As Alabama’s Supreme Court decides whether to re-examine a six-year-old lawsuit over funding for District Attorney Ashley Rich’s office, Mobile County’s lead prosecutor has been making public statements at least one Mobile County Commissioner is taking personally.
Rich said the legal turmoil is causing increased caseloads and delayed trials, and earlier this week she accused the commission of not prioritizing public safety.
“I need help, and I’m not getting it from anywhere,” Rich told Lagniappe. “The net effect, which doesn’t seem to resonate with anybody who’s not been a crime victim, is that justice is slower and slower.”
In 2012, Rich filed a lawsuit against the county based on two local acts from the 1980s that govern how the County Commission supplements the funding for the district attorney’s office — a state-funded agency that prosecutes state crimes.
Commissioner Connie Hudson says the laws hold Mobile County to “a different standard” by requiring the county to fund pay raises for the DA staff awarded on the state level and include them in cost-of-living increases extended to county employees.
The laws, which have been on the books since the 80s, have historically been ignored as previous district attorneys have opted to take a lump sum from the county instead of using the pay scale set up in the legislation.
Hudson said the county has included DA employees in its pay raises previously but has not increased their compensation based on state pay raises. That said, salary adjustments extended to county employees the past two years did not include Rich’s office. Those funds have instead been held in a separate account, which according to Hudson, is a byproduct of the pending litigation.
On March 11, the Supreme Court sent down an 8-1 ruling in Rich’s favor, which many thought would resolve the matter, but the county has since filed an appeal and is seeking clarification on roughly $5 million in pay Rich claims is owed to her office.
Hudson said the ruling in Rich’s favor addressed whether the two local acts require the county to provide increased compensation, but not the constitutionality of the laws themselves.
“That was a major aspect of our position,” Hudson said. “If something is not constitutional, then the law is moot … or it should be.”
Today, more cuts are planned in Montgomery. If the adopted budget goes into effect in 2017, the state funding for Rich’s office will have been cut by 59 percent since 2006.
In response, Rich said she’s continued to make cuts in her office including two assistant DAs and two staff members who were laid off last week. Rich said those most recent layoffs resulted in the office’s white-collar crimes unit being “eliminated,” but later clarified those cases would still be prosecuted through the charging officer instead of a specific division of her office.
Though they’re tightening their belts, Rich said she and her staff will still continue to do their job.
“If I was a business and I didn’t have money to run my business, then my business would close,” Rich said. “We provide a public service so I can’t shut the doors because I have the responsibility to the victims of crime in Mobile County.”
According to Hudson, the county’s funding for Rich’s office is supposed to be “supplementary,” but cuts at the state level have made the county’s yearly allocation of $1.6 million the largest funding source for the local DA.“Meanwhile, the county has never cut their funding,” Hudson said. “Why she’s not suing the state, I assume, is because she’s a state officer and her employees are state employees, not county employees.”
Throughout the lawsuit, Rich has said her efforts to secure additional funding have always been aimed at bringing the salary for Mobile County prosecutors in line with those in other populous areas like Jefferson, Madison and Montgomery counties.
Those counties have reached agreements to increase funding to their respective district attorney’s offices in the wake of continued cuts at the state level, but Hudson said they weren’t required to fund state raises.
Regardless how the pay scale is ultimately defined, Rich said she’s approached commissioners on multiple occasions to ask for financial assistance before and during the lawsuit.
“I’ve been 14 times to discuss the issue with commissioners, and I have personally been over to [Hudson’s] office before, but I’ve repeatedly heard the county doesn’t have the money,” Rich said. “We would have taken anything — one-time money, surplus money — just to alleviate the issues we had right then and there.”
Rich said that was particularly frustrating after seeing the county tout a $1.4 million budget surplus in 2014 and an extra $7.6 million in 2015. Hudson sees it differently, saying “the word ‘surplus’ can be misleading.”
“A large part of any surplus we’ve had has been from the one-time sale of assets,” she said. “That’s the only money we’ve got that we can tap into for things like improvements at the jail.”
Hudson also said some of those discussions with Rich were had during active litigation, and the advice from the commission’s attorneys was to “let the court handle” the situation. Hudson also said she found some of Rich’s comments on the settlement process “inappropriate for an officer of the court.”
Meanwhile, an unsponsored bill advertised in the Call News and paid for by the county would eliminate the acts governing the county’s funding to Rich’s office altogether, which Rich said would remove any legal obligation the county has to provide funding for her office at any level.
“What other purpose could there be to repeal the local acts?” Rich asked.
Yet Hudson said the county has no plans to cut funding to the district attorney’s office, adding that even as other county departments were cut during the recession, the DA’s $1.6 million allocation remained constant.
“That is not the intention [of this bill],” Hudson said. “The intention is to have a fair and level playing field with the other 66 counties in the state that don’t have to pay for state raises.”
Defending the legislative efforts and the motion to rehear the Supreme Court case, Hudson said the commission would be “negligent in [its] duty” if it didn’t protect the county’s interests in a lawsuit with millions of dollars on the line.
“[Rich] doesn’t care who pays these raises, but we do, because it could impact our ability to pay our own county employees’ raises, you see. She doesn’t care where the money comes from. We have to care. That’s our job to care,” Hudson said.
Rich, however, has offered the county a compromise that would only take about half the back pay her office could get under the Supreme Court ruling, but it was not taken by Hudson and Commissioner Merceria Ludgood.
Hudson said clarifying how much, if any, of the $4.9 million in back pay Rich requested in that compromise is another issue addressed in their motion for rehearing. If the Supreme Court denies that request, the case will be sent back to Monroe County Circuit Court Judge George Elbrecht, who originally presided over the case after the judges in Mobile County aloo recused themselves.
Elbrecht would then issue an order making the high court’s ruling effective, but Rich said it would still be up to the county to accept the ruling or to continue on with another appeal back to the Supreme Court — something she says, “could take years.”
Asked if she would support further appeals, Hudson said, “that I can’t answer at this point. I don’t know what the future holds, but we’re as ready for this to be over as anybody.”