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Columbia County district attorney’s office hindered by apparent staff shortages

March 19, 2019

After the departure of two employees and a missed meeting that concerned some county board members last week, the Columbia County District Attorney’s Office is feeling increased pressures of being short-staffed.

Positions held by Mary Ellen Karst and Marnie Thome were listed as “vacant” on the county’s website early last week.

Corporation Counsel Joseph Ruf confirmed to the Daily Register on Monday that Marnie Thome had been employed in Columbia County from June 17, 2013, until March 4, 2019, and she was victim witness coordinator at the time of her departure.

Ruf said he could not release details related to performance reviews, according to the Columbia County Operations Manual for Management. But he confirmed that Thome was under the direct supervision of District Attorney Tristan Eagon.

Ruf said the county does not maintain employment records for assistant district attorneys and directed questions to the state Department of Administration’s State Prosecutor’s Office.

The Daily Register filed an open records request Monday with the Department of Administration, which oversees assistant district attorneys employed in counties throughout Wisconsin. The department acknowledged the request and was still processing it.

Eagon said she was not able to respond to the Daily Register on Monday because she was fully booked with back-to-back pre-trial conferences. She also was unavailable Friday and canceled an appointment with a reporter. Eagon did do an on-camera interview with a Madison TV station Wednesday.

County Board District 26 Supervisor Bob Koch said he first heard of the two vacancies during a Judiciary Committee meeting March 12.

At that meeting, Koch and other members appeared uncertain about how to move forward approving expenditure reports from her office, because Eagon was absent from the meeting.

County Board District 15 Supervisor Mark Sleger, who also attended the March 12 committee meeting, said not having someone from the district attorney’s office there speaks volumes and not in a good way.

“They are required to be represented at those meetings, and those things should be on their calendar and treated as important meeting dates,” Sleger said. “They’ve had a habit of blowing those things off.”

Sleger didn’t specify whether what he called a habit of missing meetings has been more recent or if it has been ongoing for a longer period of time.

Sleger questioned whether citizens would feel the behavior could appear to indicate a double standard.

“You know, if a citizen doesn’t show up to a court-scheduled meeting, it usually ends up in dire consequences for the citizen,” Sleger said.

Judge Todd Hepler said the district attorney or another representative from the office generally attends the bi-monthly Judiciary Committee meetings. It’s not uncommon for an assistant district attorney to show up, but having no one there is uncommon, Hepler said.

Sleger added that the committee meetings are one of the only chances that elected and appointed officials have to report directly to citizens.

He said he had planned on asking Eagon how she decides which cases to pursue and which ones not to pursue, but he couldn’t Tuesday. He said a constituent from his district claims that an incident of assault and a property theft were not prosecuted.

“I was just wondering how they make that decision,” Sleger said. “That’d be something educational for the citizen.”

Sleger said he suspects Eagon just has her hands full with a lot of work at this time, and he added most court officials are very busy every minute of every day, often working late night hours and early mornings.

He noted that when former District Attorney Jane Kohlwey retired Jan. 12 and her top assistant, Troy Cross, successfully ran for a judge position, the office was left short-staffed and had lost some highly experienced attorneys.

Hepler agrees that Eagon’s office is likely experiencing scheduling hiccups due to being extremely short-staffed.

He said he is not aware of the circumstances behind the departures of Thome and Karst.

Regarding the future of the county’s victim witness coordinator program, Hepler said the sole remaining employee in that role, Lisa Playman, will have to prioritize certain cases until an additional employee is hired.

Playman, who was reached by phone Monday, said she is not allowed to speak to the media and declined to comment.

Victim witness coordinators generally notify victims of a crime about upcoming hearings and ask whether they wish to be involved, as required by state law, Hepler said.

“They do have a right to be notified, to be noticed and to be heard at sentencing hearings,” Hepler said. “I will expect they will do what they need to do. They will have to find a way to notify those victims.