Columbia County supervisors reacted with stunned disbelief Wednesday to allegations from former District Attorney Tristan Eagon that county officials used “strong-arm” tactics with her and deliberately sought to keep her office understaffed.
Eagon made those accusations in a letter Tuesday announcing her resignation. She had been appointed to the job Dec. 5 by then-Gov. Scott Walker, after Jane Kohlwey had announced last August that she would step down at the end of the year. Eagon took office Jan. 12.
County Board First Vice Chairman Dan Drew of the town of Pacific said he thought the tone of Eagon’s resignation letter suggested she was seeking to divert blame for the end of her 88-day stint to the county’s leaders, instead of shouldering any of the responsibility herself.
“I really don’t think anybody in the county government can understand what she’s commenting on,” Drew said. “It was written by a woman who was frustrated, and who felt she was forced to resign — and she threw everybody else under the bus in her resignation.”
In a letter dated Tuesday, addressed “To whom it may concern,” Eagon said top county officials pressured her to “put my own opinions aside and do what I was told.”
“When I resisted, my otherwise perfectly functioning office was cast in a negative light,” the letter said. “I gained no support, and watched as Columbia County officials chiseled away at my office.”
Later in the letter, Eagon asserted, “The county has essentially given me an ultimatum to either vacate the office or to continue to render this office completely inoperable.”
That’s bizarre, Drew said, because to his knowledge, the only hiring and firing decisions made in the DA’s office were made by Eagon, not by county officials. The departures of Assistant DA Mary Ellen Karst and Victim Witness Coordinator Marnie Thome were Eagon’s doing, he said.
Supervisor Bob Koch of Lodi, a member of the County Board’s Judiciary Committee — the body that oversees the DA’s office — said allegations that the committee deliberately sought to undermine the DA’s office or its staffing are flat-out false.
“We met with her once, in January, and that was completely it,” he said.
Koch said the committee received no requests from Eagon to expand or replace staff during the time of her employment.
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For that matter, he added, the panel also did not receive Eagon’s draft of the department’s 2018 annual report in March — because Eagon did not attend the meeting, nor send anyone from the office in her place, saying the office was too busy.
Koch said he “honestly doesn’t know what to say” in response to Eagon’s resignation letter.
Supervisor Barry Pufahl of Pardeeville, former chairman of the Judiciary Committee, said, “I have no idea what she means by that — the strong-arming, the undermining of her staff.”
Pufahl is a member of the Human Resources Committee, which voted unanimously on Friday to pursue investigation of an unnamed employee’s “harassment” complaint involving at least one staff member in the DA’s office.
Because the discussion of the Feb. 26 complaint took place in closed session, Pufahl said he is not allowed to confirm or deny whether Eagon was the person accused of harassment.
In her resignation letter, Eagon said she had filed open records requests to get details of the complaint, and county officials have not complied.
Pufahl noted, however, that Eagon was allowed to be present at the Human Resources Committee’s closed session in her capacity as the head of the department that is the subject of the complaint — and she did not attend Friday’s meeting.
Pufahl said Eagon’s allegations are at odds with his experience of Columbia County’s operations, among elected officials and in the county’s multiple departments, in his 16 years on the County Board.
“To me, we have a great relationship with the county’s approximately 550 employees,” he said. “They do such a great job.”
As for Eagon’s allegation in her letter that the entire DA’s office staff was escorted out of the office, Drew expressed surprise, and a hint of indignation.
“I’m sorry,” he said, “but I doubt that very much, that the staff had to be escorted out because they feared for their safety.”
Follow Lyn Jerde on Twitter @LynJerde or contact her at 608-745-3587.