It's Not A Witch Hunt If There's A Witch
by Tony Palmeri
From the June, 2004 edition of The Valley Scene
In April of this year, former Winnebago County District Attorney Joe Paulus
was convicted of taking $48,000 in bribes and filing false tax returns. Rumors
of improper conduct in Paulus office abounded throughout his 14-year tenure
as DA. Yet during that time the Fox Valley media not only failed to engage in
any serious scrutiny of the DAs office, but they more typically served
as Paulus PR flacks.
One Valley media personality who refused to be a Paulus lap dog was WHBY radio
news anchor Jeanne Anthony. In May of 2002, Anthony broke the Connie Christensen
story and set in motion a chain of events that led to Paulus downfall.
Christensen is the Oshkosh woman who avoided jail time for her third drunk driving
offense after paying her attorney (and Paulus crony) Mitch Schierland $5,000.
When Paulus assistant DAs E.J. Jelinski and Tom Chalchoff, along with
Menasha police officer Ann Gollner, put their careers on the line to blow the
whistle on corruption and criminality in the courthouse, Jeanne Anthony heroically
helped get the message out while the Gannett press was busy bashing the messengers.
I interviewed Jeanne Anthony for this column to get her insights as to why
the Valley media were so pro-Paulus and so hostile to his critics for so many
According to Anthony, early in Paulus tenure as DA, reporters learned that there could be hell to pay for crossing him. Getting inaccurate information from the DA or no information at all were common tactics of intimidation. "Paulus controlled the press with fear," she explained. "Reporters would compete to see who could be his favorite pet."
During the election campaign of 2002, Jelinski released audiotapes of Paulus
bragging about his sexual exploits in the office. But the courthouse wasnt
Paulus only venue for exploiting and demeaning women. Anthony claims the
DA let the television stations know that he wanted to be covered by female reporters,
whom he would then "order" to drink with him.
By the time Jelinski and Gollners accusations against Paulus became public
in the spring of 2002, the local press knew full well of Paulus reputation
for slime and ruthlessness. So why were they so willing to excoriate his critics
and at least until the release of the Jelinski audiotapes defend
Anthonys theory is that the press behavior in the spring of 2002
was part of the same pattern of fear that had existed from the beginning. "The
press gambled that the corruption charges against Paulus werent true,"
she said. "They were afraid that if the FBI found nothing they would then
face punishment from a powerful and hostile DA."
Anthony told me that for years the attitude among Valley news editors was that
to go after Paulus without already having solid evidence of criminal activity
would be a "witch hunt." She tried unsuccessfully to get them to understand
that "its not a witch hunt if theres a witch."
Since Paulus conviction, numerous individuals have come forward to claim
poor treatment and/or corrupt actions at the hands of Paulus. Attorney General
Peg Lautenschlager has assigned her deputy William Hanrahan to look into all
allegations. Anyone with information should contact Hanrahan at the Department
of Justice at (608) 266-1221. Locally, Winnebago County Assistant District Attorney
Mike Balskus is looking into allegations. He can be reached at (920) 236-4977.
The fact that the Fox Valley mainstream media for years looked the other way
when they had chances to expose Paulus might be excusable were it not for the
fact that they go for the jugular against people who dont have the resources
to fight back.
The Oshkosh Northwestern not too long ago devoted what seemed like Woodward
and Bernstein-style resources and energy to show that the Oshkosh superintendent
of schools used taxpayer money to purchase fruit baskets for district meetings.
This would have been around the same time Paulus was taking bribes, filing false
tax returns, and harassing women.
Former Oshkosh School Board president LuAnn Bird, former Oshkosh Mayor Melanie
Bloechl, Winnebago County Supervisor Joe Maehl, and Winnebago County Executive
Jane Van De Hey have also been targets of the editorialists. While some of the
criticisms leveled against them have been fair, the lesson of the Paulus tragedy
is that had they been able to strike fear into the press, they would have been
If the Valley press are interested in atoning for their Paulus-era negligence,
they can start by apologizing to Paulus victims and to the community at
large. E.J. Jelinski, Tom Chalchoff, and Ann Gollner are owed public apologies
for the press treatment they received after coming forward with accusations
against Paulus. No one is suggesting that these whistleblowers claims
should have been accepted uncritically. But the ferocity with which the local
press, especially Gannett, went after them instead of Paulus has produced a
chilling effect for others in the community who might be aware of high-level
Jeanne Anthony told me that the local media were "derelict" in their coverage of Paulus. She said they did not ask the right questions and failed to protect the public. Sadly, in this age of mega-corporate journalism we have no reason to believe the same thing wont happen again.
Tony Palmeri (www.tonypalmeri.com) is an associate professor of communication at UW Oshkosh.