Legislators Weigh In On DA Performance, Funding Request

For an office tasked with prosecuting, the Chautauqua County District Attorney’s Office is going to have to do a lot of defending should a proposal for more funding be put before the County Legislature.

Swanson said some prosecutors in his office are handling up to 200 felony cases each year. He said, as was the case last year, he plans to appear before lawmakers about bringing in another prosecutor that could help reduce some of the caseload.

“I’ll keep pushing for additional staff because it’s needed,” Swanson said during an in-depth interview last week. “Nobody here is coasting. What I see is an office where people can’t take any vacation time. … What I want is a caseload that is manageable and it starts with one prosecutor at a time. So I’ll be making a strong pitch for some assistance this year.”

Several legislators were asked by The Post-Journal of their opinion regarding increased funding for the DA’s office.

Legislature Chairman PJ Wendel, R-Lakewood, said there are concerns regarding the performance of the District Attorney’s Office as of late. Wendel said the record of the district attorney is “less than admirable.” When it comes to the upcoming Billquist case, which involved a Sherman man firing a weapon and accidentally killing Rosemary Billquist, Wendel had some strong words.

“If that case (the Billquist case) doesn’t produce results, I think you need to ask yourself, ‘Am I the right person for this job?'” Wendel said. “When these things aren’t happening, you have to look at the person doing the job and find out why.”

Swanson declined to respond directly to Wendel’s comment on his job performance. However, he said still plans to ask the legislature to consider funding an additional prosecutor for his office.

“Unfortunately, there is a political component to this job, which is really unfortunate. I hope that doesn’t play into the funding request. To say that they’re not happy with the results so we’re not going to give him the funding really is sort of backwards thinking. I hope that’s not the case.”

Legislator Pierre Chagnon, R-Bemus Point, said in the last budget cycle for 2018, the DA’s office asked for “significant increases in funding.”

“We didn’t give him as much as he asked for, but we did give him some,” Chagnon said. “We had expressed a desire for how we would like to see that increase applied in his department and he chose a different path, which was certainly his discretion.”

Chagnon said Swanson has now indicated he is going to be looking for a substantial increase in the 2019 budget. He said the legislature hasn’t had a chance to speak with him about that yet to understand what the needs and justifications are at this point.

“Certainly the performance of the department recently is concerning, so, that will certainly be part of the discussion,” Chagnon said. “But at this point it’s premature for us to make any decisions until we understand his rational and his needs. We will of course approach it with open minds, but there is that dark cloud hanging over us of the performance of the office.”

Legislator Kevin Muldowney, R-Dunkirk, said he is not an attorney and does not want to pass judgment on the District Attorney’s Office at this point. He said, should Swanson bring forth a proposal requesting more funds, the legislators would look at the proposal the same as they would for any department head.

“I don’t see him as being any different,” Muldowney said.

Legislator Paul Whitford, D-Jamestown, said he supported giving the District Attorney’s Office more funding last year.

“I haven’t changed my opinion on that,” Whitford said.

Whitford said there “has to be a balance” between funding the District Attorney’s Office and the Public Defender’s Office. He said there was no hesitation to fund the Public Defender’s Office last year, so he felt it was “only fair” to find a balance between the two.

Whitford said he believes funding has an impact on the performance of the office. He said he wasn’t sure what would happen if the district attorney asked for more funding in this budget cycle.

“I wish I could tell you that, but my crystal ball is broken,” he said. “I’m sure it will all be hashed out in the committee meetings.”

Legislator Chuck Nazzaro, D-Jamestown, said modifications were made in the budget proposals for the Public Defender’s Office and the District Attorney’s Office last year. Nazzaro said there are “many areas” which are already over-budget for 2018, and as Chagnon pointed out at a recent legislature meeting, there are concerns for 2018 that are significant.

“I’m not prepared to increase anyone’s budget unless it’s an absolute necessity for public safety,” Nazzaro said.

Nazzaro said Swanson will come before the Public Safety Committee on Wednesday, and he said he will wait to see what Swanson has to say.

Legislator Daniel Pavlock, R-Sinclairville, also took a “wait and see” approach to the issue of funding for the DA’s office. Pavlock said he received an invitation from Swanson to come visit the office and “see what challenges they face.”

“It’s something I plan to do,” Pavlock said. “I think this budget will be helpful myself.”

Pavlock said there is a lot of work done in the District Attorney’s Office, and sometimes there are wins and losses.

“When you get into a losing streak, it seems to get worse before it gets better,” he said.

Pavlock said physically seeing the office and how work is done in the office will be helpful in the long run, saying the matter requires some research. He said since he doesn’t work in the DA’s office, visiting is the next best thing.

“Sometimes you have to see it and put your eyes on it ,” Pavlock said. “It helps you make the decisions later on.”

Legislator Dave Wilfong, R-Jamestown, said he would carefully look at requests for more funding for the upcoming budget, including those from the DA’s office. He said the legislature gave Swanson funding in 2017-18 for a special prosecutor, but it was used for another purpose, which is within Swanson’s capacity to do.

Legislator Mark Odell, R-Brocton, said he is not comfortable passing judgment on the performance of the district attorney at this point.

“It’s easy to be armchair quarterbacks,” Odell said. “I’d rather wish him well.”

Odell said he doesn’t know if “throwing money” at the department is the answer. However, he said he would like to help the District Attorney’s Office to be successful. He said he would rather “build up than tear down.”

Legislator Terry Niebel, R-Dunkirk, said he wouldn’t say either way if he’d approve more funding. Niebel is the chairman of the Public Safety Committee.

“We’ll look at the funding request and see whether or not it’s justified,” he said. “If not, it’ll be tough to get it approved.”

Niebel said there have been personnel increases in the past for the district attorney’s office. However, Niebel said he is “not convinced” more personnel would have helped the situation.

“I don’t think there’s any question that he’ s had some challenges this year,” he said.