GOP reeling from Wong affair

by Mike Kroll

Knox County Clerk Marc Wong’s legal woes were eclipsed only by the onset of war in Iraq. Despite damning allegations of fraud and theft, Wong has chosen not to resign his office and indeed presided over the April 1st Consolidated election in Knox County. On election night the Knox County Republican Central Committee met in their headquarters on E. Main St. That’s when Republican Party chair Gene Stull announced that Wong had resigned as precinct committeeman and vice chair of the central committee.

Charges filed against Wong on March 19th allege that he altered 20 checks drawn on the campaign account of his political mentor, State Representative Don Moffitt, totaling over $14,000. Photocopies of microfilms of the checks show them made payable to either Wong himself or his campaign committee. Wong spent one night in the Knox County Jail and is now free on $25,000 bond. He has resumed his duties as County Clerk while he and his attorney, Kim Norton, await arraignment on April 22nd.

If Wong pleads guilty or is convicted of a felony charge, he would be ineligible to continue holding office according to Illinois statutes. Knox County Board Chair Sally Keener would appoint (subject to the consent of the County Board) a Knox County Republican as County Clerk until the 2004 General Election. The Republican Central Committee will likely submit a nomination to Keener for her consideration. The voters in the 2004 General Election would then determine who would complete the final two years of Wong’s four-year term.

Discussions among local Republicans have presumably already commenced concerning who they would put forth to complete the first two years of Wong’s term in the event he resigns. Gene Stull, Knox County Republican Party Chair, will not confirm that such discussions have already taken place but he does acknowledge that a number of local Republicans have expressed interest in the position.

"This whole mess with Marc Wong is a terrible thing for everyone involved," said Stull. "Not only does this jeopardize Marc’s political career almost before it began but it also staggered most members of our party. Marc is an exceptionally bright, talented and hard working young man and many of us expected him to go very far in politics. Clearly Don and Carolyn Moffitt have invested an awful lot in helping Marc get a good start. Prior to Marc’s arrest no one could have imagined anything like this happening."

Wong, 27 years old and a Galesburg native, graduated from Galesburg High School and Knox College already immersed in politics. He has been involved in all levels of Republican politics and acknowledged by many Knox County Republicans as a key party organizer and campaign worker. Wong has been a critical spoke in many area Republican campaigns including those of Moffitt and former State Senator Carl Hawkinson.

While Wong was working as Moffitt’s legislative assistant in his Galesburg office, he was also continuing to manage Don’s campaign business as well. It is Wong’s actions as a campaign operative for Moffitt that led to the forgery and theft charges. At this point, no allegations of wrongdoing have been made regarding Wong’s handling of Illinois state funds within Moffitt’s legislative office.

Soon after news of Wong’s arrest broke, it became clear to Stull and many local Republicans that this affair had the potential to be very damaging to the county Republican Party as well as other local Republican elected officials. While stressing that Wong is innocent until proven guilty, Stull nevertheless acknowledged that he and other party officials quickly determined that it would be in the best interest of the party if Wong were to resign from his position on the Central Committee.

"Frankly, I also thought it would be best if Marc were to resign as Knox County Clerk," admitted Stull. "I made a trip to the courthouse and asked Marc to strongly consider resigning. He obviously refused but understood that it was in everyone’s best interest that he resign from his party duties. Marc will have no further involvement in the Knox County Republican Party central committee. As critical as Marc’s work has been to this party, it is clear that we cannot allow this central committee to be as much of a one-man show as it has been recently. I don’t want to dwell on these tragic events. Knox County Republicans need to move on."

And move on the Republicans will do. The downtown East Main Street building where Knox County Republicans have maintained a permanent office for the last several years was recently sold. Following discussions with the new landlord it has been decided that the party will no longer maintain a permanent headquarters between elections. Stull says that the Republicans have already moved out of the storefront.

Stull acknowledged that the felony arrest and potential conviction of Wong puts local Republicans in an awkward political position. The County Clerk’s office has long been a bastion of Democrats in Knox County and Wong’s 41-vote "landslide" last November was the local Republican highlight. "We really want to keep this office regardless of what happens with Marc and part of my job as party chair is finding and supporting the best candidate that can accomplish that. It is clear what the principal issue will be in the next County Clerk campaign and if Marc must resign we will put forth the name of a local Republican who can not only run the office but also be elected to that office in their own right."