Path to prosecutor:

The less traveled road to the State's Attorney's office

by Mike Kroll

John Pepmeyer began his legal career in the Knox County State's Attorney's office as an assistant and if any of the serious charges recently leveled against him prove true he will ignominiously end his legal career in that same office as the boss. Pepmeyer managed to get himself appointed (against the wishes of the Knox County Democrats who recommended someone else to Knox County Board chair Alan Pickrel) to a job he was not seeking but one he was assured would be a solid stepping stone toward his career ambition to become a circuit judge. And those assurances seemed to ring true coming from the outgoing State's Attorney who himself was just appointed to a circuit judgeship. Paul Mangieri was instrumental in getting Pepmeyer appointed yet now, according to Pepmeyer, is behind the current efforts to smear his reputation and cost him not only the job but also quite possibly his vocation and freedom as well.

While Pepmeyer completed his last year of law school at the John Marshall School of Law in Chicago he also worked as a clerk  for the U.S. Attorney's Office – Northern District of Illinois. In November 1976 Carl Hawkinson was elected Knox County State's Attorney and recruited Pepmeyer into his office as the first assistant Hawkinson hired himself. Pepmeyer left the State's Attorney's office to join Charles Bell in private practice three years later in October 1979 and later formed his own firm with his brother Tom in late August 1983. Pepmeyer and Pepmeyer remained in partnership until January 12, 2007 when John Pepmeyer was sworn in to replace Mangieri.

"You know I wasn't paying any attention to the potential State's Attorney vacancy," said Pepmeyer. "I had set my sights on getting appointed to the associate judgeship. I had put in my application, along with many others, but I felt pretty good about my chances. I was at a point in my career where I was looking to reduce my work hours and stress but remain in the law. I have done all the things an associate circuit judge needs to know well and I thought that this job was just a great personal fit for me and my family at this point in time. When people first approached me about being interested in the State's Attorney's job if Paul was ultimately appointed circuit judge I said I just wasn't interested."

While Pepmeyer acknowledges that he was first hired by a Republican and thus felt compelled to request Republican primary ballots and was even appointed as a Republican precinct committeeman during the Hawkinson years and just after he says he really is a political agnostic.

"My parents were reliable Republican voters and I am sure that was part of the reason Hawkinson hired me but I have never really been strongly political one way or the other. Ray Kimbell and I worked side-by-side in [Hawkinson's] office as young attorneys and eventually ran against one another. Of course Ray won that contest after the father of a client I was defending shot him in the hand late in the race. Ray and I have remained good friends but as time went on in my life I found myself more and more at odds with many of the Republican positions as they related to my legal practice and business ventures. I was an early supporter of Paul Mangieri when he first ran for State's Attorney [against Kimbell]. I contributed to [Mangieri's] campaigns and played in his golf outings. While we weren't really close personal friends I did consider him a friend and I thought he saw me in much the same way."

Early in the process to appoint his replacement, Mangieri threw his support to Dean Stone, a longtime assistant in the State's Attorney's office. Stone wanted the job and Mangieri supported him until a few days before the caucus of Democratic precinct committeemen. A number of other attorneys' names were mentioned as possible candidates but the only other one to work hard for the appointment was Jeremy Karlin. Karlin, long active in the local party and its former treasurer, was busily campaigning among the precinct committeemen and lining up support.

"Jeremy even came to me and asked if I was interested in the State's Attorney appointment and I told him I was more interested in the associate judgeship," noted Pepmeyer. "Before the caucus both Mangieri and [Knox County Sheriff] Jim Thompson were supporting Dean Stone. But time marched on and Paul was looking at the bigger picture and rapidly coming to the conclusion that Stone couldn't possibly get enough votes on the Knox County Board to win the appointment. Eventually Paul came to me and said the tea leaves just aren't there for Dean and asked again if I was interested. I was beginning to see that my chances of getting the associate judge appointment were diminishing and Paul kept telling me that being State's Attorney was the stepping stone to a judgeship."

"I remember telling Paul that I just wasn't sure I wanted to take on that job. Even then it looked like a lot more stress and hours than being a judge — little did I know! I told Paul that as far as I could tell, Karlin was almost assured of getting the support of the Democratic precinct committeemen. Was it realistic for me to consider this? He told me that ultimately the vote of the precinct committeemen didn't really matter; that this was an appointment of the County Board chair and had to be approved by the County Board. He was confident that it was possible for me to get enough County Board votes with his help."

But Pepmeyer says he still wasn't convinced. He kept pressing Mangieri about what all would be involved in running the State's Attorney's office and what about Dean Stone. "Paul told me he was going to have a 'come to Jesus' meeting with Dean and lay it all out — that Dean simply didn't have enough votes on the County Board to prevail and should withdraw. My understanding was that Dean was not happy about this change in plans at all but was a loyal soldier for Paul. I have learned since that Paul assured Dean that if I won this appointment I would keep him on as an assistant which was highly unlikely if Karlin got the appointment."

"Paul and Felicia [Mangieri's wife] sat me down and explained how this would work. Felicia was intimately familiar and involved in the day-to-day workings of the State's Attorney's office and it was she who told me to contact Randy Lynch to get the AFSCME union behind my appointment. Paul said that he and Thompson would continue to work the County Board members for support and they both surprised me by speaking passionately on my behalf in front of the Democratic caucus."

Lynch is the staff representative for the AFSCME local that represents Knox County Courthouse workers and Jailers (including the clerical staff of the State's Attorney's office). Courthouse chatter before the caucus was that Karlin would "shake things up" in the State's Attorney's office if he received the appointment and to Lynch and his members this sounded like some jobs were at stake. This also was a big concern for Mangieri's office manager and assistant state's attorneys who are not subject to union protection and serve as at will employees. While historically AFSCME almost always supports Democratic party candidates and Karlin's Democratic credentials as a very active party member exceeded either Stone's or Pepmeyer's, he was nevertheless perceived as a threat.

Lynch and his union threw their support behind Pepmeyer just before the caucus. "It was thanks to Randy Lynch that [Democratic Knox County Board member] Paul Hevland broke with his party endorsement of Karlin to vote for me after Alan Pickrel nominated me," said Pepmeyer. "Paul had come to me to say that his only request was that hopefully I would retain Dean Stone and his office manager. He said that she was the glue that held the office together and the best secretarial staff member who would be invaluable to me in operating the office. He assured me that running this office would be easy. I remember him telling me that 'the State's Attorney's office virtually runs itself' and that this would be a smooth and easy transition."

"I guess I was incredibly na?ve to believe what Paul told me but I guess he was mistaken in thinking that just because of my past political support that I would be a 'good old boy' and keep the office running as it had under him. They must all have assumed that good old buddy John would never do anything to embarrass him or cause any problems. I have to honestly say I had no idea just what I was stepping into until the weeks immediately after I was sworn in. Had I known then what I quickly learned I wouldn't have even entertained the possibility of filling the State's Attorney vacancy. I wouldn't have touched this job with a ten-foot pole. The office, I discovered, was disorganized and barely functional. Not only was very little justice being done on behalf of the citizens of Knox County, there wasn't even any system of recording when staff were in or out of the office or how their time was spent. When I couldn't locate key staff to get questions answered and asked the office manager where they were she didn't know!"


published April 5, 2007