The Columbia County District Attorney’s Office is apparently closed indefinitely, and nobody’s saying why — not even to judges and county leaders.
On Monday morning, a sign affixed to the DA’s office public window on the first floor of the Columbia County Courthouse stated: “Office temporarily closed — no staff available. Please check back this afternoon — sorry for the inconvenience.”
At about 2 p.m. Monday, Assistant District Attorney Jordan Lippert told the Columbia County Sheriff’s Office officers who operate the security system at the courthouse’s entrance that pretrial conferences have been canceled.
Lippert declined to say anything on the record as to why the office is closed and when it might reopen.
“I have no comments,” he said.
Lippert was seen entering the DA’s office with an electronic key card.
However, there is no report whether District Attorney Tristan Eagon was in the office or anywhere in the courthouse.
Judges and other court personnel said Monday morning they were not told about the closure or any reason for it.
Columbia County Circuit Court Judge Todd Hepler said he received no advance notice of the district attorney’s office closure Monday morning and he has not heard from the office regarding any possible updates.
According to Hepler, Lippert had appeared as normal for traffic hearings and pretrial conferences Monday morning. The court schedule appeared to continue normally, and the prosecuting attorneys were appearing as expected, Hepler said.
“They’d better be,” he said. “I’m hopeful that everything goes as scheduled today. So far, it is.”
Phone calls to all extensions in the DA’s office went straight to voicemail Monday morning and afternoon.
A voicemail message to Kasey Deiss, director of the state prosecutor’s office at the Wisconsin Department of Justice, was not returned as of Monday afternoon.
Columbia County Corporation Counsel Joseph Ruf was one of many county officials surprised by the office’s closure.
“I don’t know why,” Ruf said. “That’s not something the county directed.”
Ruf, who also is the county’s human resources director, said he’s been getting calls from courthouse employees asking “What’s going on?” His response: He doesn’t know.
It’s possible the office could have been closed for staff training, as happens from time to time in most Columbia County departments. But there was no advance indication that such a training was planned for the DA’s office.
It was not clear whether the closure is related to Friday’s unanimous decision by the County Board’s Human Resources Department, that an unnamed employee has filed a “credible” harassment complaint against at least one person in the DA’s office, also unnamed.
The committee’s decision, made after a protracted closed-session discussion Friday, is based on a letter the complaining employee submitted to Ruf in February. Ruf said he could not comment on the nature of the alleged harassment. The matter has been turned over to the County Board’s Judiciary Committee for further investigation; the Judiciary Committee oversees the operations of the DA’s office.
In December, then-Gov. Scott Walker appointed Eagon — a former police officer and state public defender, who at the time was practicing family law in Madison — to replace District Attorney Jane Kohlwey, who resigned effective Jan. 12. Kohlwey had been Columbia County’s district attorney since 1988, and was in the middle of her most recent four-year term when she announced her intention to retire.
Kohlwey stayed on in the DA’s office as a special prosecutor. But in a letter dated April 3, Kohlwey said she resigned that post, “solely because of the request of District Attorney Eagon who no longer wishes to have my assistance in handling any matters her office can’t handle because of conflict of interest issues.”
In her letter, Kohlwey said she was appointed as special prosecutor in the last week of March.
Eagon has not answered questions about why Assistant DA Mary Ellen Karst and Victim Witness Coordinator Marnie Thome are no longer employed in the DA’s office.
In March, members of the Judiciary Committee expressed concern that Eagon did not attend the committee’s meeting to offer updates on the office’s operations, nor did she send a representative. Eagon reportedly said she was too busy to attend the meeting.