Merrimack County Attorney faces backlash over work environment, turnover

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Monitor staff
Published: 8/3/2019 10:55:14 PM

In the last seven months, the Merrimack County prosecutors’ office has experienced rapid staff turnover, the county hired an independent investigator to evaluate a potentially hostile work environment and some police chiefs are growing concerned about the future prosecution of cases.

County Attorney Robin Davis, who was a public defender for 15 years, was elected county attorney over Concord city prosecutor Paul Halvorsen, who ran as a Republican. Since she was sworn in, six employees have tendered their resignations or left. Davis also eliminated two part-time positions held by career attorneys.

In an interview with the Monitor, Davis said some of the turmoil may have stemmed from a change in leadership style as she is more “hands on” than her predecessor, Scott Murray, and her decision to eliminate the two part-time positions.

“I think that this office is functioning at a high level,” she said.

In addition to the turnover, the office’s sexual assault investigator, Jennifer Adams, was placed on paid leave June 10 after reporting to human resources that she was harassed and humiliated by Davis in front of co-workers during a meeting on June 7. Her complaint prompted the county to hire consultant Penelope Wheeler-Abbott from Drummond Woodsum law firm to conduct an investigation, which was completed earlier this month.

“Ms. Davis’s behavior, on several occasions, has gone beyond what is generally acceptable workplace conduct when addressing performance concerns,” Wheeler-Abbott wrote in her report dated July 3, which was obtained by the Monitor.

Wheeler-Abbott cited several issues deserving reflection and ongoing awareness.

“Although Ms. Davis acknowledges that the transition in the office has been difficult and that individuals, including Ms. Adams, have struggled with that change, she does not appear to harbor much empathy for or understanding of those struggling with the change, including Ms. Adams, nor does she appear to be reflecting on how any of her own actions may have contributed to Ms. Adams’ continuing discomfort,” Wheeler-Abbott concluded.

Davis said she could not speak directly to the complaint, calling it “a personnel issue.” However, she agreed to talk about her transition to county attorney, the management decisions she’s made since December and, more broadly, the concerns others have raised about her leadership style.

Davis said the county attorney’s office has many valued, hard-working attorneys and staff members who have remained there for years and continue to do good work.

“What I do think is there are some folks in my office or folks who were formally in my office who are unhappy and they wish to express that in a lot of different ways, and I think it’s unfortunate but I can only deal with those folks who are speaking with me directly, and I will do my best to do that,” Davis said.

Prosecution concerns

The exodus of attorneys and staff members from the office has law enforcement officials and victim advocates worried about the potential impact on pending cases.

“My biggest concern with management and personnel function or dysfunction is that it will affect the prosecution of our cases,” said Concord Police Chief Bradley Osgood. “I’m continuing to hear in law enforcement circles that there’s been a great deal of turnover where there was once a very robust and professional strategy for addressing sexual assault investigations. The fact that the unit is currently not in place gives me great pause.”

Franklin Police Chief David Goldstein said he met with Davis when she assumed the role of county attorney to discuss her priorities and to share concerns he had about the transition. While no case-specific issues have arisen in Franklin since that conversation, he said he finds the turnover and potentially hostile work environment at the county office “disturbing.”

“If it’s true, that’s very distressing to me because I have to rely on that office to carry my ball forward,” he said. “We can arrest a million people tomorrow, but if it doesn’t reach judicial muster, what have we done?”

Davis told the Monitor that cases referred to her office undergo a thorough review and if she needs additional evidence or follow-up from police to prosecute, she will ask for that.

“I may ask things of them that they are unhappy with,” she said of the county police departments.

She said she believes many police chiefs are pleased with the job she is doing and anyone with an issue should come to her directly.

“To think that this is a grand number of police chiefs, I don’t think that’s an accurate representation,” she said. “Although, having even one police chief unhappy or feeling unvalued or concerned about the prosecution in this county is enough to certainly get my attention.”

Davis was recruited to run a write-in campaign in the primary because Halvorsen had no Democratic challenger. She won the general election with support from attorneys in the community, including Executive Councilor Andru Volinsky. Halvorsen had endorsements from the Concord Police Supervisors Association, the New England Police Benevolent Association, the Merrimack County Sheriff’s Employees’ Union and the New Hampshire Trooper’s Association.

Police chiefs and attorneys interviewed for this story did not cite any specific cases that have been mishandled by the county attorney’s office.

‘Commanding presence’

One of Davis’s first moves in the days after she took over the office was to eliminate two positions held by veteran assistant county attorneys, which resulted in a dismantling of the unit responsible for prosecuting sexual assault crimes.

George Stewart and Susan Larrabee left the office before Christmas. Soon after, attorney David Rotman, a 22-year prosecutor for the office, gave his notice and took a position at the Strafford County Attorney’s Office.

“It was shocking,” said Larrabee, who worked in Merrimack County for 18 years. “We had a team that was really dedicated to prosecuting the most heinous crimes in our community and that was quickly dismantled.”

Rotman said Larrabee and Stewart were “outstanding prosecutors” and are “wonderful people” and that their departures influenced his decision to look for another job.

“Their failure to be reappointed was a great disappointment to me and largely responsible for my decision to leave,” he said, noting his last day was Jan. 4.

Former staff members told the Monitor that the shift away from a victim-centered and team approach to prosecutions – including close collaboration with police – is what spurred their departures.

Davis said she thought it would be better to spread sex assault prosecutions among attorneys because of the emotional toll the cases can take, as opposed to having one or two prosecutors handle them.

In her interview with Wheeler-Abbott, Davis acknowledged the decision to eliminate the two part-time positions upset staff. In addition, Davis questioned the roles of two investigators and victim advocates who work closely with police, especially in smaller departments with limited resources.

She asked the investigators and victim advocates to maintain daily logs of their work to help inform her budget discussions with the county commissioners who approve funding for the office.

Further, Davis acknowledged in her interview with the consultant that she “does raise her voice at times.”

“Ms. Davis indicated that she knows she has a commanding presence and she has actively cultivated that presence in order to effectively do her job, previously as a public defender and presently as the county attorney,” Wheeler-Abbott wrote.

The investigator found no hard evidence of gender bias by Davis but said the issue “bears ongoing reflection.”

No one interviewed “could recall an instance when Ms. Davis reacted to a man with the same intensity (e.g. raising her voice, berating the individual) as she has toward a number of women in the office,” Wheeler-Abbott wrote.

Attorney Megan De Vorsey, who joined the county attorney’s office in late January, said Davis knows the communities in Merrimack County well and is truly dedicated to the job that voters elected her to fulfill.

During her campaign, Davis said she believes it’s important for attorneys to think more creatively about the resolution of a case with the idea of putting rehabilitation first when appropriate. She also spoke about the benefits of allowing defendants who are ready for treatment to remain in the community where they can maintain a job and housing while working on their recovery.

It is a perspective that has led to a further change of philosophy within the office but one that De Vorsey supports.

“She really puts fresh eyes on things,” said De Vorsey, who worked with Davis as a public defender for three years previously.

While some attorneys have left the office, De Vorsey said she is not concerned by the recent turnover.

Victim support

Some former staff members and victims have reached out to the New Hampshire Coalition Against Domestic and Sexual Violence, citing Davis’s comments about victims that they said were troubling given her role as the county’s top prosecutor.

“Numerous employees have reported outrageous victim-blaming statements and actions that reflect either a significant bias (against) female victims of sexual and domestic violence or a complete lack of understanding of basic victimology,” said Amanda Grady Sexton, the coalition’s public affairs director. “We hope the county takes action by providing full oversight of that office to ensure that these crimes are properly investigated and prosecuted, and that the legal rights of victims are being upheld.”

In Wheeler-Abbott’s report, she cited assistant county attorneys who said they were concerned by statements Davis made, specifically “regarding victims’ involvement in assaults that they characterized variously as ‘victim-blaming’ ” and showed a “very defense-oriented” approach.

Davis said the allegations made against her that she is not going to prosecute sexual assault cases are untrue.

The consultant hired by the county said that the “victim-blaming comments” reported by staff warrant “an on-going awareness on the part of Ms. Davis.”

Davis rejected the notion that she expresses victim-blaming statements.

“I’m not sure where that’s coming from,” she said. “I’m obviously very sympathetic to victims.”

The New Hampshire Attorney General’s Office – which has taken control of several county prosecutor offices in years past – had no comment.

When contacted about the county attorney’s office, Acting County Administrator Ross Cunningham said, “I will not be able to comment on personnel matters.”

(Alyssa Dandrea can be reached at adandrea@cmonitor.com or on Twitter @_ADandrea.)



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