New Columbia County DA could be appointed soon

May 14, 2019

Gov. Tony Evers could appoint a new Columbia County district attorney any day now, but it could be midsummer before the appointee actually takes office, the County Board’s Judiciary Committee learned Monday.

Dodge County District Attorney Kurt Klomberg, who is overseeing the Columbia County prosecutor’s office on an interim basis, told the panel he has heard that six people applied for the post by the April 26 deadline.

An email inquiry about the status of the Columbia County district attorney appointment – directed to Melissa Baldauff, one of Evers’ deputy chiefs of staff – was not answered Monday.

If the appointee is currently a government attorney, Klomberg said, he or she might be able to assume office within a week or two. But if the appointee is in private law practice, then it could easily take a month to close down the practice – meaning that an appointment made at the beginning of June would likely mean a start date in early July.

Klomberg has been special prosecutor in Columbia County since the April 9 resignation of Tristan Eagon, who was appointed by then-Gov. Scott Walker to serve the remainder of District Attorney Jane Kohlwey’s term after Kohlwey announced her intention to retire. Eagon had been in office just 88 days before she resigned, with a letter that, among other things, accused Columbia County officials of deliberately keeping her office understaffed.

Klomberg said he and Bob Barrington, managing attorney in the Dodge County District Attorney’s Office, were “a little apprehensive” about assuming the temporary role of managing the Columbia County office, because of all they’d heard about it in “the media.”

Those accounts – which Judiciary Committee Chairman Matt Rohrbeck of Portage summarized on Monday – include the unexplained departures of an assistant district attorney and a victim-witness coordinator, rumors of drinking in the office (later confirmed by Sheriff Roger Brandner) and the sudden and unexplained closing of the DA’s office on April 8.

What they found, on their arrival, was an experienced staff, offering “unwavering and without-hesitation support,” Klomberg said.

Barrington said the support staff is “outstanding and efficient,” and all have stepped up to help.

As for prosecutors, Klomberg said, help was on the way.

Just days after resigning as a special prosecutor, Kohlwey returned, mostly to handle between 70 and 80 cases for which others in the office had conflicts.

Mary Ellen Karst, the assistant district attorney whose unexplained departure came to light in March, returned in that role and Roy Korte, retired as head of criminal litigation for the Wisconsin Department of Justice, took on a temporary role as special prosecutor.

But Korte, Karst and Kohlwey will all leave once the new district attorney takes office, Klomberg said – which is why he urged county officials to be open to any staffing requests the new district attorney might have.

The panel said “yes” to one of Klomberg’s staff requests – to hire a victim-witness coordinator to replace Marnie Thome, whose departure came to light in March.

In anticipation of the approval, Klomberg said, he’d scheduled interviews for the job later on Monday.

Committee member Mark Sleger of the town of Lowville asked whether Karst, Kohlwey and Korte could remain as limited-term employees once the new district attorney takes office.

Not likely, Klomberg said – but staffing would be up to the new district attorney.

Barrington said staffing will likely be chaotic in the new district attorney’s first days on the job.

Adding to the complications is a plan to revamp numerous court procedures, effective July 1, said Judge W. Andrew Voigt.

Susan Raimer, clerk of circuit court, said multiple agencies involved in public safety – including judges, prosecutors, defense attorneys and law enforcement officers – have been working for a while on some changes designed to improve efficiency in the courts.

Those changes include assigning traffic cases to the court commissioner (who would work three days per week instead of the current two), rescheduling defendants’ return court appearances to morning instead of afternoon and changing the judges’ criminal intake rotation so that the judge who hears a case at intake will continue to preside over the case for its duration.

But filling the victim-witness post – one of two in the office – will help a great deal, he said.

“In a county this size, we’re dealing with more than one person can do,” he said. “We need capable people, and enough of them.”