The Northwestern

Posted Mar. 14, 2004

A hard fall from grace

Once a rising star, Paulus could face federal charges

By Jim Collar and Alex Hummel
of The Northwestern

Just two years ago, Joseph Paulus was one of the final contenders in a select field — one in a handful of Congressionally endorsed, top-notch prosecutors vying for President Bush’s appointment.

One would occupy Wisconsin’s eastern district U.S. Attorney’s post.

Paulus didn’t get the job.

Two years later, according to sources familiar with the investigation, the veteran prosecutor and Oshkosh-area native again finds himself in a federal spotlight – this time, cooperating with federal prosecutors in Milwaukee, negotiating a yet-to-be-unsealed indictment against him.

What’s inside the file, few know for sure. But for area residents who, for nearly two years, have stomached unanswered lingering pay-for-justice allegations rooted in their former district attorney’s office, answers may be a week or two away.

“It happens, and it’s unfortunate that it happens because it does a lot of damage to the integrity of the bar and a lot of damage to his wife and children. And it’s too bad,” said Gerald Boyle, a nationally prominent criminal defense attorney who added Paulus to his Milwaukee law firm last year.

On Friday, Boyle said Paulus resigned from his office in expectation of “some negative activity to come down on him from the federal government.”

After more than a decade as Winnebago County’s media-savvy, bulldoggish, nearly-undefeated district attorney, Paulus endured nearly two years under federal scrutiny. His reputation of hard-nosed prosecution and high-profile cases might swiftly fade as a federal investigation appears to be drawing to a close.

On Friday, his home on the western stretches of Oshkosh remained darkened with a realtor’s lockbox fixed on the front doorknob. Paulus and his family apparently left in the face of potential federal charges.

A source with knowledge of the investigation on Friday said investigators may have built a case for wire or mail fraud during the course of their near two-year examination of the former district attorney.

Lauded and loathed

Paulus through 14 years as district attorney generated controversy, made enemies, but made himself well known — across the world at times — as a tough and successful prosecutor.

His final year might be the one to leave a permanent mark.

Talk of an FBI investigation surfaced in spring 2002. Political adversaries and others spread word on possible payments in exchange for lenient sentences in drunken-driving cases.

That was followed by a sex scandal stemming from Paulus’ tape recorded comments bragging about a sexual dalliance in his office, and later, an election day loss.

Paulus rebounded. He never conceded wrongdoing.

Leaving the prosecutor’s office for work on the other side of the courtroom aisle in early 2003, Paulus consistently said he welcomed an investigation and challenged agents to find one piece of evidence against him.

He held firm to that challenge from the moment allegations surfaced.

“Two months from now, five months from now, five years from now, nothing will ever come of it,” Paulus said of the allegations after announcing his 2002 election bid.

“If half of the things that were said about me were true, I would have been carted off to jail long before now.”

Paulus entered the Winnebago County legal landscape in 1986 as a hire of then District Attorney Peg Lautenschlager.

Paulus soon declared candidacy and ran for the top post in his office. Lautenschlager, now Wisconsin’s attorney general, eventually dropped out of the race and left Paulus to be elected in 1988.

It didn’t take long for the young district attorney to develop some name recognition.

In 1990, Paulus prosecuted in a national spotlight when media converged for the infamous “Sarah” sexual assault trial.

The 27-year-old victim had 46 personalities. She claimed two, including 6-year-old “Emily,” were raped. Paulus gained conviction, although the ruling was later overturned. He was criticized for shopping a TV-movie deal.

Still, notable cases continued to fill his calendar.

In 1991, Paulus gained a murder conviction against Mark Price and Richard Pease even though the murder victim was cremated without autopsy.

In 1992, Paulus became the first in Winnebago County and among the first in the state to employ DNA evidence in a criminal trial.

Kelly Coon of Menasha was convicted and sentenced to life in prison in the death of 2-year-old Amy Breyer.

Paulus took on the biggest cases to reach his office throughout his career.

He served as special prosecutor in the Brown County homicide case against John Maloney, a Green Bay police officer convicted of his wife’s murder in 1999. It was in that case Paulus found himself again in the national media spotlight, opposite defense attorney Boyle.

To this day, Maloney’s die-hard supporters argue Paulus and Boyle conspired behind the scenes in the case.

In 2002, Paulus brought charges against Todd Meverden for a series of home invasions for the purpose of sexual assault.

Boyle, Boyle and Paulus

Paulus lowered his profile after his 2002 election loss to Lennon, but not for long. The Boyle-Paulus union paring the once-courtroom-opponents in Boyle’s nationally-known firm in Milwaukee still riles Maloney’s supporters.

As partner in Boyle’s firm, Paulus was most recently retained to defend Gary M. Hirte, an 18-year-old Weyauwega honor student charged with murdering a Fremont man last summer.

The teen killed to see if he could get away with the crime, the complaint states.

The case still is pending and Paulus remains the attorney of record despite his resignation. Boyle said it was Paulus’ case all along.

Paulus brought a vigorous defense through early court proceedings, including a motion for dismissal based on what he characterized as an inadequate preliminary hearing.

When the motion was dismissed, Paulus announced his intention to appeal and stood mute when asked for a plea.

Once again, as national media fired up interest in the thrill-kill details of the Hirte case complaint, it signaled another chance for Paulus to litigate in the national spotlight.

But he apparently won’t get that chance. His future as an attorney may even be in jeopardy should an indictment emerge in the coming weeks.

The discipline arm of the State Bar also is investigating the drunken-driving cases after two local judges raised questions about the cases.

Conflicting media reports exist as to whether Boyle forced Paulus to resign or whether Paulus did it on his own volition.

Boyle made one thing certain: He had no knowledge of his partner’s indiscretions nor cared to have any when Paulus stepped down last week.

Other than acknowledging Paulus’ concerns about looming “negative activity” from the federal government, Boyle said he only understood “when he (Paulus) was DA he had some sort of a relationship with another lawyer” and that that relationship was at the center of the allegations.

“I have no knowledge of the facts other than what I read in the newspaper,” Boyle said of the 2-year-old allegations against Paulus. “And I, frankly, did not even want to know from Joe when he called me.”

Jim Collar: (920) 426-6676 or jcollar@thenorthwestern.com. Alex Hummel: (920) 426-6669 or ahummel@thenorthwestern.com.


Police/Prosecutor Misconduct
Truth in Justice