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THE CITY REBORN FROM THE ASHES OF AMERICA'S MOST DISASTROUS FOREST FIRE
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DA Brey Cites Backlog As Reason He Resigned

"I'm not retiring....I'm terminating my state employment," Marinette County District Attorney Allen Brey told the Peshtigo Times in an interview last week. He served notice weeks ago to County Board and Gov. Scott Walker that his official last day in his elected position will be Sunday, June 4. In the interview he explained why.

"We have come to the point in Marinette County where a crime victim may wait two years for justice," Brey said. "I can no longer take part in a system where victims are treated so poorly! I wasn't raised that way. I have not been given the tools I need to do my job, and morally, I cannot continue!"

He said he and his wife, Sharon will remain in their Marinette home and she will continue teaching third grade at Menominee Middle School. They plan a two week vacation enjoying grandchildren in Florida, after which he will decide what to do with the remainder of his working years.

At age 62, and as a 30-year veteran of employ with the State of Wisconsin he could simply retire and draw benefits, but said that is not his style. He will probably work in the legal system in some capacity other than District Attorney. Only half jokingly, he noted he could earn $10,000 a year more by going to work as a hired Assistant District Attorney than he does having full responsibility as the elected District Attorney for Marinette County.

A replacement DA for Marinette County has not yet been named. A statewide notice went out last week inviting applications and announcing that the deadline is Friday, May 5. Since the DA post is an elected Constitutional office, whoever gets the job will need to be a resident of Marinette County on the day they start work.

Repeatedly over the last several years Brey has asked Marinette County Board and County Administrators to provide additional help for his office and has been refused. In fact, one clerical position was eliminated a few years ago, supposedly on a temporary basis, and it has never been restored. He also asked the state for more Assistant District Attorney help and that too has not happened. But there have been more deputies and police officers hired, which leads to more arrests, so the case load for his office grows and grows.

Now, he says, despite working many uncompensated overtime hours, he and his staff are falling farther and farther behind. "We have come to the point where, if the case is not one that mandates immediate action, the victim may have to wait two years for justice," Brey said. He added that victims have a Constitutional right in Wisconsin to have their cases timely handled, "and two years isn't timely!"

He said "timely" generally means that within 10 business days a decision on whether or not to file charges should have been made, one way or the other. With current staff and the heavy caseload, sometimes in his office that decision is not made for two years. There currently is a backlog of 406 cases.

Complaints have been filed against him in the past with the state's Criminal Victim Rights Board, and considering the case backlog, there could be more. Theoretically, the state Licensing Board could suspend his attorney's license "or take me out of the game completely," Brey said, but he indicated conscience is the real reason he decided to resign. He does not want to continue being the one breaking the rules, or responsible for violations of victim rights.

Brey said all across the state district attorney offices are short on legal and clerical help, but the Victim Rights panel does not accept lack of staff or resources as an excuse for delays. In fact that panel recently publicly reprimanded District Attorney John Snider of Waupaca County for failure to handle a case in a timely manner, despite some staff turnover in his office.

He said the state's Office of Lawyer Regulation and Board of Bar Examiners that deal with licenses to practice law are a little more kind, but noted in private practice an attorney can say "no", when his workload gets too heavy, but a District Attorney cannot. "We cannot tell the Sheriff or police departments not to make any more arrests," Brey pointed out.

Sen. Alberta Darling's new drunk driving law that went into effect on Jan. 1 created a need for 44 additional DAs across the state, but none were provided for.

Some difficult cases are very time consuming. Brey said it took more than 20 hours just to prepare the complaint against recent convenience store robber Chad Michael Setunsky, and before that case is over it will have consumed more than 150 hours of work in the DA office.

Over the years, most counties, including Brown County, have stepped up to the plate and provide the needed resources even when the state does not, Brey said. Marinette County is not among them. In fact, under a previous Marinette County administration he was prohibited from even bringing his requests for help to the governing committee except for the five minutes allowed during time for public comment.

He is concerned for what will happen in his office after he is gone, no matter who gets the position. It takes about three years for a prosecutor to get fully grounded in the DA's office, he said. The person needs to become comfortable with the law and the process. There currently is a backlog of 406 cases, some of them dating back to 2014. That backlog will need to be dealt with.

He said not only are there more arrests, particularly since the surge in heroin addiction here, but it takes longer to process all of the criminal cases because of additional layers of procedure added to the process.

For example, in 1985, an ordinary drunk driving case might take 10 minutes in court. Now, thanks to the new law, it takes half an hour. Preparation time also is correspondingly longer.

Brey said he and his staff are paid for 40 hours a week and have been working 60 hours to try to get their work done. "We live here (in the office)," he declared. "We have been cheating our families of our time"We were doing it. I'm not doing it any more!"

Until June of last year the Marinette County DA office had Brey, Assistant District Attorney Kent Hoffman, and DeShea Morrow as a half time District Attorney. In June of 2016 Hoffman left to accept a judgeship in Sheboygan County, and Morrow was moved to full time assistant. There as yet is no replacement for her in the part time post.

Back in July of 2016 Brey drew some criticism when he informed the Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) that his office could no longer handle CHIPS (Child Protective Services Placements). He said the first responsibility of his office was to law enforcement, and suggested a solution. Eventually DHHS was to pay for an attorney for the DA office for half a year for CHIPS cases from funds it had for an unfilled position. Then Rep. John Nygren said the state budget could find funds for a special prosecutor, and eventually Judges James Morrison and David Miron ordered the state Department of Administration to fund that position for the remainder of 2016. An agreement was eventually worked out for 2017 after a meeting that involved Brey, Nygren, Rep. Jeff Mursau, County Board Chair Mark Anderson, Vice Chair Kathy Just (who also chaired the Health and Human Services Committee), and then-County Administrator Shawn Henessee.

Brey has been employed in the Marinette County District Attorney's office since 1993, and has been District Attorney since he was first elected on the Democratic party ticket in 2009.

"There was a day back in 2010 when we had no backlog," Brey declared. "We were all smiling at each other".But we had worked 70-hour weeks to accomplish that!" He said Morrow was paid for 20 hours a week but was working full time.

"We were caught up," he said, ""and then the heroin hit!" In 2013 the state brought in a drug investigator and the case load soared. In 2013 alone there were 239 drug-related felonies in Marinette County.

Meanwhile, District Attorneys all across the state have fared badly in terms of getting the help they need. He said in 1990 when they became state employees the state was supposed to establish an oversight board to look out for their interests. That has never happened. "Since Gov. Tommy Thompson, no county has had an addition to staff from the state in its DA office. The state provides and pays for attorneys in the DA office, while counties provide facilities, equipment and clerical staff.

He said other agencies have committees or governing boards that look out for their interests, but that is not the case with District Attorneys. He said Rep. Mursau and Sen. Dave Hansen and perhaps 25 other legislators have introduced a bill to create the needed oversight board to look out for the interests of DAs, since they are in fact state employees. He said if that happened he would request two additional staff members for his office.

Brey repeated his previous statement that there are the same total number of prosecutors in the state today than there were in 2001 when Gov. Thompson was in office.

He said he had a glimmer of hope last year when people from Madison began asking DAs how much staff they needed. The consensus was that there should be one DA for each 10,000 residents, which means Marinette County should have 4 1/2 DAs. Currently, when fully staffed, his office is authorized 2 1/2 attorneys, and since Hoffman left in June they have been half an attorney short of that.

Pay for District Attorneys and DA assistants also has not kept up. Brey said at one time you could have a nice career as an assistant District Attorney and earn about as much as an attorney in private practice. That is no longer the case. Today, an attorney in the Public Defender's office earns quite a bit more than an Assistant DA, Brey said.

Brey repeated that the number of state-hired prosecutors is the same today as it was when Gov. Thompson left office more than 15 years ago, but nearly all counties have added lawyers and support staff at their own expense. That was not the case with Marinette County.

Brey said in fact his staff was cut 20 percent when one clerical position was eliminated in what was supposed to be a short term solution to a budget crunch a few years ago. Despite his repeated pleas in the years since, that position was never replaced.

Brown County added two lawyers to the DA office and moved all Department of Health and Human Services work to the Corporation Counsel's office. He said that is unlikely to happen here, "Our Corporation Counsel's view is, "Over my dead body.'"

He said there is also a disparity in pay. A full time assistant DA was hired last year for $50,000 a year, and the half-time DA is paid $25,000 a year. A full time assistant corporation counsel would earn $70,000 to $75,000 a year after serving the probationary period. The difference is the DA and DA assistants are hired by the state and the Corporation Counsel is hired by the county. Either position requires a law degree, which entails four years in college and three years in law school.

Brey said every Marinette County Administrator since Steve Corbeille has refused to add staff for his office. He is never allowed to bring his concerns to any committee as an agenda item for discussion, and as recently as this March was asked by Law Enforcement Committee Chair Ken Keller, County Board Chair Vilas Schroeder, and County Board Vice Chair Kathy Just how many times they would have to tell him "no' before he would understand that his office would not get more help. It was on March 28 that he submitted his resignation to Gov. Walker, and shared that information with the county.

He said all the County Administrators prior to John LeFebvre had refused to even consider his pleas for help.

In 2014, while preparing for the 2015 budget, Supervisor Gilbert Engel, with a second from Supervisor Al Sauld, moved to add a secretary to his office, but before they could get it to a vote then-Administrator Ellen Sorensen said they should first have a "LEAN" study to make his office more efficient. He said the study was done, but neither Personnel, Law Enforcement nor the full board ever saw the full report, because it recommended more help for his office.

Meanwhile, Brey said, his greatest fear is that someone who is waiting to be prosecuted for one crime is going to do something horrible. He said he has brought that concern to county officials and was told, "If you had done your job, that wouldn't have happened!"

Adding staff to his office could actually cut county costs overall, Brey added. He said jail occupancy has skyrocketed, and said there are currently 55 people in jail waiting to have their cases finished. Once done, they would move on to state facilities or perhaps be released on the bracelet system.

Last summer a speaker from Eau Claire County told the Criminal Justice Coordinating Committee what their county did to reduce jail crowding. He said they were looking at building a new jail (as Marinette County is now), and were told by a consultant that they could add staff to the DA's office for half the cost of just staffing the jail addition, without even considering the cost of building it.

They did that, and now cases are handled quickly. They did not have to build a new jail, jail costs have gone down, crime victims get justice promptly, and culprits get their day in court sooner. "It's a win/win for everyone," he declared. They also have some special programs to keep jail population down, and Brey said he had been willing to take them on as well.

On the other hand, he said if Marinette County continues to deprive the District Attorney's office of the help it needs, they will need to build a new jail. Jail costs will skyrocket, the case backlog will continue, and in a decade or two the county will need still another new jail.

He said justice in general is very poorly served by the delay in prosecutions. Witnesses forget what they saw, and sometimes they die before they get a chance to testify. In at least one Marinette County case during Brey's tenure, a victim died before he had his day in court.

Brey served three years in the US Marines, graduated from UW-Madison, and then earned his law degree from Hamilton Law School in Minnesota.

During law school he worked for the US Attorney's Office in Minneapolis. He then went to work at Wisconsin Rapids in Wood County, after which he was appointed DA for Medford County. He said no one could have been more surprised than he was at that appointment, and he owes it to lots of help from his old boss and people at the Attorney General's office in Madison.

He explained while in Wood County they attended all the training seminars in Madison, and he still insists that his staff participate in these invaluable trainings. "We get to know all the legal updates, the new laws, and what works and what does not work," he commented.

As to the future for Marinette County, Brey said in a perfect world there would be two additional attorneys assigned to the DA office, along with a secretary for each and one more secretary to handle the work involved to handle diversion programs like Drug Court, Mental Health Court and other special treatment councils that help prevent return visits to jail. He said it has be repeatedly proven that in a large percentage of cases, if the causes are treated the offenders do not come back to break the law again, and that improves the quality of life for everyone in the county.

As to heroin,"We can't arrest people out of these problems." He said Drug Court works, but he cannot do new programs without added resources.

Meanwhile, it will cost $1 million a year just to staff a new or expanded jail (not to mention the cost of building it), and less than $500,000 a year to properly staff the DA's office with the five new employees it needs.

He said nobody does DA work for the money, "It's always about the community and the crime victims." He said another plus is getting to work with quality people every day, and having an opportunity every day to do something good for someone and or the community. "That's a big plus!" he declared,"You get satisfaction from that!"

As for himself, right now, "I'm going to take at least 10 business days off"I haven't done that since I became DA, maybe never." Then, he said, he will come back and pursue his career opportunities.

He said whatever new job he embarks on, he will follow the golden rule, and said he hopes to do some good along the way. "If I had the staff I needed I would continue (as DA) until my health left me," Brey added. As it is, Sharon has informed him that he is no longer permitted to work more than 40 hours a week, and he intends to follow that rule, and enjoy time with his family that he has denied himself (and them) over the years.

Brey said as a youngster raised on a rural Wisconsin farm, he has been working since he was able to carry a feed pail to the livestock.

He and Sharon have three children and three grandchildren. Children include son Zachary, a Marinette County deputy who lives in Porterfield with wife, Nicole and one child, daughter Elizabeth Vignali, a registered nurse has two children, and son Matthew, a benefit specialist with Millis Trucking of Black River Falls. His father, now 86, lives in Tampa, Fla., during the winter, and spends summers back on the family farm in Watertown.


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