Igniting a scandal: the state of the Knox County State's Attorney's office

by Mike Kroll

"Everything happened so fast. I was appointed on a Wednesday and scheduled to be sworn in that Friday. In two days I had to close out of my private practice and divest my ownership in the bars [Cherry Street Restaurant and The Corner Connection] and I really left behind a lot of complications for Tom [Pepmeyer, his brother and business partner]. On Monday, January 14th when I showed up for work at the courthouse I really didn't know what to expect but there is absolutely no way I could have expected what I found in the Knox County State's Attorney's office." — John Pepmeyer

John Pepmeyer was not entirely new to the State's Attorney's office, having served as an assistant to Carl Hawkinson starting back in 1976, but he wasn't expecting to walk into the disorganized and dysfunctional drama that he found. One of his four assistants, Dean Stone, was still unhappy that he didn't get the job; the youngest and least experienced attorney in the office, Mike Kraycinovich, was in charge of all the major felonies; another assistant, Tracy Jones, was spending much of her time running an eBay business from her official computer system; and his final longest serving assistant, Jon Schlake, was buried in clerical work.

Kraycinovich had started in the office as an intern to former State's Attorney Paul Mangieri while still a student at Knox College. He was hired as an assistant last fall after completing law school and was handling cases himself even before he had been admitted to the bar. With mere months of experience, Kraycinovich was tasked with many of the most important cases in the office.

Stone was one of Mangieri's first hires after he won the 1996 State's Attorney race and had been with the office nearly ten years. Mangieri considered Stone his chief assistant and had endorsed Stone to be his replacement when Illinois Supreme Court Justice Thomas Kilbride named Mangieri to a vacant seat on the Ninth Judicial Circuit. Stone withdrew his name from consideration at the eleventh hour, reportedly at Mangieri's request, and Mangieri threw his support behind Pepmeyer. Stone apparently feared for his job almost immediately despite Mangieri's asking Pepmeyer to keep him on. "When Dean asked me about his future in the office I told him that as long as he did the job he would have one here," said Pepmeyer.

Pepmeyer knew Jones as a young girl growing up and was disturbed when he first began receiving complaints that she was conducting a personal business within the courthouse on county time. "Early on I stopped by Tracy's office and asked her if she was operating an eBay business or some similar enterprise at the courthouse. She totally denied such activities and was embarassed and frustrated that I even asked her about it. However, I later heard that she approached a woman in another courthouse office about buying some of her products and told this woman she would have to use her computer to place the order. The other employee declined and I later heard about the incident from another courthouse supervisor."

The state of the office's record keeping amazed and astounded Pepmeyer as did the office's clerical practices. "I was used to dictating my work and having it typed up for me but I couldn't find a Dictaphone anywhere in the office so I went out an bought one myself. When I went to give my tapes to the office manager, who also serves as my secretary, she said that it had been years since she typed from Dictaphone recordings and that she had no transcribing machine. Another secretary told me she was more familiar with such machines and even believed that there were some around the office somewhere. After searching we found two or three brand-new transcribing machines in a closet, still in their original packaging that had sat unused for many years."

It turns out that the lawyers in the State's Attorney's office routinely did much of their own typing and paperwork. Schlake, who is responsible for all first appearances, was literally swimming in paperwork that made his task nearly unmanageable. His secretary is one of two in the office who cannot type. Pepmeyer discovered that it was Mangieri's practice to stop at the Public Safety Building early most mornings to collect paperwork on new arrests overnight and to take them to his office where he personally would enter them into the personal computer on his desk rather than having this done by the clerical staff. "I didn't spend my time and education to do my own secretarial work," commented Pepmeyer, "and I wasn't about to start in this office. Back in 1976 all of the attorney's in the office had dictating machines and each was assigned their own secretary. I just didn't understand how this office was expected to work."

"The first thing I wanted to do was to get up to speed on the pending cases in the office and this led to my early discovery that paperwork and files in the office were totally disorganized. I would request files only to find that they were impossible to locate. My secretary's desk was piled high with all kinds of paperwork. In digging through one pile we even found an uncashed restitution check from a year and a half ago — from my old office!"

Pepmeyer relates finding an office in total disarray. Disorganized and missing files, antiquated methods, little or no supervision, and most amazingly, almost no tracking of cases and dispositions. Personnel policies be damned, staff were used to coming and going at will with no record keeping as to sick days, vacation days or personal time. "During the work day there was no way of locating someone out of the office. When I asked about the records on staff sick, vacation and personal time I was shocked to discover there weren't any. I was told by the staff that the office operated Ôunder the honor system.' They weren't in the habit of tracking almost anything in that office when I arrived."

According to Pepmeyer, the staff of the Knox County State's Attorney's office pretty much did as they pleased and Mangieri seemed to be pretty disconnected from the day-to-day operations. "They had these signature stamps in the office that the clerical staff would use at their own discretion on paperwork. This was the equivalent of having an attorney sign a document or order that may never even have been presented to the attorney. After I discovered how these stamps were being used I gathered up all of these stamps and ordered that each attorney read and sign all appropriate paperwork."

But sloppy paperwork is one thing and failure to insure justice another. Pepmeyer believes that disorganization and just plain sloth has resulted in justice denied to many victims of crime in Knox County. "Cases were falling through the huge organizational cracks. This office routinely saw cases dismissed for lack of speedy trial due to delay and inactivity that prevented action within 160 days. Even worse, many investigations went absolutely nowhere as the statute of limitations expired without this office filing charges against the offender."

Based on records from the Knox County Circuit Clerk's office for the 2006 calendar year, the Knox County State's Attorney's office handled a total of 859 felony defendants. There were a sum total of seven felony trials last year, five bench trials and two jury trials and the State's Attorney lost six of those cases — obtaining only a single trial conviction before a judge. Nearly 16 percent (135) of those felony cases were reduced to misdemeanors, over ten percent (89) were dismissed outright, 323 or 37.6 percent were dismissed with leave to refile at a later date and nine other felonies were dropped for a variety of other reasons. Almost 65 percent (557) of defendants charged with felonies in Knox County had their charges dropped or reduced in 2006. Of the remainder, 296, or slightly more than 34 percent, pleaded guilty to a felony charge.

"This office wasn't vigorously pursuing cases, particularly felonies. I became more and more angry as I discovered just what a mess this office was. I had no idea what I was stepping into when I agreed to be appointed State's Attorney and that was even before everything blew up. My confidence in the staff was shaky and I soon began to suspect that I was being actively undermined in my efforts to find specific files and implement changes in office procedures."

Weeks into his tenure in the office, Pepmeyer was becoming increasingly aware of his staff's lack of aggressiveness. He says he kept discovering a wide range of matters running the gamut of importance that were hardly being attended to and defendants and defense attorneys alike had begun to discover that even faint-hearted attempt at a defense would pay big dividends. One area that really infuriated Pepmeyer was felony traffic offenses, particularly DUIs. "I became disgusted at the candyland treatment of DUI offenders by my office. I wrote a memo to my staff creating a new office policy that there would be no more dismissals of DUI or felony charges without my personal authorization. The reaction was swift and extremely negative. One of my assistants had a public fit in a courtroom between hearings after reading the memo."

Pepmeyer attended a week-long "prosecutor's school" in Springfield that began on Sunday, March 11th and was set to conclude on Thursday, March 15th. These programs are conducted four times per year by the Office of the State Appellate Prosecutor to "...provide in-depth training in courtroom trial tactics and demeanor" for Illinois State's Attorneys. Late Tuesday of that week in Springfield, Pepmeyer received a telephone call from Knox County Sheriff Jim Thompson.

"The Sheriff called to tell me that I had a big problem brewing back here in Galesburg and that he thought it would be best if I returned immediately. He said that two of the girls in my office were going to bring charges of sexual harassment against me. I remember him telling me, Ôif I were you I'd get home fast.' So I blew off the remainder of the training session and drove back to Galesburg."

"I had absolutely no idea what was going on. I can assure you that I have never said or done anything of an inappropriate nature to any of my staff past or present. The sexual harassment charges are pure bullshit! The irony is that the two women who were making the charges were the best office staff I had. When I got back I thought there would be time to discuss everything and work out the obvious problems in the office. Then the Saturday, March 17th Peoria Journal-Star came out. After seeing that story I knew all hell was about to break out."

At the time of the Journal-Star article the women involved had yet to file any form of complaint. Official complaints in the form of grievances didn't come out until the middle of the next week. Meantime not only did the two women involved stop showing up for work but so too did three of Pepmeyer's assistants. Kraycinovich, Stone and Jones simply didn't show for work the following Monday after the original Journal-Star story. Late Wednesday, March 21st Pepmeyer fired the three assistants and sent out a press release detailing his actions.

This past weekend Pepmeyer explained further. "I didn't come into this office with any intent to uncover problems but once they became painfully clear there was little I could do other than address them. This office has been systematically mismanaged for years prior to my arrival and I just guess that everyone here expected me to continue business as usual. I was not about to simply overlook the problems that ranged from inefficiencies all the way to potential acts of criminal conduct."

"I believe originally the charges of sexual harassment were intended as a form of intimidation to get me back into line and were never supposed to become public. Had I merely dropped my efforts to look into potential improprieties in the State's Attorney's office or at the Knox County Jail nothing would have happened. As it is, the genie is out of the bottle now and the opportunity to quietly investigate things has disappeared but the investigations will continue. At this point I just don't know if my personal and professional reputation can be resurrected after these charges but I am committed to seeing justice served in Knox County."


Published 5 April 2007