Crime

Tarrant County DA cleans house, promises to increase efficiency

John Hubbard, who has muscular dystrophy and lost his job as an investigator with the Tarrant County district attorney’s office, shows a photo of him working with former prosecutor Christy Jack.
John Hubbard, who has muscular dystrophy and lost his job as an investigator with the Tarrant County district attorney’s office, shows a photo of him working with former prosecutor Christy Jack. Star-Telegram

January was not kind to John Hubbard.

During one week, his mother died and he lost his job of 14 years with the Tarrant County district attorney’s office, a casualty of the Sharen Wilson administration.

“That was kind of a trying week,” Hubbard said.

A full-time investigator in the hot-check division, Hubbard has been in law enforcement for more than 35 years. Now 57, he was diagnosed with muscular dystrophy two years ago and had hoped to make it an additional 15 months in the DA’s office so he could retire.

But he knew that with previous DA Joe Shannon retiring and the newly elected Wilson taking over, his job might be in jeopardy.

“The new DA did not know me, but she came in talking about making budget cuts in the office,” Hubbard said. “I was an easy cut for her.”

Wilson, a former state district judge, promised changes in the DA’s office, saying during last year’s election campaign that she would trim budgets and staff, create efficiencies and streamline operations.

So far, she has stuck to her plan.

Six top prosecutors from the Shannon administration were told they would not be returning in January. Other employees, some upset by Wilson’s mandate that the staff must work from 7:45 a.m. to 5:30 p.m., quit.

From Oct. 24 to Feb. 23, the district attorney’s office lost 42 full- and part-time employees out of 312, according to information obtained by the Star-Telegram through an open-records request and from the office’s website. Among the departed are 26 full-time prosecutors, accounting for about 17 percent of the DA’s staff attorneys.

“It seems as though every decision and cut Wilson makes for the office makes it harder for the employees to do their jobs and further plummets their morale,” Hubbard said. “She is making cuts to make herself look good without regard to the diminishing effectiveness of the office as a whole.”

In December, a week before her inauguration, Wilson said the staffing changes would not delay bringing cases to trial. But some of her critics say they do not see how she can keep that promise.

Presley Darnell, a retired investigator who worked part time under Shannon but was fired by Wilson, said the DA’s office did not pay him for vacations, mileage, healthcare or retirement while he worked.

He predicts that cases once worked by him and his fellow part-timers will now fall through the cracks.

“We were relatively inexpensive for our backgrounds and fields of expertise,” Darnell said.

Wilson has filled some of the openings with other prosecutors who have extensive résumés. She said that she plans to fill all the vacant positions and that her staff will have fewer managing attorneys and more attorneys who carry caseloads.

“I determined that a revised management model, using fewer upper-level attorney manager positions would more efficiently guide the office at a greatly reduced cost to the taxpayers,” Wilson said in an email to the Star-Telegram.

But the changes did not end there.

Wilson’s housecleaning

Besides the six top prosecutors who were let go:

▪ Three part-time prosecutors and three part-time investigators had their jobs eliminated.

▪ Two recently hired prosecutors were fired.

▪ At least 15 prosecutors with varying ranges of experience resigned or retired.

▪ Three prosecutors who formerly worked in the Shannon administration stepped down to assume judgeships.

“By redesigning the management structure of the office and by trimming the staff we have been able to achieve a more efficient use of the office’s resources while reducing overall operating costs to the taxpayers,” Wilson said. “These changes can only serve to save additional monies as we go forward.”

Those who left — some voluntarily, some not — included high-profile prosecutors such as Sean Colston, Christy Jack, David Lobingier, Leticia Martinez and Jack Strickland.

Lobingier, a former prosecutor in the economic crimes division, said some of the young prosecutors who stayed with Wilson are tentative and worried about their jobs.

“I understand the transition has been difficult,” said Lobingier, who has 41 years’ experience. “There are new rules in place that some people have not found logical. You lose people with those type of credentials and you look at your experience, and it’s not even close. It’s bound to have a disconcerting effect on people who have not been in the business for too long.”

Another campaign promise that Wilson’s critics doubt she can keep is her vow to cut the office’s budget.

“I’ll just say unequivocally no,” said Strickland, a senior attorney in Shannon’s office who was asked not to return in January. “She just can’t do it. Now she’s having a hard time cajoling people to come work for her.”

Working parents

Jack, who was elevated to “litigation expert” under Wilson, and Martinez, a senior chief prosecutor, resigned in mid-February.

Both said they left partly because of Wilson’s directive that the staff work from 7:45 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. Monday through Friday — without exception — according to correspondence obtained by the Star-Telegram through an open-records request.

Jack and Martinez are both working mothers with special-needs children.

Jack wrote that she and other prosecutors often spend 60 or more hours a week on the job. A few minutes lost here and there can typically be made up by coming in early, working through lunch, staying late or working from home, the letter said.

“You stated that your policy of office hours of 7:45 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. would be strictly enforced for all prosecutors with no exceptions,” Jack’s resignation letter said. “You stated flatly that ‘I would just have to find a way to make it work.’”

After receiving Jack’s resignation letter Feb. 2, Wilson communicated to Jack and Martinez that the strict work-hours policy was being modified to allow some flexibility. Wilson asked for patience while the new policy was put in place.

“I would further encourage you to reconsider your decision to resign,” Wilson’s letter said.

In a Feb. 17 letter to Wilson, Jack took up the cause of working parents in the DA’s office.

“I also explained to you that just a few minutes of flexibility in the morning for some and in the evening for others could mean everything to a working parent — a sentiment currently echoed throughout the office,” the letter said.

In the same letter, Jack said that she had received no memo outlining the policy changes that Wilson was suggesting and that she was going forward with her resignation.

Wilson told the Star-Telegram that the community and law enforcement have responded positively to the new work-hour rules and that extending the evening hours to 5:30 p.m. has made prosecutors and other staffers more accessible to people who don’t get off work until 5 p.m.

“This change has allowed us to become more effective and efficient serving those we work with and on behalf of without any increased burden to the taxpayers,” Wilson said.

Jack also has an ongoing issue with Tarrant County, saying that upon her resignation, she was not allowed to take more than 780 hours of unused vacation time, according to an email she sent to G.K. Maenius, the county administrator.

Jack wrote that the past administration had granted other such requests to use accrued vacation time.

Tarrant County’s human resources department responded that Wilson is under no obligation to continue that policy.

‘Change can be good’

Newly elected officials typically bring in their own supervisory teams, make new hires and change how things run, said Allan Saxe, an associate political science professor at the University of Texas at Arlington.

“She won. That’s all there is to it,” Saxe said. “No one likes real dramatic change, but it’s not too shocking that change takes place. That’s why we elect new people to office: to change things, to get some new ideas. Change can be good.”

Colston, a Wilson casualty who landed at the Dallas County district attorney’s office, said employees working for an elected official understand that they can be fired at any time.

“Anytime you have an administration change, you will have turnover,” Colston said.

When Craig Watkins became Dallas County district attorney in 2007, he fired people and brought in a new supervisory staff, and the county survived, said Lesa Pamplin, an Arlington attorney who supported Wilson in her election.

“Every new administration makes changes,” Pamplin said. “People lose jobs. People were mad at Craig, but they got over it.”

Watkins lost his re-election bid in November.

As Wilson makes changes, Pamplin said, leaving is probably the best option for some.

“The easy solution is to go into private practice, and then you can set your own hours,” Pamplin said. “Being on your own gives you the flexibility to do whatever you want to do.”

Mitch Mitchell, 817-390-7752

Twitter: @mitchmitchel3

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