The end of the courthouse ordeal?

Attorney General clears John Pepmeyer of criminal charges


by Mike Kroll


“After this seven-month ordeal I feel I can finally devote myself entirely to the job I was appointed to do. I am committed to the cause of justice in Knox County, and although that's what precipitated this mess my commitment has not wavered-- in fact it has strengthened.”       John Pepmeyer, Knox County State's Attorney


On Tuesday night at a Galesburg gas station John Pepmeyer was waiting in line to pay for his purchases when a man in front of him holding that evening's edition of the Register-Mail featuring a huge front page picture of Pepmeyer and the banner headline, “AG CLEARS PEPMEYER” suddenly pointed to him and exclaimed, “Hey that's him!” Pepmeyer quickly paid and silently exited in a vain attempt to escape further attention.

At a hastily called press conference held the prior evening in the Knox County Courthouse Alan Pickrel, chair of the Knox County board announced the the Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan's office had sent an uncharacteristically terse letter to Judge Edward Danner announcing the “conclusion of its criminal investigation into claims of impropriety by John T. Pepmeyer, the Knox County State's Attorney.”

“Based upon the law and our review of the evidence, we have determined that there is  an insufficient basis for the filing of criminal charges. As the criminal investigation has concluded, we are requesting that the court formally terminate our appointment as Special Prosecutor in this matter.”

In just two sentences Deputy Attorney General Ellen Mandeltort was conceding that despite a thorough and wide-ranging investigation by both Illinois State Police and investigators from the Attorney General's office no compelling evidence could be found to substantiate charges of sexual harassment or official misconduct against Pepmeyer. First two and then a third and finally a fourth former female employee within the Knox County State's Attorney's office had alleged that Pepmeyer had systematically sexually harassed them during his first two months on the job following his January 2007 appointment to complete Mangieri's term as state's attorney.

The same women and essentially the same charges of sexual harassment remain at the center of multiple civil actions still pending against Pepmeyer but the Attorney General's announcement seems to suck the wind out of those proceedings as well, despite claims to the contrary by Galesburg attorney Barry Barash and Peoria attorney John Cassidy.

Meanwhile Pepmeyer's life has been a living hell for the past seven months in a saga that has been far more political than legal. Characterized by unsubstantiated personal attacks, innuendo and intimidation what apparently began as a quiet exercise to avoid political embarrassment to Mangieri had turned into an all-out legal battle between two former political allies, their families and supporters where the battlefield was the front pages of local newspapers and frequently the lead stories on TV and radio news broadcasts.

“No one has paid a higher price than my elderly parents,” explained Pepmeyer. “I knew that each and every negative news report or ugly public comment was like a dagger in the hearts of my mother and father. I lived most of my life seeking to please my parents and make them proud of me yet here I was accused of things no one wants their family to hear. And although we did our best to shield our five year-old from the details of this mess he understood I was under siege even if he couldn't comprehend why. My parents never lost faith in me and like my wife Laura and brother Tom and so many long-time friends they continued to support me all along the way. We tend to take so much for granted during the good times. It is rare indeed that someone is afforded such an opportunity to discover the true depths of our relationships with those close to us. I am pleased to say I was never disappointed.”

The public saga began with a journalistically challenged and factually incorrect but sensational and salacious front page article in the March 17, 2007 Peoria Journal Star. However, the story's actual origins go back nearly a year.

One year ago John Pepmeyer was an attorney in private practice with his brother Tom and the brothers also owned and operated two downtown Galesburg bars, Cherry Street and the Corner Connection. Pepmeyer was almost content but longed to cap off his legal career as a  judge. He was jockeying for appointment as an associate circuit judge that later went to fellow Galesburg attorney Dwayne Morrison.

One year ago Paul Mangieri was the Knox County State's Attorney and a failed candidate for Lieutenant Governor, State Senate and State Treasurer. During this time the cause of justice Knox County suffered from his absence and inattention as Mangieri devoted his energies to the pursuit of higher office. His once glowing political future was rapidly dimming and he was eagerly awaiting his appointment to the bench as the replacement for a retired Ninth Circuit Judge. The appointment was to be made by Supreme Court justice Thomas Kilbride but Kilbride had delayed announcing his choice for months pending conclusion of proceedings by the Illinois State Board of Elections into misreporting on campaign finance reports regarding Mangieri's primary campaign for State Treasurer in 2006. Ironically, the man who wanted to be state treasurer defended himself by essentially admitting he couldn't properly maintain his campaign financial records. It wasn't until Mangieri paid a grossly reduced fine of $ 9,350 on December 27, 2006 that Kilbride finally announced his choice of Mangieri for the Ninth Judicial Circuit.

For his part Mangieri pushed the Knox County Board into unnecessarily expediting the appointment of his replacement. Initially Mangieri supported former assistant state's attorney (and one of the current civil litigants against Pepmeyer) Dean Stone but threw his support to Pepmeyer once it became clear that Stone wouldn't fly with the county board.

Eventually Paul came to me and said the tea leaves just aren't there for Dean and confirmed again my interest. 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," recalled Pepmeyer back in April.

"I know now I was incredibly naive to believe what Paul told me but I guess he was equally naēve to assume that I would be a 'good old boy' and permit the office to run just as it had under him or that I would cave-in to pressure.  I had no idea just what I was getting myself 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. The office as well as the staff was disorganized and dysfunctional."

To this day Pepmeyer is convinced that the original threat of sexual harassment complaints against him by the initial two women was merely intended to convince him to stop digging into past problems in the state's attorney's office or instituting highly visible changes that could prove embarrassing to Mangieri. “Nearly everyone, especially the media, quickly lost sight of the real inception of this conflict and failed to notice that what began as vague accusations only later became detailed charges of specific acts of sexual harassment against me. No one can possibly believe that the people running the state's criminal investigation were biased on my behalf and it is clear that they went to extraordinary lengths in an attempt to find any incriminating evidence against me yet by their own admission they came up empty. I knew from the start that there was never any substance to these allegations and the only way I could prevail was to not concede to the pressure. This strategy was very costly to myself, my family and Knox County but it was necessary to see justice done.”