs TV show "Commentary."

"People worry about Jelinski becoming D.A. (They're thinking that) the moment he becomes concerned (about) you, he's going to have a tape recorder running at your house," Palmeri said.

The party faithful have discounted Jelinski because he lacks experience, Litjens said. They are fairly evenly divided between the other two Republican candidates. One group has rallied behind William Lennon, an Oshkosh native who has been an assistant district attorney in neighboring Waupaca County for 16 years.

The other group remains staunchly in Paulus' corner, overlooking the controversy and focusing on his winning prosecutorial record. If "Hollywood Joe" hopes to parlay their support into re-election, he should use the media spotlight to his advantage this time, Palmeri advised.

"He keeps saying it's just political enemies. That defense is only going to go so far," Palmeri said. "Joe Paulus should have a press conference and apologize for everything, and let the voters decide if they're going to forgive him."

Appeared in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel on Aug. 18, 2002.


John Maloney
Police/Prosecutor Misconduct