Four weeks before officially taking office, Travis County district attorney-elect Margaret Moore’s vision for restructuring the agency is taking shape with a flurry of personnel moves and firings that include the ousters of several prosecutors who are well-regarded at the criminal courthouse.
Seventeen attorneys, 12 investigators and six administrative staff are retiring or have been told they will no longer have jobs when Moore takes over on Jan. 3. Additionally, 13 lawyers are being bumped to a lower classification and will take paycuts. And more changes may be coming. Moore told the American-Statesman on Tuesday she still has decisions to make on some administrative positions after wrapping up interviews this week.
In all, 48 people in the 238-employee agency have been affected by the moves. Twenty-seven were told their services will no longer be needed; they will not receive severance pay.
The shakeup marks the most sweeping personnel shift at the DA’s office in decades, with Moore carrying through on her campaign promise to reorganize after 40 years of a continuous administration that began with Ronnie Earle and continued with Rosemary Lehmberg. Moore said she evaluated employees’ work ethic, experience and reputation in the defense community, and accepted feedback from department supervisors and judges.
“Change is hard,” Moore said. “People are used to a certain way of doing things up there. I told this community I was going to go in and use my management experience and skills and I’m doing it.”
District Judge Karen Sage questioned Moore’s decision to reassign a prosecutor who had been tasked with handling complex mental health cases. Others in the legal community were surprised when Moore appointed defense attorney Rickey Jones to a key mid-management position despite Jones’s two bar sanctions — one for giving questionable legal advice and another for questionable advice as well as intermingling his money with his clients’ funds held in a trust account. The sanctions were lifted in 2007.
“People have issues and resolve them and establish a great record after that,” Moore said of Jones. “In my opinion, it’s not relevant to what I’m asking him to do.”
In personnel moves, Moore said she emphasized trial experience and valued attorneys who have led the prosecution of complex felony cases. Moore said she leaned on others’ opinions to make staffing decisions in part because “this is an office that hasn’t done an evaluation in years — the personnel files were not very helpful.”
Moore required all employees to interview for their jobs — a practice she said she first employed when she was Travis County attorney in the 1980s — but a handful of prosecutors were denied a chance to interview.
Among those who will not be returning are veteran prosecutor Allison Wetzel, who handles capital murder cases and earlier this year helped convict Mark Norwood for the 1988 death of Debra Baker. Kelsey McKay has been let go as Moore reshapes the department’s handling of family violence cases. Buddy Meyer, director of the trial bureau, did not reapply for his job. Neither did Gary Cobb, who was thought to be Lehmberg’s likely successor before he fell to Moore in the Democratic primary. Cobb, like Wetzel, worked on the Norwood trial. Both of them are retiring.
“I was disappointed to learn I won’t be staying at the District Attorney’s office next year,” Wetzel said. “But we all understand it’s the new DA’s prerogative to choose her own people. Even though I’ve had it for 26 years, this job doesn’t belong to me; it belongs to the people of Travis County.”
Several of the attorneys Moore is letting go are closely associated with Cobb and supported his campaign. However, Moore said those allegiances had no influence on her decisions.
Moore said she will reassign the attorney who prosecutes mental health cases, Michelle Hallee, which caught the attention of Judge Sage, who says the move has her “deeply concerned.” Several years ago, Sage had a hand in creating a court program for mentally ill people accused of minor crimes that decreased the time they spent in jail by 50 percent. Sage said it would be a mistake for Moore to assign mental health cases to prosecutors who are not sensitive to the needs of the defendants and are more interested in securing a conviction than creating a path for rehabilitation and reducing recidivism.
“Michelle Hallee has taken the ideas I started and improved on them significantly,” Sage said. “She’s a dedicated public servant and works tirelessly on these cases.”
Moore said she is looking at how to staff mental health cases.
Jaime Slaughter, who last month worked on a three-person team that secured a guilty verdict and 40-year sentence in the sexual abuse trial of former state psychiatrist Charles Fischer, said he was caught off-guard by his ouster after 12-plus years of service.
“I was looking forward to serving in the new administration, so it was definitely a shock to find out that I was not retained,” he said.
Sage added: “I was really shocked he was let go after all of the hard work he had just finished on the Charles Fischer trial.”
Moore said she is vetting outside candidates for openings and will soon set up interviews. She had been working in the weeks before the election to assemble her team, saying that waiting until January delay preparations for her start date and the Legislative session. She has tapped well-known defense attorney Mindy Montford to be her first assistant, attorney Dexter Gilford to lead the Civil Rights Unit and local defense attorney Guillermo Gonzalez to head the trial division alongside Jones.
Former Lockhart Chief of Police Mike Lummus will be chief investigator. Judge Don Clemmer will be in charge of special prosecutions.
For some defense lawyers, the overhaul at the DA’s office is overdue. Skip Davis called the restructuring “a clear sign Margaret Moore and her regime intend to take the district attorney’s office into the 21st century and devise policies and procedues that will be better suited for a modern Austin. We’re not the parochial one-horse town we were 30 years ago when Mr. Earle was district attorney and those policies emanated from him.”
Another defense attorney said it’s unfair to criticize the moves because “every new person gets to pick his own team, whether you’re Margaret Moore or Tom Herman,” referring to the new football coach at the University of Texas.
Robert Kepple, director of the Texas District and County Attorneys Association, said such shifts are common when a newly elected official takes office.
“It is typical that the newly elected prosecutor makes staff changes,” he said. “What is happening in Travis County and others around the state now is typical of transitions in prosecutors offices.”