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Mary Ellen Karst back in courthouse

Columbia County Assistant District Attorney Mary Ellen Karst listens as a defense attorney speaks in court during a sentencing hearing Monday at the courthouse in Portage. Karst has returned to her role after an abrupt and minimally explained exit in March.

Some familiar faces will represent the Columbia County District Attorney’s Office during a transition period, while Dodge County District Attorney Kurt Klomberg oversees the office until Gov. Tony Evers can appoint a new prosecutor.

Jane Kohlwey, who retired as Columbia County District Attorney in January after serving for nearly two decades, is back as a special prosecutor, and Mary Ellen Karst is back as an assistant district attorney, according to Bob Barrington, managing attorney in the Dodge County District Attorney’s Office.

Assistant Attorney General Roy Korte, head of criminal litigation at the Wisconsin Department of Justice, also will serve as a special prosecutor.

All three will work with the four full-time assistant district attorneys on staff.

“Obviously, it’s temporary,” Barrington said of the staffing situation. “I think Columbia County is in a really good position. They have very good, veteran people there.”

On Monday morning, Karst — whose departure earlier this year had not been explained by then-District Attorney Tristan Eagon — represented the state in Columbia County Circuit Court Branch 1, in the sentencing of Patrick Craft. The 41-year-old from Collins, Mississippi, was found guilty of homicide by negligent operation of a vehicle in a case Karst previously had prosecuted.

Karst was heard saying, “I’m back” to someone in court Monday, but declined to elaborate on the circumstances of her departure or return.

On April 8, the district attorney’s office was mysteriously closed. The following day, Eagon announced her resignation, 88 days after she assumed the post vacated by Kohlwey’s retirement. Then-Gov. Scott Walker had appointed her to the position, choosing her over four other applicants.

Klomberg will serve as special prosecutor in charge in Columbia County, until Evers appoints a district attorney, who would remain in office until the expiration of Kohlwey’s most recent elected term, in January 2021.

Applications are being sought until April 26, at evers.wi.gov, under “apply to serve.”

In the interim, Barrington said he and Klomberg will share the task of holding office hours in Columbia County. Klomberg will make the decisions on charges and case assignments.

Klomberg also will work with the County Board’s Judiciary Committee, which meets the second Tuesday of every odd-numbered month. Barrington said Klomberg is scheduled to meet Wednesday with County Board Chairman Vern Gove of Portage.

Long-term decisions about staffing will be left to whomever Evers appoints to the post, Barrington said.

In Wisconsin, the state employs the district attorney and assistant district attorneys, but staffing of the office, including support staff, is handled at the county level.

There are two key job openings in the office, one for a part-time legal secretary and the other a victim witness coordinator to replace Marnie Thome, who departed at about the time Karst did, also under undisclosed circumstances.

The Wisconsin Department of Administration, in response to a Daily Register records request, provided several letters and emails related to Karst’s employment and departure, including Karst’s letter to Eagon, dated Feb. 19, indicating her intention to retire, with a final work date of March 6 and a final day on the payroll of June 11.

In a letter dated April 3 to Columbia County Circuit Court judges Todd Hepler, W. Andrew Voigt and Troy Cross, Kohlwey wrote that she was no longer serving as special prosecutor, at the request of Eagon, “who no longer wishes to have my assistance …”

Barrington said the prosecutions handled by Kohlwey, Karst and Korte are those for which other prosecutors in the office might have a conflict. For example, he said, Eagon previously had been a public defender, and she might not have been ethically able to prosecute cases in which either she or her office had previously represented the defendant.

According to the Columbia County District Attorney’s Office letterhead, the assistant district attorneys on staff are Crystal Long, Maura Melka, Jordan Lippert and Sheila Smith. Lisa Playman is the sole victim witness coordinator.

Follow Lyn Jerde on Twitter @LynJerde or contact her at 608-745-3587.

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