State's Attorney mea culpa

by Mike Kroll

I have written for this newspaper for 16 years now and I am very proud of most of my material. This writing may not have brought me riches or fame but it has permitted me to get an up-close and personal view of the small piece of history that surrounds the Galesburg area. It has enabled me to meet and interview people I never would have met otherwise, some famous or infamous, some not. It has been the vehicle by which I have come to know most of the local politicians and officials who run our community. I am proud to say that I consider many to be my friend and I have come to personally like a good number of others.

When Journalists talk about journalism and the tenets a journalist is expected to live by most seem like little more than self-serving sanctimonious bullshit. None of us can be truly objective about what we witness and report. As thinking reasoning beings we cannot help ourselves from drawing conclusions about the people and events that we write about and we invariably form personal opinions. Any self-described journalist who tells you otherwise is either a fool or a liar. But perhaps the biggest flaw in the presumed “objectivity” of journalists is that it becomes very hard to report on items that reflect poorly on people you know, like or consider personal friends. For all these reasons the most common result of biased journalism isn’t stories that are purposefully slanted but those stories we choose not to cover at all.

When Paul Mangieri first ran for State’s Attorney in 1996 I was a candidate along side him running (unsuccessfully) for Circuit Clerk. I came to know Paul and his family very well. I have literally seen his family grow up over the last decade. During this time I have often socialized with Paul and until recently I even owned and managed the Internet domain on his behalf. Throughout those years I have written numerous Zephyr articles involving Mangieri or the Knox County State’s Attorney’s office and while I stand behind everything I have written in most cases those articles were seldom critical of Mangieri.

It is not that I never heard complaints about the State’s Attorney’s office or even witnessed things personally that seemed dubious or questionable. Throughout Mangieri’s tenure of that office the staff has frankly been weak in my opinion and I even shared that observation with Paul. I recall telling him soon after he was first elected that he should at least bring in his own secretary or administrative assistant and a deputy prosecutor who were both talented and that he could trust. Paul did hire Dean Stone as first assistant (and later moved to a home right next door to Stone) so apparently there was a loyalty there. But Mangieri’s office staff has never impressed me and, as Pepmeyer discovered himself, modern office methods including computerization have never taken hold in the Knox County State’s Attorney’s office.

But as one of my Republican friends has said on occasion, “it just seems odd that you and the Zephyr have never held Paul Mangieri to the same standard that you have most other elected officials.” Sadly, I believe there is some truth to that statement. I am personally guilty of not actively pursuing stories that would have been more critical of Mangieri. But at the same time few people, including my friendly critics, have been willing to go on the record with information that would prove embarrassing to Mangieri. As State’s Attorney Mangieri was inarguably one of the two most powerful local elected officials (along side the Sheriff). If the Sheriff and State’s Attorney elect to stand together to challenge or otherwise discourage criticism of one another or their offices few are willing to take the risk of publicly speaking out. And I might add, publicly criticizing circuit judges can’t occur without the potential of repurcussions.

While I have been acquainted with John Pepmeyer and his brother Tom (the two of which until recently were law and business partners) I have never had a substantive conversation with either before the current scandal in the State’s Attorney’s office. At this point in time I have no firsthand knowledge of whether or not John Pepmeyer sexually harassed any of his staff in the State’s Attorney’s office other than his candidly convincing denials. But I note that  former female employees at both the law firm and his bars have sworn to me that he was never anything but professional with them.

While I never dreamed that the office was as messed up as it appears to be, it’s been obvious that Mangieri’s real interests have been on other political offices for some time. Paul is by all accounts an excellent litigator and a gifted public speaker but he has never been either skilled nor inclined to be much of a manager. Between his apparent failure to properly manage the State’s Attorney’s office and his distractions running for higher office it is easy to understand how things could have been allowed to slide but if Pepmeyer’s account is accurate few had any real idea just how bad things were in the Knox County State’s Attorney’s office. People in the courthouse privately tell me that he was often gone and let the office essentially run itself.

It is easy to imagine what has happened here. Jeremy Karlin had made it abundantly clear that if he were appointed as State’s Attorney that he would shake up the office with probable embarrassment to Mangieri at the very least. Mangieri’s good friend and loyal assistant Dean Stone could be counted upon to maintain the status quo and let sleeping dogs lie but he engendered little confidence or support from either the Democratic committeemen or the Knox County Board. Enter John Pepmeyer. A longtime supporter of Mangieri’s various political campaigns perhaps he could be counted on to be a cooperative good ol’ boy.

When Pepmeyer discovered the status of the office and began asking hard questions this must have been a shock for both Mangieri and the staff which Pepmeyer inherited. Before Pepmeyer took any action that could be embarrassing, perhaps he could be stifled by threatening him with sexual harassment charges. Such charges are very hard to disprove and, as has been demonstrated, the presumption of innocence doesn’t seem to apply in these cases. Had the staff wanted to prevent Pepmeyer from making changes in office staff and procedure and investigating issues long thought buried, this would certainly be an attractive tool.

The mistake was made was when the staff went to the Peoria Journal-Star and made the charges public. Anyone with even the slightest strategic or tactical sense could have guessed that regardless of how Pepmeyer may have responded to a quiet threat, once these accusations became sensationalized in print, Pepmeyer would have no option but to not only deny them but make public some — or much — of what he discovered within the Knox County State’s Attorney’s office. This is the political equivalent of mutually assured destruction —  just like during the Cold War — where no one wins a nuclear exchange.


Published April 5, 2007