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County attorney's office to get more help

New Hampshire Union Leader

June 14. 2018 12:39AM


The budget crisis that pushed the Hillsborough County Attorney’s office to the “brink of collapse” may have been averted, but significant prosecutorial hurdles remain, according to current and former county prosecutors.

In April, County Attorney Dennis Hogan laid out stark problems in his office during a budget presentation. He warned that workloads were causing high turnover and he was unable to recruit and train staff quickly enough.

He attributed the increased workloads to Felonies First, a new judicial process that moved felony arraignments from the circuit court system to superior court, and arrests stemming from the opioid crisis.

His solution: a budget increase of $800,000, nearly 19 percent. More than $500,000 was needed to hire five more prosecutors, three victim-witness advocates and five legal secretaries

While a new budget isn’t final, county officials have cut Hogan’s increase to $167,000. That would fund two additional prosecutors, one new victim-witness advocate and one legal secretary, said county commission Chairman Toni Pappas, R-Manchester. The request also includes computers and other equipment for the additional hires.

“He should really manage with this. We felt it was adequate, and we’re thinking of the taxpayers,” Pappas said.

Hogan said he appreciates the increase, and it should put his office on the right footing. “There will still be pressure on us,” he said.

Michael Valentine, Hogan’s former first assistant, resigned in August. He said that after 11 years, the darkness of the job — sexual assaults on children and grisly assaults — had taken a toll on him.

He said county officials have shortchanged the office and don’t want to admit that a problem exists.

“The county needs to step up and say ‘We need to give you the resources to do your job,’” he said.

Valentine also put some of the blame on Hogan.

“Dennis is not a good administrator. He’s not a prosecutor. He has no notion of what the work involves. He doesn’t understand the actual challenge of what (prosecutors) are trying to accomplish,” he said.

He contacted the New Hampshire Union Leader after Hogan made his budget presentation that warned of high employee turnover and workloads.

Another prosecutor, who did not want to be named, credited Hogan with making good hires. But the former Hillsborough County prosecutor said Hogan didn’t do the normal things expected of any good boss.

“When you’re stressed, underpaid and working all the time, and you have a boss who barely knows your name, that’s not helpful in retaining people,” the prosecutor said.

Hogan counters criticism by saying he has done his best to highlight the workload facing his office. He also said he has been able to convince county officials to approve new hires.

“It is unfortunate if anyone does not see the progress. I have eliminated politics from the office but I can’t control partisan sniping from the outside,” Hogan wrote in an email.

Among the challenges facing Hogan’s office:

• Prosecutors struggle over how much time to spend with victims on issues such as restitution, upcoming hearings and overall reassurance that they have done the right thing.

• Felonies First has forced prosecutors to sit in courtrooms for a couple hours every day just to handle routine arraignments.

• Prosecutors don’t have the time to delve deeply into their cases, and will accept plea bargains to avoid the time commitment of a trial. “You go back and forth (with defense attorneys), and eventually say ‘it’s good enough,’” Valentine said.

• The pay is poor, with an assistant county attorney starting at $39,400 a year. Rockingham County starts its prosecutors at $58,700, according to an online job posting. The city of Manchester, where prosecutors handle misdemeanors and traffic violations, starts its prosecutors at $64,700.

Hogan, a Republican, said he has kept county leaders and news media informed about workload increases. If the county’s delegation of state representatives approve the current recommendations, his office will have added five prosecutors, three victim-witness advocates and five legal secretaries over a three-year span, he said.

He called his staff hardworking.

“Most I hired; all I am honored to lead on a daily basis,” Hogan wrote.

He also said his office is operating efficiently. He said he has cut the cost of prosecutions from $2,500 a case in 2009 to $1,271 last year.

“We’re doing more with less. What else would you ask from an administrator?” Hogan said.

Hogan said he’s surprised to hear of Valentine’s criticism. He said they worked well together on programs such as Felonies First and Early Case Resolution.

Hogan said he works with the University of New Hampshire Law School to find new hires and tries to keep a mix of experienced and rookie prosecutors in the office.

He would not address compensation issues, claiming he does not have his pulse on the market for prosecutors. He said he believes the county will soon undertake an overall study of compensation for all county employees.

Commissioner Pappas said pay is left up to Hogan, and the county attorney’s office is a good place to gain experience and then move on. “I hear the pay is low, but it’s always been that way. It’s expected,” Pappas said.

Courts Manchester Local and County Government