An automated phone call attacking former commissioner candidate Steve Johnsen was placed to many Forest Parkers on Election Day last week. It was hard-hitting and to-the-point: “Vote ‘No’ on disgraced former police officer Steve Johnsen,” said the anonymous voice on the message.
Listen to an audio recording of the automated phone call
The rest of the text was an assault on both Johnsen’s history as a former Forest Park police officer – he was called a “virus” – and the facts surrounding his departure from the force in 2007. Voters were urged not to cast a ballot for Johnsen, calling him a corrupt police officer who quit in an attempt to avoid being fired in the wake of an investigation into his mishandling of an arrest.
The message distorts the truth surrounding the case: Johnsen willingly resigned and was not found guilty of any wrongdoing.
It is unclear whether the dirty politicking impacted his run for commissioner. Johnsen, meanwhile, refused to speak negatively about any candidate during his bid for commissioner.
The robocall states that Johnsen “left a path of deceit” after his exit, that corruption has not existed in the department since his departure and that “the current morale has increased significantly.”
“I would say morale has improved significantly,” said Police Chief Jim Ryan. “I don’t know what impact the departure of Steve Johnsen had to do with it.”
The selling point of the ad was a stern warning that Johnsen’s stormy past with the village rendered him incapable of responsibly serving as a village council member. “Having him serve in the role of the commissioner [will] negatively affect not only the [police] department but the entire village. Please do not let the corruption that so many have worked to repair return to the village,” the message said.
Johnsen was accused of improperly reporting an arrest in 2005 while he was the commanding officer on duty. The incident led to a controversial saga of hearings before the Police and Fire Commission, which ended when Johnsen resigned in 2007. In a letter to the Forest Park Review in 2007, Johnsen said hefty legal fees prompted his resignation.
He is currently drawing a pension and owns a Web-based roofing and gutter company.
Ryan said, “That would have been complete speculation,” when asked if he thought it would be problematic if Johnsen were elected commissioner. Ryan filed the charges seeking Johnsen’s firing in 2006, which led to the aforementioned hearings.
The hearings were controversial because Johnsen had already served a suspension – though he has always maintained his innocence – and due to the fact that Mayor Anthony Calderone signed a letter agreeing to waive any additional punishment.
The aforementioned arrest involved Jim Shaw, the former owner of Doc Ryan’s bar, who was accused of threatening then-Commissioner Patrick Doolin (Johnsen’s real-estate business partner at the time) when Shaw was denied a zoning variance. Shaw later filed suit against the village and Johnsen, so Calderone brought in a private investigator to look into Johnsen’s handling of the arrest. The investigator determined that Johnsen withheld evidence from Ryan, so the aforementioned legal drama followed. It should also be noted that Calderone and Johnsen were not on good terms at the time and that Johnsen referred to the mayor as “crooked” during those hearings.
Johnsen declined comment and Calderone said he didn’t hear the message.
“It doesn’t sound like anything has improved with morale or hostility in the police department if that’s the message,” said Mary Witte, who contacted the Forest Park Review after receiving the robocall.
“I don’t understand the logic either,” she added. “How do they [retired police officers] know if [morale] is better if they’re retirees?”
The message was supposedly paid for by former police officers who called themselves “retirees for the protection of Forest Park.”
Ryan decried the robocall.
“I don’t believe there is any need for this type of message. You would think the politicians would be able to campaign on the issues and what they would do to improve the village,” he said.
During the race, Calderone stated that he opposes dirty politicking and said his campaigning has always been on the “high road.”
The robocall also comes on the heels of two controversial late-in-the game fliers, distributed during the weekend preceding the election.
One ad accuses Tom Mannix and Anthony Calderone of conspiring to remove Rory Hoskins from the ballot earlier in the year. The ad called the alleged effort “bigoted” – Hoskins was the only African American in the race. Mannix’s mother, Elsie Radtke, filed a challenge against Hoskins’ candidacy, but the challenge was unsuccessful.
Mannix and Calderone publicized their alignment late in the race by forming a slate a week prior to Election Day. But Mannix had supported the mayor as far back as December when he was seeking signatures for Calderone’s candidacy petitions.
Radtke’s challenges did bump two other candidates off the ballot. One of those candidates, Jon Kubricht, has been a strong critic of Calderone for some time.
Another racially-charged ad was mailed to select Forest Parkers, playing on racial fears that Maywood would “annex” Forest Park if Hoskins were re-elected (he did win re-election). The ad referenced Hoskins’ campaign suggestion that Forest Park join the Maywood Enterprise Zone to prompt economic development along Roosevelt Road. An enterprise zone is a state program that offers businesses incentives to locate or redevelop within a prescribed area. Maywood is a primarily black community.
The ad also lashed out against Johnsen and cited the aforementioned accusations regarding his past with the police department. Citizens United in Forest Park, a local nonprofit, is also looking into who distributed the ad, as there could be legal ramifications for falsely attributing it to them – which the anonymous producer(s) did.
Like the mailers, the robocall was only placed to select residents. It is not clear how the recipients were selected, nor is it known who is behind the message.
“This is shocking,” Witte said. “I thought it was really mean.”