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Voters oust Paulus as district attorney

FBI probe, explicit recording help bring end to 14-year career

By GINA BARTON
gbarton@journalsentinel.com
Last Updated: Sept. 10, 2002
Winnebago County District Attorney Joseph Paulus was soundly defeated Tuesday in the Republican primary, ending a 14-year career in the position.

Paulus was outpolled by William Lennon, an Oshkosh native who had challenged the incumbent unsuccessfully in the 1994 primary. Lennon, who has been an assistant DA in neighboring Waupaca County for 16 years, will face Democrat Brad Priebe in the November general election.

Tuesday's results bring to an end one of the messiest campaigns in the state's history but don't stop Paulus' problems. The FBI is investigating Paulus' handling of drunken driving cases, in part due to the urging of another Republican challenger, Edmund Jelinski. An inquiry by the State Board of Lawyer Regulation, instigated by two judges, continues. And the public won't soon forget the release of explicit tape recordings on which Paulus described a sexual encounter in his office.

"This is vindication," Lennon said. "I plan to bring the trust of the public, law enforcement and judges back to the district attorney's office and put together an office that the people of Winnebago County can have confidence coming to."

Paulus could not be reached for comment late Tuesday.

Tuesday's results were far different from those in 1994.

Back then, in another three-candidate primary, Paulus took 43% of the vote to Lennon's 33%. A third candidate captured the remainder of the Republican votes.

The 1994 race was shadowed by Lennon's admission that he had once used illegal drugs. Paulus tried to remind the voters of that at a debate earlier this year, when he accused Lennon of dealing drugs while working as an assistant DA. Lennon categorically denied the accusations.

Lennon, 44, had pledged to run a clean campaign and managed to remain removed from much of the nastiness of the primary. Instead, a feud developed between Paulus and Jelinski, who had served less than two years as an assistant in Paulus' office when he announced his candidacy. Jelinski was promptly fired. The mudslinging continued when Jelinski released the sex tapes last month.

Jelinski said he knew releasing the tapes would probably hurt his chances in the primary but said it was more important to expose Paulus' true character.

Political observers were surprised by Lennon's large margin of victory. Many Winnebago County Democrats switched over to the Republican primary just so they could vote against Paulus, said Tony Palmeri, host of Oshkosh's weekly public affairs TV show "Commentary."

Priebe, the lone Democratic candidate, also is an assistant in Paulus' office, where he has worked for eight years. So far he has managed to stay above the fray. He avoided getting fired when he announced his candidacy because he is a member of a labor union. (Jelinski had not been a state employee long enough to join).

At campaign appearances, Priebe has billed himself as a skilled trial lawyer and a self-made man.

At a recent candidate forum, Priebe implied that his current job in Winnebago County made him better suited for the job than Lennon.

"The people in the office trust me, and I can get it fixed. Because I work in the office, I know what needs to be fixed and what doesn't," he said.

However, if the FBI investigation uncovers malfeasance, there is a possibility that Priebe's presence in Paulus' office may hurt him.

"If there was a pattern of corruption there and Priebe did nothing, that could harm him," Palmeri said.

Journal Sentinel correspondent Jim Flasch contributed to this report.

Appeared in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel on Sept. 11, 2002.


 
 
 
John Maloney
Police/Prosecutor Misconduct